Growing Up Mexican in America: What TV Taught Me

Family Ties | White American Family

Growing up Mexican in America can be confusing. Even if the U.S. Census tells you you’re “white,” you don’t really see your kind of “white” on television or film.

I used to be ashamed of living in South El Monte, California, a predominantly working class, Mexican American suburb of Los Angeles. As a child, I felt that my classmates and neighbors weren’t cultured or educated enough. The city itself was an eyesore, with block after block of light industrial manufacturing, a gritty crossroads of the 10, 60, and 605 freeways. The Catholic school I attended from first through eighth grade didn’t have a music or art program, and our textbooks were outdated and falling apart.

I’m not sure why I felt ashamed. My parents were always proud of their heritage and the fact that they were raised in Mexico. They encouraged us to speak Spanish at home – in fact, it was mandatory at home, and they even pushed us to speak Spanish in public. A traditional family outing involved seeing the famous Mariachi Sol de Mexico at El Cielito Lindo.

Although I wasn’t aware of creative and professional leaders when I was growing up (aside from mariachi musicians), several of my peers raised in South El Monte grew up to be doctors, lawyers, architects, writers, entrepreneurs, and scholars. Certainly, these people were around, too, when I was a kid.

Did my shame come from all the television I watched, where the perfect American family was white?

“White” itself is a contrived label, as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau. Mexican, Mexican American, Hispanic, Latino, etc. have generally been thought of as ethnic labels, but when filling out a Census form, many of us have been forced to classify ourselves as white, (Although they are now experimenting with a different way to categorize us.) Yes, there are Black and Asian Latinos (we’ll stick with that term for now) as well. Yet, for those of us who have been classified as white, it’s kind of confusing because now we’re technically in the same category as people from Anglo origin.

So I’m a white Latina. Do I have more in common with someone who is black from the Dominican Republic or someone who is white whose great-grandparents emigrated from England, Sweden, or Germany? Yes, it’s very confusing.

But I digress.

The point is, the white families I saw on television were not light-skinned Latinos. They were the Arnolds (Wonder Years), the Keatons (Family Ties), the Seavers (Growing Pains), the Powells (Charles in Charge), the Lawsons (Small Wonder), the Strattons (Silver Spoons), the Owens (Mr. Belvedere), and the list goes on. Sure, you had the Cosby Show, a complete anomaly, and then there’s Different Strokes and Webster, with black children adopted by white families.

But there was nothing on television or film that showed me that the rest of America, outside of South El Monte, California, had professionally successful, artistically creative, or powerful and wealthy Latinos. Yeah, I had a stable, loving, and encouraging family, and I went on to college and eventually to get my MFA in Creative Writing. I own a home (technically paying the mortgage for another 20 years or so), and I have a well-paying job with the City of Austin.

If you’re Latino and you’re reading this, chances are, your experiences might be similar to mine. But I know there are some of you out there who did not even have the comfort and safety of growing up in a city like South El Monte. Not only did you not see yourselves in the media, but you also didn’t see yourselves in your neighbors or classmates. And some of you were ridiculed and called racist things. I am grateful that I did not have to endure those things.

But if you’re white (in the Anglo sense), and you’re reading this, chances are very few of you grew up as a true minority in your school or hometown. And there was never a time that you were watching television, at least in the United States, and wondered why nobody on television looked like you or spoke your language. Imagine for a minute what that would feel like.

And for someone like me, who is relatively successful in the sense that I’m living comfortably, I wonder how much more successful I would have been if my culture – my ethnicity – had not been left out of the popular media. How much I was subtly oppressed as a child, constantly reminded that my people did not visibly exist in roles of power and success, except for places like South El Monte?

5 Replies to “Growing Up Mexican in America: What TV Taught Me”

  1. Alexandra, I grew up in San Antonio where there were many successful Mexican Americans. In fact, I never really felt like a minority. My father was an accountant but had worked for Kelly Air Force Base and my mother was an artist. Even though my home was pretty tiny (3 bedrooms/1bath), I never really felt like I was less than anyone else.

    I ended up graduating from Incarnate Word High School and went to school with some kids that were from some of the wealthiest families and guess what, they were Mexican American. Although, I didn’t have the latest Gucci purse and a brand new Mercedes, I had some of the coolest friends -all from the south side of San Antonio.

    It wasn’t until I moved to Austin, TX when I really felt like a minority and realized people tried to put me in a box. However, I didn’t really fit the mold. Although, my mother was born from interior Mexico and my dad was from the “Valley”, I didn’t have really have an accent. I could talk about pop culture and give you a history of all the coolest british rock bands from the 60 and 70’s. I realized as I sat in a room with 300 students at UT in Austin that I was one of the few Mexican chicks in the room. 🙂 That’s when I thought, wow, this is kind of weird. Also, when I was on a shuttle bus going to the university, I noticed I was in one of the seats that had an empty spot. No one sat by me until there was no where else to sit. A brave soul finally chose to sit next to the little Mexican freshman girl. That was sobering. I remember thinking, “this is what it’s like to feel like to be a minority.”

    Luckily for me, I had great parents that basically said I could do whatever I wanted-the sky was the limit. I may not be a doctor but I have a pretty darn good life. Not bad for a little Mexican girl from the southeast side of San Antonio.

  2. Cultural acceptance can be hard for someone who is of a different cultural background compared to that of the community he or she is growing in. Your hardship and confusion is understandable as the media can put such a great influence on impressionable youths such as yourself. The question on how far you can become successful if you had the same culture as those around you will remain unanswered, but one must move on and create her own destiny while embracing her heritage. Good luck to you and hope you will find the answer you are looking for.

  3. I actually grew up in Austin, in fact, I never quite fit in the anglo American society. Both my parents are from mainland mexico, from “el rancho” actually. Neither both my parents attended high school because of what ever situations or misfortunes they endured while growing up on the hill-countryside. While growing up in Austin I attended mostly hispanic-black majority schools, the only white kids i saw or had contact with were those few socially awkward ones in my school who got picked on. The mexican kids i grew up with, whose parents shared a similar background as mine, could really be mean and careless. I switched to a more diverse school in 10th grade where for the first time I mingled among an American culture I only saw on television. My English bettered those three following years of high school and so did my perspective on where I stood in society. At the time I think I was trying really hard to be “white” but I was also really frustrated and dissatisfied with my identity. People all my life had told me I was a Mexican kid yet I did not feel mexican. At home the family told me I was chicano, but I had truly chicano friends from el paso and the valley and I knew I wasn’t like them either, my spanish and accent was way too rooted in my parent’s central Mexico’s ranch culture. An American was who I was trying to feel like but that too was not me. I grew up an angry teenager and it wasn’t untill after I graduated and went into the workforce instead of college that I figured who I am. While working construction jobs that my dad and uncle’s put me up too, I learned unconsciously to love ranchera music or norte?as while listening to the radio and working at the same time. I always hated at first working construction and hated my mean ass work mates too, but every time I left one work site and went to the next I brought along with me all the shitt from the last site, all the bad words, the habbits, the values of good men whom in the only ways they knew were just teaching a young kid like i was to be a man. I don’t work construction anymore, I am 22 and find myself still quite confused but I now know who I am; I am my dad’s son, my uncle’s nephew, I am what long hours under the sun digging up boulders in DelValley, Tx left out there in the fields. I am that radio station that relives my anxiety and frustration out in the fields by playing my parent’s music. I am the affection and love which my mom used to pack up my quesadillas of only beans and cheese for lunch because we had ran out of protein for the week until my next paycheck. I now live traveling across the country with only a couple of clothes, my savings and my “alma bohemia”, sometimes a guitar accompanies me. I don’t know what will be of me by my mid or late 20s, Mexico has been on my mind for years now, I think that will be the next move. Although I now feel very mexican every where I go, I still don’t know if I will be quite fully accepted once in Mexico, for as hard as I try to feel mexicano, I still am at the end of the day an American citizen who’s never lived anywhere but the states.

  4. This was interesting to read. I relate in the sense that i grow up in Dallas , Texas. Southeast section where mostly hispanics, blacks reside very few whites. I never felt like a minority. However i was questioned about my skin tone during middle school in which majority of students where brown. And, i am light skin with freckles, dark curly hair. I was asked if i was white. That encounter in middle school lead me to research on my own the history of Latin America. I now understand that most hispanic are multiracial, a mixture of races, culture’s a rainbow. I am first generation college student , latina , American , a world citizen =D

    1. Mauve,

      Thank you for reading my blog. As a light-skinned Latina, I completely empathize. People have asked me if I was Italian or Greek. (A few have even asked if I was Filipina.) Others would say I “looked” or “acted” white. At any rate, in the end, I can only be myself. Labels are just words. I do like the idea of being a “world citizen.” Best wishes in your journeys ahead!

      Happy trails,

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