I pass as “white”
but I’m not. I’m 1/4 Mexican from my mother’s side. With my usual (i.e. untanned) shade of light skin and my mostly white features, I have what is called “passing privilege.” Which is not really privilege at all.
I’m still coming to terms with the fact that I have a crap-load of internalized racism from growing up being considered, and considering myself, white.
It is still hard for me to say to myself that I am not white. It is still hard for me to claim that I am Mexican. I can say “part Mexican,” but what does that do to me, to divide my soul into bits?
My grandpa is Ricardo Ybarra. He grew up in the borderland of Texas and Mexico (probably in what is called a colonias neighborhood). He went into the Air Force, got married to my white Scots-descent grandmother while he was in Maine, and had 6 kids, one of whom is my mother.
My mother grew up speaking both English and Spanish, but she didn’t speak Spanish to us while we were growing up. One of my sisters learned it in high school and college, of which I am both jealous and sad.
I never grew up identifying or being taught to identify with my Grandpa. We moved a lot, my dad also being in the military, and didn’t see him very much. Didn’t see any of my extended family very much.
I grew up “white” and “military.”
I feel deprived of the cultural heritage that is in my blood: I have little of the language, or history, or customs, or stories. Just able to make some hand-made tortillas.
For three years, I went to Rancho High School in Las Vegas, a school with about 60% “hispanic” population, mostly from Mexico.
I began having inklings that I AM Mexican, when my Mexican friends recognized me as one when I told them about Grandpa Ybarra. They would search my face and then nod and exclaim, “I can see it! You look Mexican.”
They could see it in my face.
But I couldn’t. I wasn’t trained to.
My brother has darker skin than I do. I am probably third most “Mexican looking” out of my siblings.
Grandpa has blue eyes, silvery hair, worn and beautifully wrinkled brown skin. He is a handsome Mexican man.
And yet, I never thought, never was taught, that he was a part of me, the same way my German and Norwegian and Scottish grandparents were.
Later, because I can tan to a dark brown and have what has been called “nappy hair,” people questioned my race, causing me to question as well.
At the pool on the job, one of my patrons (who was a WOC) asked me, “What race are you?” and I awkwardly tried to explain from the lifeguard chair, “I’m mostly white, but a quarter Mexican.” At the time, I had a deep tan and my hair was in dreadlocks. I’m not sure if with those dreadlocks I was offensively appropriating another culture or subconsciously trying to come to terms with my own. (Probably both.)
Later that same year, I was driving my sister and our friends home for college fall break at night when the police pulled me over. I suppose I was swerving a little because I was tired.
He asked, “Do you speak English?”
I could only stare blearily at him, and say, confused, “Yes.”
No one had ever asked me that before. I had never expected to hear those words while in the USA. (At the time, English was the only language I spoke, the only living language I had studied in depth.)
I am beginning to understand how Mexican I am.
Partially through the slurs and jokes and attitudes and oppressive policies that I know are openly directed towards people like my grandpa, partially because I am beginning to realize that when someone makes racist jokes about Mexicans, their culture, their language, their traditional clothing, their struggles in this country, they are making these jokes about me, and my family…
…whether or not my whole family will openly recognize it.
One of my dearest friends from college is half Mexican, half Dutch. One of the things that we do for each other is tell one another when I am acting “brown,” when she is being “Dutch.” We can see each other better than we can see ourselves.
I wonder if my mother understands why she never taught us Spanish as babies, why our cradle language was automatically and only English.
I wonder if my siblings ever think of themselves as not just white. Or not white at all.
I wonder if the rest of my people see me and recognize me as one of them.
I wonder if I am really passing as white.