The poetic, playful and prophetic musings of quintessential voices trying to keep up with life

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Family/Story: Claiming a Hybrid Identity

When was the last time you filled out a form or application and were asked to identify as a particular race or ethnicity? Do you remember your answer and, depending on the format, the categories/boxes that were available to be checked? What about the 'Other' category? What does 'Other' mean anyway?

More importantly, why does that matter?

Until taking a class in my (recently completed) first year of seminary, I really didn't think a whole lot about those questions. And why should I? After all, checking a box doesn't actually define who we are... Or does it?

Few people know this about me (and you certainly wouldn't guess it by looking at me) but I was born & grew up in the Caribbean for a little while and was one of few white children in my pre-K/Kindergarten classes. At that time, I probably wasn't aware that differences in skin color meant anything...because they shouldn't...but 5 year old Erin was just a kid, doing what kids do, and didn't care that my white skin turned red in the sun and other kids' skin didn't noticeably change color.

But when I moved to Iowa, everyone looked like me... But I knew I was also not quite like my classmates. My last name is Guzman and that's not really common in Iowa, especially not in my small town where so many families are related.

When I took my first standardized test as a 1st grader, I came across the 'Race & Ethnicity' question. I remember not understanding what they were asking of me, so I confronted my teacher with what box to check. I knew that something about me was different, but asking me to "identify as something"did not compute. After a moment of consideration my teacher told me to check 'White/Caucasian.' --First grade Erin could not have anticipated what the repercussions of filling in that bubble would mean nearly 20 years later.

#RealTalk: Seminary is/has been really great, but it also has the ability to mess things up for you/your routine. Some would argue that's a good thing -- dis/rupt the hab/it YAH! Others will tell you that's entirely undesirable, especially when trying to discern a laundry list of things to help prepare you for your future. For me, it's both and... In my Pastoral Care & Theology class, we were asked to create a genogram (an overly detailed family tree) to examine the ways in which our families have shaped who we are as people/pastoral care givers. I knew the project was going to be hard... What I didn't expect to discover was that I had been living the majority of my life under some false impressions.

Here's what I learned:

American (left) - Mexican (right)  borderland
My grandfather grew up in Southern Texas, basically in Mexico. In the 1920s Mexicans experienced a great deal of discrimination based on how they look (GEE, THERE'S A HUGE SURPRISE!). My grandfather, having grown up in the wake of such treatment, resisted/tried to protect his family from further discrimination by saying he was Native American rather than Mexican. This defense mechanism is not exclusive to my family, but is a common way of identifying oneself as part of the "dominant group"of a given society to avoid negative treatment. Today, many Mexican-Americans refer to themselves as "white" rather than fully embrace their heritage for a variety of reasons, one of which is self-preservation. This disassociation with our Mexican roots was subsequently passed on through our family for a variety of other reasons related to their circumstances and into my naive self-perception.

It wasn't until I interviewed my aunt that I made a discovery: I'm a 1/4 Mexican.

As I began putting these threads together, I felt all sorts of confused and hurt. Why had my dad not told me the truth in 6th grade when I did that project about his ancestry? Why had no one acknowledged the fact that all of my aunts and uncles have significantly darker skin than other folks in the family? Why did I somehow not find offense in the "dirty-Mexican" jokes that spread like wildfire through my hometown whenever migrant workers came in from working in the cornfields? I also felt an enormous urge to reconnect with this part of my heritage. Yet, because I've been immersed in "white culture" for the majority of my life, how genuine of an effort would it be to actually reclaim this identity? Because I don't "look the part" would I ever be able to truly identify with this part of me that is now inescapable?

As much as we may or may not want to believe it, nearly everything about who you and I are is socially constructed. We are influenced by our surroundings, as well us our biological roots. We are products of our culture and households, and that shapes how we see and present ourselves to the world. Our recent guest author, Nate, wrote a lovely post that touches on many of these same topics in relation to our identities. So if you want more of that, go read his post... But all of this is to say that identity is not a matter of one factor, but of many.

In my case, I'm struggling with the fact that white superiority and assimilation have made identifying with my Mexican heritage all the more difficult. I'm not blaming my parents/family, the state of Iowa or my own ignorance. No, I blame white-dominated culture and the treatment of any/all other races and ethnic groups as radical Others that have to be "dealt with." Because I want to be proud to say that I'm a Mexican, not be looked down on or met with suspicious and confusing glares. I want to own the rich and diverse culture and cuisine. I want to speak Spanish as naturally as possible. I want to keep my last name, should I get married (because THERE IS POWER IN A NAME). I want people to know that it's not ok to make demeaning slurs/buy into stereotypes/treat all those with non-white skin as if they don't belong in America. The fact that some of these things even need to be said is a problem. I so wish my whiteness wasn't a barrier from totally accepting and affirming myself as Erin Guzman...but that is unfortunately proving to be true. a Liger? I freakin' wish...
So this is where I find myself, at a crossroads of sorts. After some conversations with different folks, I've realized that I'm a hybrid; I'm not 100% white, nor am I entirely comfortable with calling myself a Latina...yet. For awhile I wasn't sure how I felt about the uneasiness in needing terminology, but now I'm determined to see it as a good thing. For now, it's ok to simply call myself a hybrid. But I do acknowledge how that has shaped who I am: Yes, because I look very white I've had significant opportunities that I probably wouldn't have had if I bore darker skin. Yes, I have probably contributed to further oppression of Hispanic or Latin@ persons, and I'm sure I use the wrong terminology/am still pretty ignorant of many folks' struggles and experiences. But the difference is, I have recognized that now, and I'm working to educate myself on what it means for me to be a person of hybrid identity and am making active effort to connect with my true self.

I'm a firm believer that we never cease in transformation and "coming out." As a person with a newly discovered hybridity and awareness to the complexities of Being, I'm calling for an awareness of how a simple box on an application or test form can influence all of how we think of ourselves. Although there are many things that shape who we are/how we see ourselves, things as simple as language and formalities can create barriers for those attempting to navigate the waters of self-actualization. Especially in a time and place where blended families are more prevalent and celebrated, kids often don't know how to categorize who they are (because you know, we indoctrinate kids that they HAVE TO fit into some kind of category/box/binary otherwise there's something wrong with them). Society teaches that 'Otherness' --whether it be ethnic, racial, sexual and biological, religious, political or economic otherness-- is somehow outside the realm of importance, and that only people with proper documentation, virtues or salaries are worth something.

I am here to say, friends, that is the biggest piece of shit we've ever been fed.

I am here to say, that no matter who you are and ALL of who you are is cherished and special, despite what government(s) happen to write on a piece of paper.

At the very least, this discovery has opened my eyes to the necessity of checking whatever privileges we have at that door, and really being honest about what institutional and socio-cultural barriers prevent many people from finding a sense of wholeness and belonging in this crazy space called Life. We all need a lot more wholeness and a lot less hurt. Let's not forget that we're all people here, no matter what box we're forced to check or the color of our skin.

With love,
Erin G.

1 comment:

  1. I definitely think you should from now on mark the other box (didn't you always wonder what "other" implied?)Returned and then write "Hybrid" or if it's not an option select multiple even if it tells you not to. That's really neat, though, Erin. I have small amount of Black Irish, but my ancestry line had no qualms about inter-racial shenanigans so I'm not dominantly anything, guess that makes me white? Cuz of the absence of color...hmm. Good article!
    -Danielle Caswell


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