Recently, I attended the AWP conference, and during one of the shuttle rides between hotels, I caught a snippet of a conversation happening in the seats behind me. It was clear that the young lady and the young man were MFA students, and they were talking about their program and some of the sessions they went to. Somehow, the conversation switched to ethnic/racial identity. She said something about being a mix of Irish/German/English and he said:
“Yeah, um . . . my dad . . . um . . . he’s from Mexico. So, I’m . . . like . . . part Mexican.”
I could hear the guy grow smaller in his seat as he was forced to admit his biracial identity. The cloud of embarrassment hovered over him, partially raining down on my seat in front of him. Then the young lady said rather brightly:
“Really? That’s cool!”
Instantly, the cloud dissipated, the sun came out, and he quite gleeful began regaling her with stories of his dual citizenship and the two passports he had in his drawer at home. I could only think one thing after hearing this conversation.
This is not the first time I have overheard a conversation like this one. When I was in college, I was a bartender, and I will always remember one young man who was trying to flirt with a young lady on the other side of the bar. He was doing quite well–exuding loads of confidence–until the question of racial/cultural identity came up. He was forced to admit to her that he was half Puerto Rican, and I could see him shrink several feet as he did so. I was fascinated then by his reaction, and I continue to be fascinated.
In both of these young men’s cases, they easily could “pass” as white, meaning that unless they outted themselves as being half Latin, no one would have thought so. In fact, the young man sitting behind me on the bus was extremely tall with piercing blue eyes and light hair–the antithesis of what most people think of as a “Mexican American.” But for both young men, their identity was . . . troubling. I’m not going to say shameful or embarrassing because I don’t know them personally, but it is clear that there is discomfort there.
I can only imagine that they must have been privy to more than one racist or insensitive joke or comment in their life. The offending party probably thought that they were speaking to a “safe” audience who shares their views on “X” people (fill in X with Mexican, black, Asian, etc.). How awkward that must be, and how difficult it must be to be brave to stand up to ignorance and say, “Hey, that’s not funny. Don’t talk about people that way.” Maybe they haven’t gotten there. Maybe they never will. Or maybe that guy back in college proudly participates in the Puerto Rican Day Parade and is teaching Spanish to his kids. I only hope that as our country continues to become more and more multiracial, people feel comfortable to stand up confidently and say, “I’m part Mexican!”