Not From Here, Not From There: Examining a Culture Without Borders

“Too gringo for Latin-America, too brown for America.” This is the definition of what it means to be Mexican-America, which sometimes means feeling displaced.

Photo by Saul Venegas

Growing Up on the Border

I grew up on the border of San Diego and Tijuana—known as the fourth largest bi-national metropolis in the world. I was fortunate enough to be raised in a community where being Latino was the norm. Crossing the border was seen as an inconvenience, but not taboo. Where I am from, the shuffling of people from one side to the other is a normal way of life; its movement is a part of a unified, large and complex organism. People commute every day from both sides to go to school, work, or visit family and friends. I did not understand that some Americans found this strange until I moved to a different city in the United States—San Francisco. Although the city is not that far away, people here find it shocking to cross the border that frequently.

Latinos exist all over the United States, in every big city, and in every state. The difference between these communities and the one I grew up in is quite alarming to me. I grew up in a large Mexican-American and immigrant community that acknowledged that it was okay to be Latino, partially because there were not as many white people close to the border. But in smaller communities of Latinos in other parts of the country—like most colored people in America— they are regularly reminded that they are not always welcome as immigrants.

In San Francisco, I have seen the effects that gentrification has left on communities within the city, and how these people of color have been displaced. There is incredible diversity, but there exists a gaping cultural divide between the Latino and white community that remains this way even with first and second generation Latinos.

 

Photo by Cristian Newman

On Being Mexican-American

As a Latina living in the United States, one of the most impactful scenes I saw while growing up was from the movie Selena, where the fictional Abraham Quintanilla explains to a young Selena and her brother what it means to be Mexican-American:

“And we gotta prove to the Mexicans how Mexican we are, and we gotta prove to the Americans how American we are, we gotta be more Mexican than the Mexicans and more American than the Americans, both at the same time. It’s exhausting. Damn. Nobody knows how tough it is to be a Mexican American.”

Perhaps it is a sentiment you feel as well. The farther away I went from the Mexican-American border, the more I felt this. Growing up to Latino immigrants, I have often identified with both cultures instead of just choosing one. I am my parents’ first generation child living in the United States, having a strong social and cultural attachment to my roots in Mexico. Out of the three of my parents’ children, I am seen as the most integrated with my Mexican culture, having the ability to speak and write fluently in both English and Spanish, maintaining closer ties to my cousins and family in central Mexico, and gaining the confidence to travel independently within that country as if it were the one I was born in. I attribute this to the amount of time that I spent abroad throughout my childhood with my extended family in Mexico. Forming my identity was based in integrating myself into my parents’ native culture. In contrast, my sisters have proudly leaned more towards American ideas and customs.

Nonetheless, I still hold strong American traditions and values. And when I am in Mexico, I am reminded of the ways that I am failing as a “Mexican.” I am not always up-to-date with all of the Spanish expressions and regionalisms that my family knows, I am not as informed in the politics and culture of the country, and my ties to the country are not as fiercely rooted because I live in the United States. What that really means in the eyes of my Mexican counterparts is that I am not as “Mexican” as them; I am too American.

I notice this the most when with my cousins. Over the years they have painted a thin layer of resentment on their image of me in their minds. My cousins never let me forget that I did not live with them, instead that I lived on “the other side”. Vives en el “otro lado’”, they say with a smirk. Then we all brush it off and laugh. I smile, while trying my best to ignore the mild passive aggression. It still bothers me that I do not have an explanation. Is it envy, or the association that they have of America and the North, that they categorize me as a lesser version of who they are?

 

Photo by Cristian Newman

What Kind of Brown Am I?

When I am in the United States, I remain ethnically ambiguous—a safe place for a brown person—until I start speaking Spanish. I am the “model minority” of Latinas. Latina enough to where I am still fetishized by my American male counterparts, but not enough to where I am seen as a legitimate “threat” to the white community. The color of my olive skin-tone does not offend them, but my culture does.

“What kind of Mexican are you?” This is the question I am asked by white people when they are surprised that I speak Spanish. There is a world that exists to the south of the United States that is not just a land ridden with poverty, pain, and violence, the way that the American media portrays it as. There is a thriving civilization enriched with incredible diversity and life that does not just cater to the vacation needs of America. Mexico’s history is layered with the influences of powerful indigenous civilizations mixed with European rule, resulting in a blend that reflects these two worlds in its art, language, and people. The stereotypes perpetuated by the American media about Mexico and its people places a heavy weight on immigrants and their children by labeling them as one generic brand. It is time to start understanding that the country is a distinct place filled with different customs, colors, and identities.

Should I resign from being Latina? No. My identity is not based on someone’s misperception or ignorance of my culture and my upbringing. However, it is frustrating. We face very real threats to our community. Stereotypes are dangers that threaten the Latino community in the United States that help fuel some of the aggression that is directed towards them. They are a danger in Mexico too, because they create resentful attitudes in Mexicans towards Americans when their ignorance prevails.

 

Photo by Jezael Melgoza

 

A Culture Without Borders

This past June I went to Mexico City—one of the largest cities in Latin America; it has up to 25 million residents. Through some connections that I had there, I met several interesting people, including Leo, a gay man in his late twenties originally from Guadalajara, Jalisco. In the middle of a bar in La Roma, in-between sipping mezcal and snacking on chapulines, we spoke about the tensions between the United States and Mexico and about Latinos who live in each country. It was the first time while having a conversation like this, that a Mexican told me he views California, its culture, and its people, as an extension of Mexico. It was the first time I had heard a Mexican acknowledge that Mexicans living in “el otro lado” were just as good enough as the Mexicans that lived in Mexico.

Granted, it is still a stretch to assume that the cultural shift has changed this drastically among all Mexican people’s attitudes towards the North. The tensions that exist between both nations result from a complicated history filled with bitter feelings that may always remain strained. Many Mexican-Americans feel displaced, because it is difficult for them to identify with either country. Mexican-Americans face challenges because people’s expectations from both countries are equally demanding. I grew up integrated in and with the knowledge of two worlds. Being Mexican-American is its own identity that prides itself in the acceptance of two different influences resulting in two sets of cultural upbringings, values, traditions, and languages. It knows no border, and it represents a balance between two equally great countries. I accept the dualism of my identity, because being Mexican-American is truly rewarding.

 

By: Nadia Lopez