LATINA BY DEFAULT: THE VERACITY OF RACIAL AMBIGUITY ALONG THE UNITED STATES MEXICO BORDER
Lorri J. Santamaría
This paper, a first person narrative, examines the uniqueness of being multicultural in the United States, being able to thrive at the intersection of several cultures in the borderlands rather than being entrenched in one or the other. A person, una morena que también es Latina,, who has transcended many identities to find a way in the world that allows for continual growth and renewal. A person who seeks her identity, not by forging ahead with whichever group is available, but by embracing the intricacies and finer points of a multitude of borderlands cultures, finding "mi hogar" alongside the Mexicans, Chicanos, mestizos, indios, negros, mojados, and other other transborder individuals.
"Living on borders and in margins, keeping intact one's shifting and multiple identity and integrity, is like trying to swim in a new element, an 'alien' element."
*Nací en España, the country responsible for raping, pillaging, and perpetually "Spansforming" Mexico and much of Latin America. All things being unequal, Mexico remains one of Spain's least favorite stepchildren. Como una morena que ha vivido en España, I know this reality all too well. The child of multiracial parents (African American, Native American [Creek], Irish, and Creole) from a rural parish in southern Louisiana, I was a physical conundrum at birth. My father, bless his soul, signed up with the U.S. Military as soon as he could, and was given orders to transplant his young family from Morgan City, Louisiana to Sevilla, España. For an entire decade I was referred to as la Morena, Negra, Morenasa, o Chocolata. I learned to embrace my identity as a Black woman in a Spanish world in order to use my unique disposition to transcend linguistic, cultural and geographic borders that threatened to separate me from the rest of the world.
Before southern Californian high school classmates discovered my linguistic identity, I moved fluidly among the Islander, African American, White, and multiethnic jocks, as well as back and forth between Latino and Asian groups of students. No one questioned my allegiance. I looked enough like everyone, was able to act like anyone, and generally got along well with most students. It was during Spanish class junior year that my native tongue was exposed to the entire student body. For two years no one knew. It never came up.
"¿Y tú, de dónde eres?", the word was out. I told my story. Even the teacher was shocked. I was indeed a native Spanish speaker, and felt more comfortable with students of color, sharing what I recognized as indigenous roots. By this magical time in my life, I had discovered the benefits of racial ambiguity.
Unfortunately, my Spanish birthplace and hybrid culture were not well accepted by the conscious Latino students in my Advanced Placement (AP) classes. Some viewed me with suspicion and mistrust. Others with disbelief claiming that I was really una Cubana or from the Dominican Republic, but definitely not Spain, which made me nothing more than una mentirosa in their eyes. I vowed to visit Mexico as soon as I could, in order to gain a better understanding of these misperceptions, Latino culture, and all things Mexican.
"Mexico is dirty. The people are poor there. You can get sick by drinking the water. It is a dangerous third world country." These stereotypes and worse couldn't keep me from Mexico. As an adult living and studying along the Mexican border in southern Arizona, I was a mere heartbeat away. I had worked diligently with the Mexican community in my dusty little town first as a banker, translating for everyone from tellers to the branch manager, and later as a bilingual elementary school teacher. The more I spoke Spanish, the less people questioned my geographic origins. Upon our first meeting most people, assumed I was from Mexico. By the time I made my first pilgrimage to the D.F. and Guanajuato, I had studied with some of the most celebrated Latino scholars in bilingual education and marched with bilingual education community members against the "English Only Movement", which threatened to do away with bilingual education programs. I had acted as advocate and surrogate mother for several Mexican children with mild to moderate disabilities, while their parents fought immigration battles. I began advanced degrees in the areas of bilingual and multicultural special education so that I could further the cause for a people with whom I aligned myself and strongly identified with. I was by then, ready to go to Mexico.