Una charla con Olivia: Mexicanidad, Identity Struggles and Family

Rosa Clemente and Afrolatinidad

I thought that this last “Latina Theory” podcast elaborated so much in terms of race and the negotiation of latinidad that we have explored in class. Rosa Clemente said something especially poignant in relation to the formulaic approach to race in Puerto Rico; the myth of being an island ethnically constructed as 1/3 Taino, 1/3 Black, 1/3 European. Essentially, this encompasses the extent of ethnic identity in Puerto Rico, which didn’t allow for Rosa Clemente to fully embrace her afrolatinidad until she went to college and decided to pursue Africana studies–much to the dismay of her latinx peers, highlighting that the misconception that one can only pledge one’s allegiance to latinidad or blackness is present in academic spaces.

She also said something that I found to be extremely bold to state: that afrolatinidad was “trendy” to explore academically right now, but with very little critical lens directed towards politics and critical race theory, but instead towards cultural topics such as food and dance. I think she is absolutely right to be concerned over this, for it definitely reduces afrolatinidad to something that is performed and purely cultural rather than embodied and inextricable from identity. She also makes the point that terms such as “latino” and “hispanic” are all state-sanctioned and do not allow for self-identification, which she believes is necessary in order for people to come to terms with their own individual racial, ethnic and cultural realities.

Overall, Rosa Clemente offered some really cutting-edge analysis in terms of afrolatinx identity, and I personally think that her views on the construction of afrolatinidad in the U.S. as well as Latin America and the Caribbean are some of the most provocative to date.

The Privilege of the Passport

I was really moved by Ana M. Lara’s piece “Uncovering Mirrors”, and a part that really resonated with me was when she spoke about the power that her U.S. passport gave her. I have traveled to and from Mexico for most summers of my life, and I was made aware of the privilege that came with my American passport at a young age. Other factors such as my fair complexion and the occasional accompaniment of my White father on these trips would make going through airport security even less stressful, but I think that the deep blue hue and U.S. emblem on my passport has helped me in all of my travels more than any phenotype I possess.

But my U.S. passport was not always an easy thing for my mother to maneuver in her travels with me, and especially when I was a toddler my mother would be questioned about whether or not she was actually my mother. So, while I have rarely been stopped and questioned because of my passport, it has been a much more difficult endeavor for my mother, and despite her joint citizenship, she is still heavily scrutinized every time she crosses the border.

My U.S. passport also allowed me to cross borders like a hot knife through butter when I found myself in Europe last year. Of course, border control in the European Union is much less strict than that of the U.S., but of course only in relation to the right bodies passing through–think of the xenophobia directed at refugees and those coming from the Middle East, Northern Africa, and Eastern Europe and how their experiences crossing Western European borders must be nothing short of harrowing.

Even this past winter, I crossed the Mexican border in a completely new way. I was visiting San Diego, the city of my birth, with my family. We decided to drive across the Mexican border into Rosarito in order to eat authentic tacos al pastor and watch the sun set on the beach over the Pacific ocean. On the way back to San Diego, crossing the Mexican border was a lengthy and annoying process. But as soon as we reached the check point, we were free to drive straight on to In-N-Out before heading home. As I looked in the rear-view mirror at the Mexican landscape behind me, I saw so many black and brown bodies frozen on the other side of the border. Citizenship is a privilege I had never felt so tangibly connected to until that crossing, and it makes me wonder what I could do with this passport in order to share this privilege with others.

Nao Bustamante’s “America, the Beautiful”

When reading about Nao Bustamante’s performance art piece “America, the Beautiful” I was absolutely blown away. I think that incorporating the image of “la rubia” into a performance art piece brilliantly brought to light many of the misogynistic tropes that incorporate blond women in both Mexico and the U.S.

In fact, one of my father’s favorite anecdotes about first dating my mother has to do with this idea of the blond Mexican woman as a fetishized “other”. Apparently, he and my mother were watching a Mexican talk show in the kitchen in mis abuelos’ house in Mexico. My father, being the analytical person he is, asked my mother: “Why is it that they only show white actors on Mexican television when I have barely seen any white Mexicans since living here?” My mother responded, “Well, white Mexicans exist, but what do you think Mexicans look like?” At that moment, the camera pan

ned over the studio audience, and for a brief second the screen was filled with brown bodies. “That!” My father replied, “That’s what Mexicans look like to me.”

So, while my father was immediately aware that it was a little off having the media dominated by white (often blond) Mexicans, his own perception of Mexicans also seemed to be flawed. I think that Bustamente meant to challenge both of these ideas of what a Mexican looks like in this piece; she in fact juxtaposed both ideas of Mexicaness on her own body, oversexualizing herself in a way that could have approximated her to the American Marilyn Monroe ideal (white, blond, and beautiful) as well as the preconceived Mexican ideal (dramatic, dirty, unstable).

La Bruja

Norma E. Cantu’s piece “Bruja’s Fears and Desires” was so interesting to me because I feel like it highlighted the ways in  which a lot of Latina women in my life often experience the world. I think that the religion vs. spirituality aspect was especially interesting, because it pertains to my mother’s own interaction with Catholicism in her life. My mother also has an alter where she has La Virgen de Guadalupe framed in the center while pictures of her siblings, parents, husband and children are scattered around her. It is as if she is positioning La Virgen as the sun which the rest of us revolve around; without La Virgen’s light and guidance, perhaps she wouldn’t be lucky enough to have three kids pursuing higher education and her family back in Mexico still in good health.

So while my Irish grandmother will pray on her rosary and go to church every Sunday at noon, my mother quietly practices Catholicism her own way. Just this past Easter Sunday, we were not expected to go to church. Instead we helped around the house, paying special attention to make sure the flowers placed on the alter of La Virgen were vibrant and given enough water, while also making sure that the food that was to feed all of our hungry extended family members was being prepared properly. I think that my mother is a very spiritual person in the sense that she sees it as a personal, almost internal responsibility that she worships La Virgen in order to maintain homeostasis among her loved ones. Her alter to La Virgen and the crosses she has nailed above our headboards is less an imposition and more her own version of prayer–making sure that those she loves are safe and given every cosmic good fortune available.

The Burden of a Body

I felt so melancholic while reading Caridad Souza’s “Missing Body.” On the one hand, I was so amazed to find a testimonia that talked about the internalized disdain one can have for the “latina” parts of one’s body (curves, breasts, legs). But on the other hand, I was so disheartened by the fact that this is such a common occurrence for Latinas.

I have struggled with body image issues for my entire life, especially during my adolescence. I lived in a predominantly white New Jersey suburb, and I found that I was often fetishized by my white girl friends. They would comment on my breasts so often, usually leering in jealousy, but making me feel like such a freak. I was ashamed by the womanhood that had presented itself to me and everyone else through my hips; as they widened, so it seemed did the chasm between me and my self-esteem. I wanted to be thin and featureless, a true androgynous entity.

And I tried so tirelessly to achieve that image. I started running every day, I used my phone to count calories, I wouldn’t let myself eat in front of others. I became so ashamed of my body that I tried to whittle it down into nothingness, in the hopes that men would stop leering at my figure, that girls in the locker room would stop commenting on my breasts, so that I could fit in like all of the other white girls in size 2 jeans.

There’s no real moral to that story. I still struggle with food, honestly, and I am certain that a lot of it still carries over to my college experience because I go to school in such a predominantly white college town. I experience the same inability to look at my body in the mirror on most days like Souza. It was only until recently did I realize that my relationship with food was less a study in vanity as much as it was an attempt to suppress the parts of my body that gave away my “otherness”, my latinidad. I still feel an uneasiness about eating on most days. All I can say is that I’m working on it.

The Idea of The “Temporary” Latina

I found Ruth Behar’s testimonia about her anxieties about being a “temporary” Latina as so relatable and also pertinent to my upcoming paper on the liminality of Latina identity. She said that she never felt comfortable fully self-identifying as Latina because of her light skin and her Jewish heritage. Because of that, she felt that when it came to conversations about expanding the definition for Latino/a, her input wasn’t necessary or productive. I am in a slightly different situation, as I’m only half-Mexican and have only been to Mexico a dozen or so times in order to visit mis abuelos. But still, although I have a heavy ethnic connection to my Mexican roots, there are obvious privileges I must be fully conscious of. Although I agree with Behar on the notion that the term Latino/a should be expanded in order to unite instead of stratify the community, but at the same time I must recognize that my light skin means that being a dominant voice in discussions would mean speaking over latinx people who have a more nuanced view due to their multifaceted identities that include a more prominent racist and xenophobic experience living in the U.S.

But I cannot deny that I haven’t been singled-out for my Latinidad when it was made apparent. The thing is, even if I am not visibly Latina, once I openly disclose my latinidad it becomes a very real and prominent aspect of the way in which others interact with me. When people see me as a ethnically White woman, I am tenacious, respected and driven, but when I am seen as Latina, I am bossy, over-achieving and possessing an agenda. It’s especially hard when navigating certain academic circles, because focusing on topics of misogyny, xenophobia and racism (especially under our current political climate) is just seen as me being a nuisance and overly-political. Sometimes I feel like it is also seen as if my Latina identity is a performance, and that sometimes my peers and professors would just wish I would embrace my “white side” as a means for them to respect me and my academic pursuits more in lieu of having to treat me differently based on my self-proclaimed Latina ethnicity. This is why I want to continue working towards highlighting the insecurities of Latinas that exist in a state of liminality due to their skin color and language, not so that they become the recipients of pity or the subjects of a discourse of ostracization, but rather so that they (or should I say we) have a more cohesive idea of what our role in the Latinx community is (perhaps bridgework?).

Language and Privilege

The chapter “Snapshots from My Daze in School” by Celia Alvarez was extremely insightful, especially in the way that she analyzes language. She brings up the fact that she was privileged due to the fact that she was a bilingual speaker, and thus could serve as a translator (sharpening her interpersonal communication skills) for her mother, who spoke Spanish, yet still possess the capacity to speak English because of her father. So, she succeeded when she entered elementary school, but she states that this is only due to her English language skills since NYC public schools were not bilingual.

Now, I had a similar situation growing up. I was born in San Diego, where my parents were living in a tiny rental apartment. Living in a city so close to the Mexican border, my parents often spoke Spanish with their friends, at their jobs and in the house. But this was only for the first year of my life in which I was constantly surrounded by the hum of Spanish, because my parents relocated to New Jersey, so that my dad could be close to family living in the area and because of his acceptance into a PhD program at Rutgers. We moved into the bottom floor of a two-family house in Bayonne. My father’s aunts lived on the top floor, two middle-aged Irish-American women, who would find any excuse to come downstairs in order to play with the baby (me!) So, English became spoken more often than not, in order to accommodate my ever-present great aunts. Spanish was then reserved for bed-time lullabies, some of which I can still hum to myself. When my siblings were born, an unexpected set of fraternal twins, my dad’s mother came to live with us for a short period of time, seeing as how mi abuela in Mexico couldn’t just up and leave. So my grandma sung lullabies for me while my mother stayed up with the twins, so even bed-time got switched over to English. Soon, Spanish became a truly foreign language to me, which I could only re-conciliate through my own academic pursuits.

So, I never saw my lack of understanding Spanish as a privilege. I always thought that if I came from a bilingual household that I would have a much more prestigious education, perhaps even being able to focus on my third language right now instead of Spanish. But I now realize that not knowing Spanish was almost considered a privilege for me, especially considering that my sister was put in an ESL class just because they figured she couldn’t speak English because she was shy and the teacher saw that my mother (a visibly Latina woman) dropped her off at school on the first day of kindergarten. My strength in English is a huge privilege, even though I am often sad about having a very real disconnect from my culture due to many years of not being able to speak my mother’s native language.


My podcast is on the liminality of latina identity, especially relating to growing up as a “mixed” girl and not knowing how to express myself.


Dolores Huerta’s Impact

When I was reading about how Dolores Huerta lobbied for migrant worker’s rights, I was reminded of a song by an artist I’ve recently discovered. The song is called “Mexican Chef” by Xenia Rubinos, an up-and-coming latina singer/songwriter. The song focuses on the impact of brown people’s labor in the work force, and how essentially most of the jobs/services we take for granted or look down upon are occupied by latinos. It’s true that the pervasive stereotype of latinos as only being capable of fulfilling the types of jobs that Rubinos sings in “Mexican Chef” is an extremely harmful one. Many have argued that latinos should also be highlighted as those who can occupy positions of prestige, such as professors, doctors, artists, authors, etc. But the fact is that the latino work force, especially undocumented latinos, is greatly exploited, and activists like Huerta dedicated much of their lives in order to ensure that living wages and benefits were achieved for these workers via unions. But the latino work force continues to receive unfair treatment, especially undocumented migrant workers. There have been examples of deplorable conditions in which children labor in fields on unbearably hot days, as well as workers being denied access to bathrooms. Especially in our current political climate, we must continue the work that Huerta has done and demand rights for those who are often overlooked and demeaned in our society.

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