On Duolingo

To get this started I want to ask you, my loyal readers, a question. What race am I? Now this is a loaded question and I will likely get offended at all the wrong answers, but I want your honest guess.  You would think it was pretty straightforward but the answer might surprise you.

If you guessed Greek then hi Becca, I miss you!

If you guessed Mexican or Hispanic then you are well intentioned and or family and also 100% wrong.

Now for those of you who guessed White, congratulations you win the very amazing prize of being able to read my writing. (I’m sorry, this is actually terrible but do please continue reading.)

According to the U.S Census Bureau, since 1970 the term Hispanic refers to the ethnicity of a person, and not their race. So when I go to vote on Election Day or fill out any official paperwork I have to check the box for White or Caucasian and then go and fill out another section to describe my ethnicity. While not a very challenging process it is both unnecessary and demeaning.  Now you might be thinking, “Hey Nick, why is this so frustrating to you? Shouldn’t you be thrilled to be part of the exclusive world of white privilege?”  Well, you might think that I’d be jumping on board for the opportunity I really couldn’t care less about that, and that is a realization a long time coming.

I grew up in a dual language household…well to an extent. Dual language in the sense that my mother was fluent in both Spanish and English, and would often talk in Spanish, just not to us. You see my father is as Tex-Mex as they come and his brothers and sisters were raised only speaking English, so my mother made the executive decision to only speak to my brothers and me in English only so that way the family could communicate and no one would get confused. I admire the sentiment behind the decision but also really regret not growing up with a second language part as part of who I am. I’m not sure if I would have even been good at Spanish as a child, but I know for sure that I am terrible at speaking Spanish as an adult. I’ve taken a multitude of Spanish classes growing up but the language never really stuck. Just like math, my brain didn’t seem particularly hard-wired for that usage. I can understand fairly well just by knowing enough vocabulary and context clues, but my spoken Spanish is broken and clumsy and very, very beginner.  What does this have to do with my anger at being labeled as White? Everything.

Time for me to sound like a pretentious ass.  About halfway through first grade, my teacher told my parents that I needed to move schools. Not because I was a troublemaker or anything cool like that, but because I wasn’t being challenged academically and to remain in a regular classroom would be detrimental to my education. So in second grade, I was enrolled in a Vanguard classroom. (Basically gifted and talented on steroids or something.) The thing about this classroom is that you tend to notice the lack of diversity pretty quickly. Considering the neighborhood of the school it did have a larger population of Hispanic children in the Vanguard program, however, the majority was still Caucasian, with the minority being African-American. So there I was, a  part of the middle of the pack Hispanic kids who like me, were also raised in English only households trying to figure out my place at this new school. I was finally getting to find my own rhythm in the classroom and part of that was also figuring out who I was as a person. Thankfully childhood innocence protects us for a while and my time through fifth grade was worry free and full of fun. Middle school is where my racial integrity started to slip.

The start of sixth grade saw me riding a bus halfway across town to the best public middle school in Houston. At this school, the line between Vanguard programs and Regular classrooms were drawn hard in the paint and you didn’t really cross them.  Here the racial dichotomy increased beyond what I had witnessed in my previous years, and the skin tones of my fellow classmates got lighter. My grade was primarily composed of Caucasian and Asian-American students with a smattering of Hispanics and African-Americans to round it out. I had friends who traced their ancestry to Merriweather Lewis, of Lewis & Clark fame and Blackbeard the pirate, whatever that may say. The people who looked like me, with possible relations to Frida Kahlo or Moctezuma were on the other side of the school.  I’m not sure when exactly, but it was definitely during my time at Lanier Middle School that I started saying I was of Spanish descent and not Mexican. To be fair I have as much Spanish blood as I do Mexican, but the distinction I was making was that my heritage was European. In this way, I was like my peers. In this way, I was betraying my culture. But how do you betray a culture in which you do not practice? How does one become a practicing Mexican-American? I really don’t know.

If I were to create a checklist it would look something like this:

·         Do you eat Mexican food?

·         Do you have a statue of the Virgin Mary in your house?

·         Are you Catholic?

·         Do you have dark hair, tan skin, and brown eyes?

·         Can you sing Amor Prohibido by Latin Grammy winning artist Selena? (lol sorry I had to)

·         Do you celebrate Dia de Los Muertos? ( To be fair, this practice has mostly died down, and is really only celebrated by small villages across Mexico proper.)

·         (F) Did you have a quinceanera?  It really isn’t fair that boys don’t get anything like this.

·         Most importantly, do you speak Spanish?

I’ve got about half of those things going for me but I still wouldn’t say that most of them are things I actively chose to participate in, initially at least. Most of my checklist is something one is born into. (Hey, isn’t that a thought, the culture you are born into is the one you are a part of. Who would’ve thunk?) What made me ever think of saying that I was Spanish-American? I honestly don’t know. I guess I succumbed to peer-pressure, or just wanted to feel superior to all of the Garza’s and Rodriguez’s across the hall but that was my story. Did that actually get me any street cred with my white compadres? I have no idea but it became second nature for me to say it. I apologize. I really do. But to be fair, middle school is a hard thing to go through for everyone, and adding racial politics to the equation was just setting me up for doing something embarrassing, naïve, and ultimately stupid.

I can’t say I improved my behavior much in High school, I did say I was Spanish, but I did also start to acknowledge my Mexican heritage as well. Moving across town again to a primarily Latino subset of students will do that for you.  Here I started to realize that Mexican didn’t mean immigrant or beaner. It didn’t always mean you were short with a tragically bad mustache. It didn’t mean you spoke Spanish, were dumb or smart. It didn’t mean your hair was brown or blonde, black or red. It meant that your blood could be traced to Mexico, the blood of Aztecs and Mayans. The blood of amazing singers, painters, scientists, and engineers.  It helped that the summer before my senior year I attended a camp called the Lorenzo De Zavala Youth Legislative Session, sponsored by the National Hispanic Institute.  The premise is very similar to a Boy’s State or Girl’s State, or any sort of government related program, the only difference being the issues discussed and policies made in our faux government all had to deal with or relate to Hispanic/Latino culture.  This program really got me thinking about what it meant to be a part of this culture and why it was important to think about the difficulties faced by my brethren and also the positive accomplishments of other Hispanics.  Here I started to lose my steadfast Donald Trump approach to immigration brought on by a Republican Texan upbringing and started to lose the shame I always associated with the color of my skin.

Going to college both cemented this sudden realization for me but also separated me somewhat.  Attending Northwestern University was the best decision of my life by far, but I didn’t always make use of all of the opportunities available to me. Hispanics and Latin Americans are among the lowest of the populations represented at Northwestern.  There was a student group for us called Alianza, but I went to one meeting my freshmen year and never went back. In my mind, I didn’t relate. I didn’t speak Spanish, I was raised “White” in their standards and never really felt welcome there. I’m not going to blame them, I probably didn’t try to relate to them. I already had a solid friend group at that point so I didn’t put much effort I guess. However, it was at Northwestern that I started to really think about racial politics and how I fit into the system. I took the opportunity to take classes on Latin American culture. My favorite class, I took at Northwestern was a class devoted to the Mayans and their amazingly sophisticated culture. I was enthralled.  It was one of my last classes senior spring and soon I saw myself graduated and moved back home where things were the same but different.  I felt like I had this wealth of knowledge on a culture that I never fully accepted and there was really only one reason why.

I still can’t speak Spanish and that upsets me. I feel like I’ve grown so much over the last few years in my acceptance for who I am and what makes me, me. However, I run into this language barrier every time I want to fully realize myself and it’s frustrating. Why can’t my brain process a second language?  Like the good millennial I am, I turned to my iPhone and under the recommendation of the ever wise Karen Chen downloaded Duolingo. This app has apparently been quite successful as a second language teacher for over like 30 different languages, Spanish being one of them of course. It starts you off with a basic test to determine your level of knowledge in the language, and once situated takes you through a series of lessons at your own pace with a series of mini games that makes it very user-friendly. There is a reward system because if there is anything millennials love, it’s the sweet pleasure of being handed a trophy at the end of a vocab test. I earned it, I really did.  Sadly, like my previous Spanish classes my whole life, I gave up on the app and stopped in my progress. It was a fun month though.  The one thing it did do was cement me to my fellow emparedado and really that’s all I can ask for.

So I really don’t know how to end this post so I’ll take the easy way out. With a quote and some reflection. (Just like they taught us in AP Composition!)

“Being Mexican... means being there for each other. It's togetherness, like a familia. We should be helping one another, cheering our friends on.”

 -Guadalupe Garcia McCall

This really resonated with me because it really does remind me a lot of what I heard growing up from my parents, from relatives, and from friends. So I didn’t choose to be Mexican, oh well. At least I don’t have the burden of white privilege weighing me down every day. One day I’ll be able to look at my paperwork and under race, I will choose the box for Hispanic. Until then I’ll just have to help make it happen. I’m more than White, I’m a Latino. To be Mexican means more than speaking Spanish. It means having family breakfasts on the weekend at the grandparent’s house. It means a piñata at every birthday party. It is in the pride of your mother at being a first generation college graduate. It is in the clothesline that you hang your clothes on when your dryer breaks. It means sitting with your great-grandmother as she sits and talks to you about her childhood in Mexico. She doesn’t speak English and you don’t speak Spanish, but you understand perfectly.