A few weeks ago I went to $5 margarita night with a few friends. After revealing that I neither speak Spanish nor enjoy margaritas, one of them joked, “You’re like the worst Mexican ever!” I’ve been called that same thing in countless ways throughout my life and I’m always baffled.
My mother’s family is from the Rio Grande Valley, a place I hold dear to my heart. She is the second youngest of seven, born just before her family’s house burned down. Luckily, some close relatives had recently found work in Chicago so they encouraged my Grandfather to bring everyone up North.
After a few years, the family moved to the Chicago suburb where I was born. The Montemayors were one of very few Mexican families, but they managed to fit in. Over time “Montemayor” devolved to “Mont-uh-mayer” as Spanish became less vital. Most of the siblings grew up to marry ‘gringos,’ resulting in a generation of mixed children with ambiguous cultural identities like my own.
A fairly large proportion of Latino students attended my elementary school. Many studied in ESL classes and those who didn’t need extra help with English switched to the ‘standard curriculum.’ The integration never seemed to be cause for overt outrage, but I regularly heard friends and their parents say rude and ignorant things about the Latino children at school.
If I was clearly within earshot and they happened to remember that I fell into the demographic they’d been ridiculing, they would lock eyes with me and freeze up. They’d rush to offer solace, to make sure I knew that they weren’t talking about me. They told me I wasn’t like those kids. I was a different kind of Mexican.
I may have been young when this began, but I knew what their concessions really meant. The speakers were making themselves more comfortable in the only way they knew how: by accentuating my whiteness and dismissing my ethnicity in one fell swoop.
Growing up, I conflated the concept of familial love with being Mexican. Until I encountered the ignorant reactions of my peers, I didn’t understand how or why my ethnicity could provoke such discomfort. I didn’t understand why being Mexican wasn’t the same as being German or Italian. I knew that different cultures practiced different traditions, but it didn’t make sense that some could be more ‘normal’ than others.
These attitudes and reactions forced me to question my ethnic identity in a way that I couldn’t really comprehend at that age. I knew I wasn’t white enough for the comfort of my white peers, but I also didn’t fit their idea of a standard Latina well enough to earn their acknowledgement as such.
On one hand, I could understand the confusion: I have fair skin and light eyes; I don’t know much Spanish and I don’t know many Mexican people aside from my mother’s family. But those things aren’t strict qualifications. I didn’t apply to some kind of exclusive club; I was born into a big, wonderful, Mexican-American family.
Of course I wish I knew Spanish more fluently and could connect with the Latino community on a deeper, more empathetic level, but that’s not the case. Heritage cannot exist in a vacuum. It fuses with experience and circumstance to create something more beautiful than any outside expectation. While the traditions my family observes may not measure up to stereotypes in terms of quantity or ‘authenticity,’ they are valid and immeasurably important to me.