When I was a little girl, I wanted to be Mexican. Actually, I wanted to be Mexican until I was in my twenties. During college, my obsession with speaking Spanish and immersing myself in “culture” reached its pinnacle, and I traveled to Mexico as often as I could. I arranged to study abroad during college in Guadalajara, Mexico, and then later returned for a month on sabbatical. I spent two summers traveling with different groups to Tijuana, Mexico as an interpreter on mission trips, and then returned for a few weeks on another sabbatical. Eventually, I worked for a summer with a government agency (that will remained nameless) as a translator. Basically, I translated and transcribed wire-tapped phone calls. It was this same summer that I got into a relationship with a Mexican guy that revealed once and for all the absurdity of my obsession with the “other." I didn't actually like him for what he had to offer as a person, but for his language and ethnicity. It was over the weeks of ending this relationship, accompanied by random nightmares from wire-tapped phone calls in Spanish, that my illusion of a mythical Mexico slowly faded and died.
The obvious explanation for my interest in Mexico and the Spanish language comes from my parents, who hold glorious memories of the years we lived in California, where there were “lots of Hispanics,” and a few wealthy Portuguese dairy farmers. Not that we knew many Hispanics or Portuguese dairy farmers personally, but the legend grew stronger in the years we lived in exile back in Illinois. The years in California were better times for my parents. They represented a strong community, mission trips to Mexico, church planting, and warm weather. It would seem natural that I would be interested in Spanish and Mexican culture.
The strange part is, many people in California would prefer that all the Mexicans would just go back to Mexico. Why did my parents hold this fascination, when in fact, we had mostly White friends, not Hispanic? Is it possible that my parents were young expats of Missouri who wanted to break ties with their family and a perceived lack of culture they grew up with? In any case, they passed down this perception to me, and I carried the desire with me into my young adult years to break with what I perceived to be a “non-culture” and find a robust cultural identity.
In fact, the effects of racism on White people include a sense of being “normal,” not ethnic or racialized. In an attempt to assimilate and accrue the benefits of Whiteness, many light skinned immigrants had to shed the remnants of their foods, language and traditions. This has left many White people divorced from their ethnic roots. This can create an anxiety in some White folks to find culturally roots anywhere they can, whether by hanging out with Black people, learning to speak Spanish, or eating at "ethnic" restaurants. “Whiteness” is held as the norm, while other racial groups are seen as having “culture” (Frankenberg, 1993). The reality is that White people do have culture, it's just almost invisible because it's positioned as the dominant and privileged culture.
The positive side of my obsession with Spanish is that I did become fluent in a second language. I was able to experience what it feels like to stumble over words and concepts in another language, exhaust my mental resources in one hour of conversation, navigate through cultural misinterpretations and experience the stages of culture shock. I became aware that certain groups of people in my own country, namely immigrants and refugees, were pushed to the margins of society. In my studies, I learned about cultural pluralism, economic and social inequality, and the hegemonic powers of colonialism and imperialism. I learned there were different ways of viewing and understanding world events than from the "official" perspective of the United States' government.
All this knowledge took a long time to seep into my understanding of the context in St. Louis, Missouri, though. I still had tunnel vision for the glorified cultural “otherness” of immigrants and refugees. I sought out situations to help refugee families, although I didn't establish real relationships with them. I viewed immigrants and refugees, Hispanics particularly, as culturally, but not racially “other” (Bonilla-Silva, 2003). This is still a form of racism. It is kind of like saying, "Hispanics are different, but not as different as Black people." And during this time, I still held many anti-Black biases. I believed that Black people were at least culturally different from me enough to inhibit any kind of intimate friendship. I had in me the seeds of something that would grow into my work now, but I had a long way to go.
Autobiography Pt. 2: Cherokee Street.
- Bonilla-Silva, E. (2003). Racism without racists: Color-blind racism and the persistence of racial inequality in the United States. Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield.
- Frankenberg, R. (1993). White women, race matters: The social construction of whiteness. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.