I am a part of the growing population of people of mixed descent, and am both privileged and punished by relating to my Mexican heritage but not resembling the stereotypical Hispanic. Most people aren’t aware, even in these times, that you can be Hispanic whether you are as white as paper or as dark as its ashes. I have grown up privy to all the privileges of a comfortable lifestyle, typically among Caucasians, both in my neighborhood and honors classes in my rural town. Yet I am reminded of my heritage by the food I eat, the style of music I wake up to on a Sunday morning, and traveling to a dusty, dog-filled village in Mexico to bury my grandfather.
I wonder sometimes whether resembling my classmates in immediate appearance has been a good or a bad thing. They unthinkingly offer up ‘dirty Mexican’ jokes, only to find that I am not amused. They confide in me how they could never date a black girl or a black boy, and I can’t support their sentiments. I wouldn’t be here if such relationships didn’t occur. Yet, I don’t think I would change the way I look to deter such comments. What I inherited from my mother is my disguise almost, how I can uncover what people really think about the group to which I belong. If they could tell that I was the subject of their comments, they wouldn’t say it to me, but they would still think it’s okay. It gives me the chance to show them that there are some things that are never appropriate, no matter whose company they are in, because you never know what is behind the color of their skin.
Their unthinking negative comments about my race don’t bother me so much in comparison to other things. My area is known for its incredibly high ratio of chickens to people, soybeans, and other farming industry. This kind of economic environment doesn’t bring a lot of culture into my town. The people who work in these low-income jobs are typically Hispanic, and they fulfill some of my classmates’ prejudices. They are poor, unable to speak English, and have very few nice places to socialize or live. When I happen to see a family walking, I notice there are many small children, but there are probably less than twenty Hispanic students in my entire high school. Hispanics are a large part of our population, but by the time it comes for us to attend high school, it looks as though many have already dropped out of school. I feel as though I am unable to fight prejudice around me when I see fulfillments of such negative thinking everyday.
There are some points in my life I have not been so willing to inform people of my ethnic background. I volunteer in a thrift shop regularly, and I have become friends with the older Caucasian women who work there. I have come to be treated almost as though I am a paid employee. One day, as I was restocking racks, a non-English speaking family comes in with three small children. While I was in the storage room, there is a commotion in the store and I hear one of my co-worker’s angry voice. I heard the story later. The mother of this not even one-year-old child had watched him urinate on the floor of the store, without attempting to stop or berate him. She was about to walk away from him when my co-worker noticed what the little boy was doing. The mother did not deny what her son had done or offer to clean the mess. After repeated attempts to get an explanation, or even a response, the woman just walked away again, and away from her oblivious child. The family was asked to leave the store, and my co-worker ended up cleaning the mess. She angrily muttered about those ‘damn Mexicans.’
This is when it bothers me the most, when I can’t bring myself to contradict her. There isn’t an explanation I can give to validate that mother’s actions. Would a white woman let her child do that? And I find myself thinking, “No, she wouldn’t, because she would buy diapers.” In comparison to hearing negative prejudices about Mexicans, it bothers me so much more to find myself giving in to them myself. It makes me wonder how can I defend my fellow Hispanics when looking around, it feels like I’m the only one trying to break the stereotype. Yet on a more optimistic note, I know that the mother was merely a bad apple in the bunch. Not every group of people are all going to be saints, nor would they be all as apathetic as this one person. But because of her actions in such a public and respected place, others are going to see her as a representative of my ethnicity.
A personal solution to the weak ethnic pride in the community is to be a public example to the local Hispanics. However, even with living in Buenos Aires for three years, taking Spanish courses in high school, and having half my extended family living in Mexico, I still can’t speak the language fluently myself. How can I influence them if I can’t relate at all? I’m not similar economically, academically, not even through a common language. I only know a small part of what concerns them in life. My current incapability to change their situations bothers me more than any ignorant slur I hear.
It seems everyday I ask myself that clichéd question, “How can I make a difference?” I don’t know how at this moment. When I’m helping people in the thrift shop, they don’t see a Mexican girl. The Hispanic customers see a white girl with dark hair and eyes, speaking in a language they don’t understand, who rarely offers advice in broken Spanish. The other customers don’t see anything that would change their opinion about ‘those Mexicans.’
Growing up white, but with minority allegiances, has given me a unique perspective on discriminatory views. I know, through my own experience, that you can’t imagine or know a whole person just by seeing or being in class with them. There is something that you won’t know about them and won’t expect. I am not an exception to the rule, and I know I have my own preconceptions of people I see, however unwelcome those thoughts are. In my Mexican heritage there are instances of racial discrimination. Her parents and community disowned my great-great grandmother when she married someone much darker than her and of a lower caste. The tendency for prejudice is not secluded to just appearance. It’s among every grouping of people, from the American-born blacks’ discrimination against the Haitians in my school, to the suburban kids talking about the ‘white trash.’
As a society, we will always find some way to differentiate ourselves from others, from people who look or act different than us. I am hopeful for change, and I want to be a part of that change through achieving success in my profession as a Hispanic. Growing up surrounded by prejudice in every form, I am more realistic about humanity’s capabilities and more forgiving of such transgressions that are learned from our elders. In spite of this, I am still confident that with time, no matter where one lives, all forms of prejudice will be considered unacceptable to express or to hold.