Still, for many years, the only thing I thought I could definitely call myself was American. And it wasn’t just a label, it was a lifestyle. I knew of John Wayne before I knew of Pedro Infante. I celebrated Halloween every year, not celebrating Dia de los Muertos until my late teens. I knew more about the American Revolution and the Fourth of July before I could distinguish between Cinco de Mayo and 16 de septiembre. All this, while I lived less than five miles from the Mexican border.
It’s odd, to say the least. I understood I was Mexican, but in the same way a baby understands a game of peek-a-boo: I only understood it when it was in front of me. I understood it when I was surrounded by signs, music, and conversation in Spanish, the language I still struggle to grasp every day, the same language spoken by most of my family, but never taught to me. I understood it when I looked in the mirror and wished for blue eyes. I understood it the most when people told me I was not Mexican, citing my poor Spanish skills and light skin — as if those two attributes and my heritage are mutually exclusive.
However, I don’t think they were completely wrong. While they could have made their points in a less hurtful way, I now know what they were trying to say. As a third-generation Mexican-American, I have an immense amount of privilege that I am still learning to understand. Unlike some of my peers, my legal status has never been questioned by authorities. My poor Spanish is favorably overshadowed by perfect English. My first name has never caused ignorant comments nor kept me from getting a job. I grew up in a middle-class household and attended private school for nine years; it was not until I transferred to the public school system that I was in for a culture shock within my own.
Looking back at these comments, I understand what they really meant: I am able to enjoy all the benefits of my culture without the discrimination that other individuals may face. My inability to speak fluent Spanish may be annoying at worst, but is nothing compared to what some individuals face for not speaking fluent English. In addition, being born in the right place and time allows me a disturbing amount of superiority over others, something I am increasingly uncomfortable with. For example, a relative of mine once commented that while our family is Mexican, we are a “different breed” of Mexicans.
That statement caused my heart to drop, because only three generations ago, things were much different for my family. My great-grandparents came from Mexico with little money and unable to speak English; my great-grandfather could not even read nor write in his native tongue. Yet they managed to work, build a home, and raise two successful daughters. Today, I have everything they wished for and more. It pains me to think that if our paths crossed now, I might be seen as superior to them.
Moreover, the fact that I cross paths everyday with people like them makes me wonder why this mindset still exists, especially in Laredo. Laredo may be ethnically homogeneous, but the stories of our people are as vast as our highways. Somehow we spend too much time covering up the stories of the working class or people who do not fit the image of Laredo we want to send out. But doing so is a major disservice to them and ourselves. Why is it so easy to look down on the maid, yet praise the debutante whose house she cleans every week?
The toxic sense of classism and internalized racism that exists in Laredo often causes us to forget our roots. Without roots, you can’t have a tree and thus cannot grow at all. If we want Laredo to grow, we must respect our deepest roots. While it’s true times are changing and we have more opportunities than previous generations, we cannot forget who laid the foundation for our city and ourselves. They were here then, and they are here today.