The Value of Community in My Ethnic Identity Journey
The following post is part of a series on Ethnic Identity. It is written by Ana, a volunteer intern with Destino in Texas.
“So you and your family are from Mexico huh?” Emily, my freshmen roommate asks soon after I move into the dorm room my first semester at Texas A&M. “Yes, but I grew up in Deer Park a suburb of Houston” I reply, trying to deflect the question. In fact I had moved to Deer Park at the age of seven, where the majority of people at my school, as well as my friends, where white. Her curiosity persists, “so this must be very different for you. Do y’all have running water in Mexico?” Her face is completely serious, and from her expression I can’t figure out if she knows she’s being offensive or not. This has never happened to me. “Monterrey is a huge very modern and industrialized city. We have running water,” I reply slightly annoyed. She goes on to ask if my parents know how to read and write, and if we use donkeys as our main mode of transportation. I can’t believe she is seriously asking any of these things. I get the feeling that she isn’t just curious about my nationality, but rather purposely being insulting. I seek a roommate change soon after this conversation.
I had never felt insecure about my ethnic identity until that moment. Immediately I could tell I was very different to the majority of students on campus, and that it was a bad thing. I looked around my economics class from the back of a large auditorium and started wondering how many Latinos were in the class. I began to feel so insecure about being one of few Latinos on campus; I wished so badly at that moment that I could blend in and be like the majority of students in class. Although I didn’t consciously decide I wanted to look more white, I dyed my hair platinum blonde and put light colored contacts in my eyes because that’s what most girls in my classes looked like. I was not ready to admit to the world who I really was. I wanted to be accepted.
It wasn’t until I joined Destino that I realized I had been desperately trying to hide from the world my ethnic identity. One day while car-pooling to a Destino social, a girl I had just met asked what my last name was. Without thinking I said, “Villarreal,” pronouncing it in English. My good friend Denise said, “say it right!” I repeated my last name in Spanish with the proper ‘y’ sound for the two ‘l’s and rolled my ‘r’s. It was then that I knew I was in a safe environment that accepted who I really was and not who I had to pretend to be in order to blend in and be accepted. I could unashamedly admit that my favorite breakfast is barbacoa with tortillas de harina, I like listening to Luis Miguel, and that it feels very weird not greeting everyone with a kiss. I could call my parents and speak to them in Spanish in front of my friends and no longer had to feel embarrassed or uncomfortable. I even became aware that when I pray silently I do so in Spanish, so when I am asked to pray aloud in English I become tongue-tied. The language I use to communicate with God is Spanish and my Destino friends didn’t mind when I asked to pray in Spanish around them. In fact they understood, because some of them felt the same way.
Destino offered me a home away from home in college. The familias, el pan dulce at the meetings, the salsa nights, making flan and empanadas with friends, being surrounded by Spanglish, listening to Spanish music in the car on road trips to winter conference or fall retreat; all these things offered glimpses into the identity I had chosen to hide. I could finally look around and see myself reflected among fellow students, and it was comforting. Destino created a safe environment to allow me to discover my ethnic identity and helped me to embrace all the cultural factors that have shaped me. The most valuable aspect was not to have to embark on the journey to find my ethnic identity alone. I am grateful to have had the support and understanding of friends who were on a journey to discover their ethnic identity also.
photo courtesy: jorislouwes