Reading Between the Hyphen

More than 20 years ago, the movie “Selena” was released, a biographical drama of music superstar Selena Quintanilla. The movie depicts the life and death of the Mexican-American singer who died a tragic death at 23, at the height of her career. Beloved by the Latinx community, her legacy lives on and the impact of her immense success continues to linger in Latin and American pop culture. 

Revisiting the movie was a treat, but what I particularly noticed this time around, was a scene in which Selena (played by Jennifer Lopez) is in a car with her father and brother. Selena wishes to perform in Mexico, but her father denies her request, explaining that because she is Mexican-American and not fluent in Spanish, she would be a laughing stock and not be treated seriously. 

While she continues to protest, her father delivers a hard, but deeply thoughtful truth, “Listen, being Mexican-American is tough. Angelos jump all over you if you don’t speak English perfectly. Mexicans jump all over you if you don’t speak Spanish perfectly….I mean we gotta know about John Wayne and Pedro Infante. We gotta know about Frank Sinatra and Agustin Lara…. We gotta prove to the Americans how American we are. And we gotta prove to the Mexicans how Mexican we are.” 

That sense of not belonging to anything, is what I like to call a constant sense of rejection. You’re right down the middle of two identities, and when people ask you who or “what” you are, do you create the hyphen for yourself or do you simply state where your family is from? 

 I’ll admit I’ve been silent and complacent to most people’s idea or conceptions of my own identity. Growing up in a Mexican household and being in predominantly white spaces like Catholic schools and the Town of New Paltz in general, most people choose your identity for you. Sometimes you need to present different versions of yourself to be accepted, for the perception of foreign or different not be associated with your overall identity.

With others in the Latinx community, the Spanish, the heritage, the barrier between who you are and how you present yourself is diminished you know that they know where you’re coming from. 

Some however, whether Latinx or not, like to use the term whitewashed if you’re not fulfilling their perception of your racial or ethnic identity. It’s a word sometimes used to describe me, and I’m guilty of using the word as well. 

“It’s a derogatory way of telling minority groups they’ve forgotten about their roots in order to assimilate to western culture,” said writer Elizabeth Alvarado.

“It’s ironic. As Latinos we’re constantly faced with the pressure to assimilate in order to fit in,” Alvarado said. “But somehow we’re also supposed to ‘stay true to our culture.’ It’s a game we’re destined to lose no matter what we do.” 

The term essentially denies someone’s Latin heritage; it says you’re not performing your heritage the way it should be portrayed. 

Just because I’m not always comfortable speaking Spanish, that doesn’t make me any less Mexican. Listening to old white dad music like The Eagles or Tom Petty also doesn’t make me less Mexican. Advocating for the abolition of ICE or a better handling of immigration doesn’t make me any less American. 

You can’t undermine someone’s identity because it doesn’t hold up to your standards of how it should be performed. There are not set guidelines for what makes someone Latinx or not. We all have different experiences, and so identifying as Latinx always means something different.

Figuring out who you are and where you belong, is something everyone can relate to. An identity crisis knows no race, gender or heritage. It’s something we all have to confront, examine and determine at different points of our lives because we’re constantly evolving. So provide that space to POC, let them discover who they are instead of determining it for them yourself.