Surprised, she blinked a few times as she considered what I’d just told her. She thought for a moment, this Mexican woman I’d just met through a mutual acquaintance. Then, dubious, her eyes narrowed a bit before she spoke.
“Do you speak Spanish?” she asked me…in Spanish. Knowing the drill, the same routine I’ve experienced for as long as I can remember, I nodded my head and confirmed the same fact I’ve been confirming and reconfirming since, what feels like, the moment I learned to talk.
For reasons beyond comprehension, the degree of my Hispanicness or Italianness- for lack of better terms- has been under fire my entire life. Sometimes the question was subtle- a raised eyebrow or an undecided look. Most times, however, it seemed downright up for debate.
What kind of food did I eat at home? Had I ever been to Honduras? To Italy? Even ludicrous qualifiers like whether or not I ate chicharrón or watched telenovelas. I fielded all of these and more. Everyone, it seemed, had some mental math to crunch, some invisible benchmark that served as a determining factor for them of whether or not I was eligible to be considered a card-carrying member of the particular ethnicity in question.
As a child it left me feeling confused and excluded. Stateless even. Was it the color of my skin, I often wondered. Was it my Italian-tinged Spanish? My Spanish-flavored Italian? My age when I immigrated here? Did I miss some cut-off I wasn’t even aware of before I began navigating the United States’ turbulent cultural waters? But then, as a teen, I found to my horror, that I had slowly become just as suspicious, conducting my own interviews and setting my own invisible standards.
I’d become part of the problem.
Now as an adult, I no longer feel the need to turn myself over for approval and I certainly no longer feel a need to categorize anyone myself. It took me too many years to realize that you alone determine what and who you are. Likewise, it took me too many years to see this dynamic alive and well all around me in every corner of society.
Is President Obama black or is he white, people want to know. Black enough? White enough? Muslim? What about Mariah Carey? In what box does she fit nicely into? Is this person eligible to wear their hair a certain way? Use certain slang? In fact, the nature of these questions and their prevalence led me to wonder exactly what it is that makes cultural identity so open to discussion, so negotiable.
So in dire need of defense.
Over time that is exactly where I found my answer. Defensiveness. It’s hard being different. It just is. Embracing a certain identity and background means embracing the prejudices that often come with it. It is assumed that those in the same group have experienced the same pain, the same tribulations, the same hurdles; and those wearing the badge without the burden and the scars are often viewed as usurpers. But the problem with this approach? It is impossible to know everyone’s circumstances and experiences.
What’s more, it’s not up to you to decide others’ identity in the first place.
So where is this all stemming from? Why, after so many years of having found comfort in my own skin and camaraderie with others that share my ethnicity and experiences, is this once again on my mind? The answers are simple and they’re sleeping with their nightlight on just down the hall.
If I thought defending my identity and making two cultural backgrounds coexist within myself peacefully was challenging, my littles have four to contend with. Already at their young age I’m beginning to field the same old questions on their behalf. Do they speak Italian? Spanish? What do they eat? Where have they been?
The sad truth is that they’re still too young to realize the assault already going on against their cultural claim. The other truth? I can’t keep the inevitable soul searching and defensiveness from them either. They will eventually have to ponder these questions themselves, find their own answers, and figure out exactly who and what they are.
The only thing I can do is offer guidance, direction, and perspective.
The good news in this seemingly uphill battle? First, they’re not alone. The United States, and New York especially, is nothing if not a heterogenous blend of humanity. I have no doubt that they will have their own group of culturally diverse friends to lean on, as I did, in their darkest days. The other big positive they have going for them? These kiddos will be spared the single most exclusionary factor that my family and I had to contend with when I was growing up- circumstances too heavy to address in this post, or in any one post for that matter. It will have to be for another day. Suffice it to say, however, that growing up in the place in which they were born affords them an inalienable sense of security and belonging. It is one less battle they will ever have to face.
And as for the rest of it? As for making sure that they don’t allow other people to set a benchmark of identity for them? Of ensuring that they find communion with others that share their same history and not partake in any of that defensiveness? Well, that part’s on me.
What will I tell them? I will tell them that this mix is precisely what makes America so great. Everyone here has a story and a background. I’ll tell them that a lot of different situations and circumstances went into who they are today, many different stories coming together at precisely the right time and in precisely the right way. I will tell them that there’s a little bit of everyone they love within them and that no amount of explaining or defending can negate where their family is from, where their roots still lay, and the experiences we all went through to give them this life in the first place.
I will cement their identity a little bit more with every family tale we tell at home, with every cultural tradition we continue and with every traditional recipe we share, with every new word they learn in Spanish and Italian, with every visit we make, and with every moment spent with family.
Basically, I will do everything my parents did for me.