Being Mexican-American can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Err on the side of Mexican and you’re un-American. Err on the side of American and you’re a sell-out. It reminds me of that scene in Selena when her dad completely freaks out, “We have to be more Mexican than the Mexicans and more American than the Americans, both at the same time! It’s exhausting!” It’s a little melodramatic but sometimes I feel the same way. I feel like I can never satisfy either side.
There are so many ways people live out their Mexican-ity. I have friends that are dark-skinned, have an accent when they speak English and yet don’t speak Spanish at all. I have friends that were never taught Spanish or anything about their Mexican background but decided to take charge of it in college and learn Spanish and the culture and live as if they grew up in a Mexican household. I know people who go by Louis when their name is really Luis. I know people that have taken on an Aztec name in place of their name to be more true to their roots. I find all these differences so interesting—especially when I am trying to navigate the waters and decide how I want to live my life.
My first language was Spanish. I did not speak a lick of English until I went to preschool where I was placed in an all-English classroom. I was young enough to immediately pick up English and I refused to speak any Spanish because we didn’t speak it at school. After a year of this I totally lost the ability to speak Spanish. I couldn’t speak it even if I wanted to. I had forgotten.
La Lupe only speaks Spanish and only understands Spanish. When I stopped speaking Spanish I lost the ability to communicate with her. It wasn’t until I was 9 that my dad sat me down and told me how ridiculous it was that I couldn’t speak to La Lupe and made me learn Spanish all over again.
I remember how horrible and embarrassed I felt every time I saw La Lupe. And even after I learned Spanish again I was very self-conscious of making mistakes when I spoke. It was a hard thing to get through. Losing Spanish I really felt like I had lost something special, something that was a part of me.
After a while I realized that I needed to figure out what made me feel true to myself. Maybe I still can’t salsa nor can I sing along with Mariachis but I’ve figured out that these things aren’t essential to my identity. I know that the heart of me being Mexican-American is inherently tied to the language and being Catholic. I don’t speak for every Latino person, but as for me, as long as I am Catholic, I feel true to my Mexican heritage.
I really believe that my faith is a direct reflection of being Mexican-American. Because of the Mexican side, my faith is truly inherent to who I am. The Church is home to me. It is part of me. But because of the American side of me, I’ve used reason to really delve into the theology behind my faith. In school we heard over and over again how the study of theology is faith seeking understanding. Well, the Mexican part of me is the faith and the American part of me is the understanding.
Incidentally, language and faith are also what connects me so deeply to La Lupe. Who would have thought that an old Mexican woman would be so thoroughly ingrained in my sense of self? Pretty cool.
So while I agree with Edward James Olmos and sometimes get exhausted and frustrated trying to satisfy both sides of the aisle, I know what makes me Mexican-American and I have to remind myself to shake off others’ expectations.