Whitening Latinos – Reflections on my Lived Experience

Have you even been in a place where you feel that your racial/ethnic Identity is all that you think about?  In my life, my “Latino-ness” or Latinidad (“Latino-ness” or Latino Identity in Spanish) has never been so predominantly the central focus of everything I do and think about until the most recent years. I have always known my Latinidad was important and the fact that it informed how I operated in the world. This all changed a couple of years ago.  I started to question why some individuals, mostly white friends and colleagues, had certain specific expectations of me. Sometimes these expectations and were implicit, other times it was extremely explicit. Being self-conscious, as most human beings are, I started to seriously consider their feedback and I chose to adopt these expectations. Reflecting back on my experiences, I see majority of the expectations placed upon me by others individuals as a means to soften and fade out my Latinidad into something more palatable and “common”. This effectively worked towards erasing my Latino identity. Some people call it the process of assimilation. I call it the erasure of Identity. I remember very clearly one moment in second grade when this process started for me.

However, before I get into this story there are some important aspects of who I am that you need to know. First, you must know I am an immigrant to the United State of America (USA). Secondly, as I mentioned, I am a Latino. At the intersection of these two identities, the most critical aspect for you to understands is I am a Mexican Immigrant to the USA. I immigrated to the United State of America with my mother at the age of seven, not because I wanted to, but because my mother sought out a better future for me and her. Here is where the story begins:

I moved to the USA with my mother at the age of seven. At the time, I had no idea what it meant to move “al otro lado” [the other side]. All I knew, was my mother wanted to go live where my aunt and two cousins lived because it would be better for us. Of course, me being all of seven years old, I thought this meant having the ability to get awesome toys like the rollerblades my cousins showed off when they last came to visit us in Mexico and getting to eat McDonalds, because that was what my tia had bribed me with in order to get me to behave during out trip.

When we move, my mother and I did our best to navigate this vastly different, yet oddly familiar country. I say oddly familiar because where we lived was in one of the many suburbs of Los Angeles, California where a good portion of our neighbors spoke Spanish and store even had their signs up in Spanish. For me, doing my best to navigate this new yet familiar country, meant going to school. I remember being excited to go to school, to meet new friends. I remember my first week of class vividly. This first week, being in an English as a Second Language Class, would shape my how I came to understand my Latino Identity and how I understand societies’ expectations of me.

Throughout the first week, I remember my teacher’s goal was to get me caught up. Not in terms of material learned, but more specifically, the level of English language used. Having come into class mid-year, my peers knew more English than I and were not shy about promoting their superior and my inferior language knowledge base. Their applauding of their “skill” and the shamming of my simple lack of knowledge, continued for weeks; even in front of the teacher. Unfortunately for me, the teacher would not correct or redirect my peers when they would be shamming me. Rather, she would praise my peers and disregard any comment towards the limitations of my language use made by my peers. The consistent occurrence of this imbedded in my mind that I should not speak in Spanish; English is good, and Spanish is bad. At the age of seven, based on messages I was given by those around me, I made the decision that I would no longer speak Spanish to anyone, including my mother.

To most people, a small child rejecting to speak a language may not seem like a big deal. I have heard and seen many Latina/o parents shrug off their own children refuse to speak another language. Every time that I hear a Latina/o child does not want to speak another language, whether Spanish or another indigenous language to Latin America, I think about how we may be both explicitly and implicitly, erasing a part of our ethnic/racial identity from the lives of our children.

Ian F. Henay Lopez (2000) wrote a chapter on how through the legal system, there has been an erasure and silence in terms of race for Latinas/os. This article spoke to the reality that within the legal system, in this case in Texas, the law recognized Mexican-Americans as White, yet looked down on Mexican-American as being racially inferior to whites and discriminating against Mexican-Americans both implicitly and explicitly through segregation.

This type of racial erasure is not just present in the law as Ian F. Henay Lopez (2000) explained. I see this type of racial erasure present within how we choose to educate our children and how we choose to let our children treat one another. Through my experience, I felt the struggle of wanting to not be made fun of for simply not knowing a language. Language use can be a powerful thing when seeking to fit within your own racial/ethnic identity. Too many of my friends have at one point expressed not feeling Latina/o enough because they can’t speak Spanish well enough. This feeling of not being enough is the start of the erasure of someone’s identity. If we, as individuals, continue to embrace the importance of assimilation, of only speaking one language, of not recognizing the importance that language has towards our understanding of our own identity, then we will continue to erase important aspects of any racial minority in the United States of America. After all, there are some things that you cannot directly translate from one language to another. Toni Morrison once said in reference to language that language can never “pin down” everything in order for it to be explained, “nor should it yearn for the arrogance to be able to do so”. This is why we need to stop the arrogance of trying to erase non-English language use.

How the Ian Lopez (2000) saw the law trying to erase the race of Maxican-Americans in the eyes of the law, I feel my experience has shown me that education has tried to erase and whiten my language use. The fact I remember being influenced at the age of seven to do so, speak more volumes than I am able to write.

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