Fair skin, freckles, brown hair, brown eyes. Some people are shocked to find out I am Hispanic, while others approach me in Spanish as a total stranger. Half Chilean, half “white.” But my grandma would argue as Chileans we are white, since most of our ancestors came from Spain and other parts of Europe. What a complex conversation the world is having about race, ethnicity, Latine versus Hispanic, etc. But I am here for it. Before National Hispanic Heritage month ended, I wanted to share my cultural identity and how I have struggled with it for most of my life, constantly seeking validation that I am Latina enough, worthy to claim my heritage, as I know many struggle with these feelings as well.
On my dad’s side, I am 13th or 14th generation American with roots all over Europe as you trace our family tree. Ancestors that came over on the Mayflower and fought in the Revolution. While that ancestry is a part of me, I grew up somewhat estranged from my dad’s side of the family and consistently surrounded by my mom’s. So, I grew up listening to my mom and grandma speak Spanish and looking forward to eating empanadas and sopaipillas. But this experience and sense of identity was, and in some ways continues to be, a very limited and lonely experience, given that I have never been to Chile myself, and can count on one hand the number of Chilean people I have met in my life outside of relatives.
Whenever it was time to do a project or some sort of school assignment that required me to share my heritage in elementary, I was often met with statements like “where is Chile” and “you mean you are from a pepper?” And I always felt a pang of embarrassment and loneliness in my sensitive little heart. By middle school, kids were familiar with Mexican food and culture in my mostly white suburban town, so they expected me to share similar things whenever the occasion rose for heritage assignments, and had little to say aside from pointing out the obvious that they were not. More shame, alienation, and defensiveness. There seemed to be no point in running around bragging about my Chilean roots, given how I had been received my whole childhood, so it became a silent part of my identity that only proved to be useful in Spanish class. I was the only one who was able to pronounce certain letters correctly and had the best accent in class. But at home, my grandparents couldn’t understand me through my thick gringa accent and the vocabulary I was being taught was different than what they use in their daily life. Though it hurt my heart that my attempts to learn their language wasn’t going to result in me being able to consistently speak Spanish with my grandparents, I still took that praise and interest from my middle school and high school Spanish teachers and ran with it.
In my Spanish classes, my teachers were always pleasantly surprised to learn that my mother was born in Chile, and consistently impressed with my command of the language compared to my peers. Spanish came pretty naturally to me. I loved the language and decided I wanted to pursue a degree in it to increase my fluency and maybe someday make a career out of translating or something. When I discovered my desire to work with kids, I shifted gears ever so slightly, deciding to instead major in Social Work, but still get a minor in Spanish since that would be an easy little add on for resumes and to keep me in practice of the language. I had no idea what San Diego State University (SDSU) had in store for me.
The first two girls I met at SDSU were Latina. My roommate was half Puerto Rican and half white, and another friend was the daughter of two Nicaraguan political refugees. My roommate didn’t speak Spanish, and my friend’s first language was Spanish. I was right in the middle of that spectrum, not fully relating to either girl. My Spanish classes for my minor were absolutely humbling. I had classmates who were literally commuting from Tijuana and they spoke so fast and with so much slang it literally sounded like another language. Every opportunity I had during my time in San Diego, I told people I was bilingual, as after all, I scored a 5 on the AP test in high school, and was minoring in Spanish. My fragile Hispanic identity rooted in my command of the Spanish language and being the token Latina wherever I went began to crumble. Clearly, I did not speak Spanish fluently as the families I served during my internship in San Ysidro and I struggled to communicate. The self-doubt and imposter syndrome started to settle in, and was fueled by my less than desirable grades in my last two classes for my minor; my continued experience of being mislabeled as Mexican or Central American and subsequent reactions of confusion, apathy and disinterest when I clarified that I was actually Chilean; and still no Chilean community in sight. A Peruvian coworker and a few other supportive Spanish speaking friends encouraged me to keep at it and helped me along the way, validating my Latinidad. But my ownership of my Chilean identity would ebb and wane like this over the next several years.
I started experimenting with different ways to verbally acknowledge the fact that I wasn’t fully white. “My mom was born in South America,” “I’m Hispanic,” or “I’m Latina.” Not fully sure if I was qualified to own the last two since I didn’t speak Spanish fluently and didn’t relate to the Mexican culture that, for quite some time, seemed to represent what it meant to be either. I went back to the Bay Area shortly after graduating and eventually landed myself a job where I was once again the token Latina and was assigned to every Spanish speaking case. It was my first mental health job, and supporting families with such sensitive issues and translating therapy started to boost my confidence again. For the first time in my life, when people asked me where I was from or why I spoke the way I did, a gringa but with a flare of some sort of native accent, I was greeted with familiarity and appreciation. “Ah, eres Chilena, muy bien. Pues, gracias Elizabet, nos vemos.” It seemed to no longer matter that I didn’t grow up eating pozole or tamales, or that I didn’t know what guey meant. I knew enough, was willing to learn, and was there to connect.
Finally, in grad school, I started learning about the identity problems that arise for first generation immigrants, and everything started to click. My grandpa had always wanted to come to America, and when my mom was two, he finally got the opportunity. Neither he, nor my grandma spoke English, and over the years they had many painful experiences of racism and discrimination due to their accents and the dark color of my grandpa’s skin. Despite this, they made a life here and assimilated. The plan was only to stay for five to ten years, but the two times they went back, Chile was in turmoil and in a state of violence, thanks to Pinochet and Allende. My grandparents enjoyed such success in America, that they were overqualified and struggled to find work in Chile. That coupled with the political climate, brought them back to America for good. My mom was heartbroken. She had felt more at home in Chile upon their return even though she was labeled la gringa, and was in her fragile high school years. She was the last one to give up her Chilean citizenship and become an American; I was five when she finally did and remember that day vividly, even though I had no idea what it meant. It was no wonder I didn’t feel rooted in my heritage with grandparents, who’s relationship with their home country ended with pain and disappointment, and a mom who didn’t feel like she quite belonged in either place.
With a fresh perspective on my identity and a new degree, I packed my bags and headed south once again, landing a bilingual job in Long Beach. Finally, it wasn’t just the families I served, but also my peers who celebrated my Chilean identity and encouraged me to keep speaking, even though I sounded and looked different. They were happy to share their Mexican culture and for the first time it felt relatable instead of alienating. Maybe our empanadas are different, but being a mental health professional made me realize we all have similar family values and even similarities in traditional dress, dance, and music. Six months later I met my now husband who is half Mexican and also has family roots that go back to Spain like mine. His Spanish matched mine in terms of fluency, and despite being only half Mexican, he proudly claims it, and encouraged me to do the same with my Chilean identity. Over the past several years there also has been much discussion in the media about the visibility of all Latine populations in America, not just Mexicans. Simultaneously, no sabo kids have been reclaiming their Latine identities despite their inability to speak Spanish, destroying the construct that fluency in Spanish is a metric that can define how Latine somebody is. So with pride, I embrace que soy Chilena, and can’t wait to share with my son what it means to be of Chilean and Mexican descent, as both are beautiful, rich cultures.