Friday, March 2, 2012

I Am a Yale Latino. Get Over It. (I have).

A little background to begin: My father is of Mexican descent. My mother is, like most white Americans, a mix of Irish and German heritages. As a testament to the feeble foundations on which things like race and ethnicity stand, I have been asked, at various times in my life, if I am Jewish, Peruvian, Greek, and Argentinean. I respond to those questions with a smile, and a correction that usually goes something like, "No, actually my dad's Mexican and my mom's white." But that says very little about me. It begins to say who my parents are, inasmuch as two adjectives can describe entire human beings. But what about Ryan Albert Mendías? I'll give a more complete answer here: I'm Latino (or Chicano, or Hispanic, or Mexican-American). I'm white (or caucasian). And--here's where the confusion kicks in--I consider myself a person of color. That last qualification definitely gives some people pause. How can you be both white and of color? We'll set aside the fact that interraciality is actually a thing, and we'll ignore that asking such a question drives an unnecessary wedge between two important parts of myself (you know, parts like my mother and father...). What I'll do is say a little bit about what those two markers of identity, Latino and white, mean to me.

Like most people of mixed heritage, my life has been one long lesson in multiculturalism. Moving in and out of different worlds, families, languages, and religions, difference is nothing new. Add to the mix that my parents have been divorced and that moving between those worlds involved, literally, relocating to a new physical and cultural space, and it becomes very clear that I was constantly aware of the disparate threads of identity that came together in me. The extent to which I've embraced either thread has shifted throughout my twenty years of life. Jealous of friends whose families came from Asia or Africa, I threw myself into my Irish heritage. Ireland--Europe, really--seemed so foreign, so far away, so, for lack of a better word, historical. I had read about the Irish Famine, I had learned about Ellis Island; forcing my grandfather to tell me everything he knew about his grandparents' voyage to the 'New World' was a way of making myself part of something larger than myself. Mexico, in comparison, seemed so close, so banal, so pedestrian. So many of my elementary school friends and classmates had parents who'd come across the border at some point in the recent past or were themselves born in Mexico. Spending significant portions of my childhood in predominantly Latino neighborhoods, surrounded (whenever I was with my father) by Latino people, that part of myself seemed familiar to a fault. Of course, my tumultuous relationship with my dad and step-family coupled with an embarrassment about their (I suppose, our) poverty meant that my Latino heritage was something unforeign, unexciting, and unwanted.

But over time, things changed. Spending more and more time with my white, upper middle class friends made me realize just how important being a Chicano really was. I had long since abandoned my shame about falling into the category of 'poor Mexican family' every time I went out with my dad and step-sisters (who were browner than me). Whenever those friends spoke about the 'ghetto parts' of the city (often, places where I had lived), I both bristled with annoyance and swelled with pride--even if I didn't 'look Latino,' I had access to knowledge which they were so completely unaware of. In almost a complete turnaround, I started to feel deeply uncomfortable with the color of my skin; I felt like a fraud in so many ways: whenever someone assumed I was white and, paradoxically, whenever I told someone I was Latino. I couldn't win, as far as I was concerned. In grappling with this identity and dealing with the privilege that 'looking white' conferred upon me, any discussion of race or ethnicity struck me with a profound discomfort. That discomfort flared in my senior year of high school; every time I checked "Latino"--even when I checked "white" (which I always did)--on a college application, I felt like I was lying. Months later, the joy and relief of my college acceptance letters were always tempered by a deep sense of guilt.

But, ironically, it wasn't until I actually got to college that that guilt began to subside. It wasn't until I joined a community of Chicanos, Latinos, and other people of color who came in all shades that I really knew what my identity meant. I learned that being simultaneously white and brown was an integral part of my existence, that the contradictions embedded within that identity present their own sets of challenges and privileges, that upholding both halves of my heritage doesn't make me a fraud, it doesn’t make me anything other than myself: a person with all the knowledge and experiences that a life spread out across two cultures has to offer.

Ryan Mendías, BR'13