What does it mean to be Latino?

I recently posted a picture on social media and it has sparked something of an existential crisis in me. What started it was a video that my mom shared on Facebook that touched me in a way nothing has in a long time. Watching it almost makes me want to cry and I’m trying to figure out why.

I’ll post in in here so you can watch but unfortunately there’s no subtitles which is a shame. It’s basically a little indigenous girl narrating her town’s food customs. Her Spanish is actually a little different sounding because it’s actually her second language. I’m guessing Nahuatl is her native tongue.


I do want to clarify that my reaction to this video is actually positive albeit confused. Watching it, particularly the part where it briefly shows some women de-graining corn, is what brought back a flash of nostalgia and childhood memories. More than anything it just got me thinking, so existential crisis is a little dramatic.

I’ve always been conflicted about my cultural identity, at least when I was growing up. My parents both come from extremely humble beginnings and they have always instilled a sense of this in me and they have always reminded my sister and I about where we came from.

One of my uncles was a schoolteacher in Mexico so my mom hired him to teach me and my sister Spanish when we were little. I’m talking proper Spanish, the way someone in Mexico would learn it. We went in depth about grammar rules, reading, writing, accents, and pronunciation. I can say that he singlehandedly is responsible for my level of Spanish fluency. When you are a native Spanish speaker with this level of “training” it’s easy to discern from people who just grew up listening to Spanish who are able to read it vs someone who grew up in Mexico, for example. I’m definitely not at the same level as someone who went to school in Mexico for their entire life, but I’m pretty damn close and I did take a couple of college level marketing courses in Spanish at a top private university in Morelos for a semester (toot toot!).

While on one hand I was raised with Mexican values, on the other hand I wanted nothing to do with it for a very long time. I would refuse to speak Spanish at home (unless it was to a relative that couldn’t speak English), I didn’t associate with any Mexicans at my school (which to be fair were pretty much non-existent until I was in high school), and I just didn’t really care about that aspect of my identity. The main reason for this was because I grew up in a very white town (at the time; now it’s quite diverse), I attended a hippy school for most of elementary (of which I have zero regrets), and all my friends growing up were white. I fit in with them and the rest of my peers so I didn’t want to rock the boat, so to speak.

There were instances when I was the token brown girl of course. This included novelty food I brought to school for lunch or everyone suddenly treating me like their best friend when it came time for Spanish class. I didn’t like this kind of attention. While it wasn’t negative and I’m sure was well-intentioned, it made me feel separate; I was the “other”.

I also felt very self-conscious about how I sounded when I spoke Spanish. The downside to learning “proper” Spanish and not really growing up with friends who spoke it meant that I didn’t know how to speak in slang or even understand what people were meaning half the time. To me, Spanish slang is comparable to ebonics in a way. The sayings that people have and the words they say not only vary from region to region, but also country to country. This is why being Latino is so different than any other culture. So for example, I have to know when to use “chido” (south Mexico slang) vs when to say “chukis” (north Mexico slang). Beyond that, different countries speak Spanish completely differently and I don’t even know where to begin with those. Because of all the variations, I struggled a lot (and still do sometimes) with fitting into typical Mexican culture.

One of the best ways I can sum up this conflicting feeling is with the following exchange from Selena:

Abraham:  They don’t accept us over there. They never have.
Selena:  Hello, we’re Mexican.
Abraham:  No, we are Mexican-American, and they don’t like Mexican-Americans. And they can be mean. And they can tear us apart over there. And Selena’s Spanish is …
Selena:  What about my Spanish? I’ve been singing in Spanish for 10 years. It’s perfect.
Abraham:  Singing, yes. But when you speak it, you speak it a little funny. And down there you gotta speak perfectly or the press will eat you up and spit you out alive. I’ve seen them do it.
Selena:  Overreacting as usual.
A.B.:  Dad, the music will speak for itself, Dad.
Abraham:  Listen, being Mexican-American is tough. Anglos jump all over you if you don’t speak English perfectly. Mexicans jump all over you if you don’t speak Spanish perfectly. We gotta be twice as perfect as anybody else.
A.B.:  [Laughs]
Abraham:  Why’re you laughing? What’s so funny?
Selena:  Nothing.
A.B.:  Nothing.
Abraham:  I’m serious.
A.B.:  I know you’re serious, Dad.
Abraham:  Our family has been here for centuries. And yet they treat us as if we just swam across the Rio Grande. I mean, we gotta know about John Wayne and Pedro Infante. We gotta know about Frank Sinatra and Agustín Lara. We gotta know about Oprah and Cristina. Anglo food is too bland. And yet when we go to Mexico, we get the runs. Now that, to me, is embarrassing.
Selena:  Oh, Dad!
Abraham:  Japanese-Americans, Italian-Americans, German-Americans, their homeland is on the other side of the ocean. Ours … is right next door. Right over there. 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.

When I watched this movie for the very first time, this scene blew my mind because up until that moment I had never been able to express the identity conflict I had felt my entire life. My turning point was in high school when there were actually more than two Mexicans at my school. I started mingling more and I started feeling more comfortable speaking in Spanish and even in slang. A few summer trips to Mexico and then my semester abroad a few years later sealed the deal for me and I have fully embraced my culture ever since.

So, back to the video. It made me nostalgic in a few different ways. It reminded me of childhood memories, of how much time it’s been since I’ve seen my grandma, and it also reminded me of a way of life that my family grew up with but that will never be fully engrained in me. Any time I try to cook typical Mexican food, I almost always have to call my mom for her to remind me what the steps are or what specific ingredients I need. I also felt a little sadness watching it because it reminded me of how my parents grew up. My dad only made it to about 2nd grade and grew up for most of his life on a remote mountain with no electricity. My mom was able to complete high school doing night courses and didn’t finish until her early twenties, but that was the extent of her education. She started working since she was 12 and hasn’t stopped since. One of my grandma’s is not literate at all because she didn’t even get the luxury of any education. Another reason why the video made me feel confused is because I honestly don’t even know where I’m going with this post. Thoughts are just kind of tumbling out of me and my real brilliance came while I was in the shower having an internal monologue but by the time I got out of the shower I had already forgotten most of my points lol.

While my instagram post details how my grandma made her tortillas, what I didn’t mention was how the corn that was used to make them was actually planted and harvested by my family on their land. Not store bought. This is really what I mean when I refer to tortillas made from scratch. It astounds me that I never really gave this process much thought, especially because tortillas are such a simple food, or at least it seems that way.

For me, these traditions are what it means to be Latino. Not necessarily how well you speak the language and certainly not by which country your from. To me it’s about embracing the values and the traditions of your family’s past. It does scare me to think about what will happen when my grandmother’s are no longer around (I grew up without grandfathers). I know my mom and my aunts carry the knowledge but beyond that it’s up to me to document these things somehow so that I can pass that on to my kids. If you don’t know where you came from and the traditions that entails, how can you know who you really are?

On a final random note, I want to point out something I noticed about Latino songs vs American songs and it most definitely has to do with culture. Although there are tons of Latin countries and they all have their separate subcultures and a lot even have their own languages and dialects, we all consider ourselves “one” for the most part. When you hear songs in Spanish, you’ll often notice that the term “mi gente” is used. This translates to “my people” and that kind of unity is not something I see or regularly feel in my American cultural identity. I think being Latino more than anything means community, and this video just touched on that nerve and sparked this entire post because it’s evident what a tight knit culture we have and I am proud to be part of it.

This entry was posted in travel.

Leave a Reply