VOICES Identities

My mother. her brothers, and her sisters in Tijuana in 1959

Reflections on growing up in a Mexican-American household.

My friends and I sit cross-legged in a circle. We are in front of our fifth grade class. There is a slight breeze that ruffles through the leaves and cools our overheated bodies. Our sweaters are sprawled across the ground, and our pants are rolled up in an attempt to fight the heat. The five of us are silent. In our own little world, each one of us hunches over waiting to hear the exciting news Rachel is about to share. We pay no attention to the kids swerving past us and the laughter drowning our surroundings. She was the only one with her jeans rolled down. This didn’t surprise any of us, she had told us all before how she hated the hair on her legs. She has a sparkle in her eye as she reaches for the ends of her jeans. “I shaved my legs!” she squealed. The girls light up. Rachel was the last to get permission. The girls yell in excitement and begin to discuss their own experiences. I sit their quietly, my face gets hotter by the minute. My ears had have begun to burn and the knot in my stomach makes me want to throw up. I quickly lay my sweater over my legs, and hope the girls won’t notice. They don’t.

I laughed with them that afternoon, but that night I went home and cried.

I was born and raised in Orange County in a predominately White area. My elementary school seemingly lacked cultural diversity. Out of a hundred students, perhaps, 10 of them came from a diverse background. My life at home contrasted drastically from my life at school. Spanish filled our household day in and day out. Telenovelas consumed the empty noise, as it constantly ran throughout the day. Dinner time called for savoring albondigas and blindly watching world news on Telemundo.

At school my best friends, all white, continuously immersed me in American culture. With time, I no longer feared speaking in public or the thought of speaking with an accent. The accent eventually went away completely, and I began to stop speaking Spanish altogether. The telenovelas changed to Disney Channel’s “Lizzie McGuire”, and dinner became a constant struggle. I wanted my mom to start cooking normal food, like the meals my friends ate.

Near the end of elementary school, my worries shifted from my accent to my physical appearance. I would come home each night, look myself in the mirror, and pick out things I wanted to change. I wanted my skin to be lighter, my eyes to be blue, and my hair to be blonde. I wanted to be like my best friends, to fit in I had to look like them.

To a 10-year-old girl, that was what beautiful defined.

My parents were both born and raised in Mexico and immigrated here in their 20s.Their childhood was not a representation of mine. As I look back it, I will never know what it will be like to live in an impoverished nation. To come home and wonder if there is going to be food on the table. To hope my mother’s friend, who has a bit more money than we do, will come by and give me a nickel so I can buy an ice cream cone.

As a 13-year-old I never once thought how were my parents feeling when they were my age? At 13 I wanted to be able to put on makeup, and hangout with my friends, without being afraid to ask, because in most cases the answer was no.

My parent’s were raised in a different culture, environment, and time. They were not allowed to do the things I wanted to do. Aside from that, they were not aware of the culture I was being emerged in at school. I was angry because I believed they should have known I was the only one out of my friends who had never spent the night anywhere, and if they did know, well, then that just meant that they didn’t care.

I realize it was not lack of empathy, but fear of what would happen to me if they did allow more freedom. A worry that American practices might lead directly to danger.

Perhaps if I would have thought about what it was like for them, I wouldn’t have been as angry. But would that have made me less embarrassed? Embarrassed at having hair between my brows or having a darker skin color than my friends?

The problem I have come to realize is that I didn’t acknowledge cultural differences. I didn’t allow myself to step into my parent’s shoes. Is that due primarily to my ignorance? The media? My education? That’s something to think about.