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Catholic school I attended from first through eighth grade didn’t have a music or art program, and our textbooks were outdated and falling apart.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?