Growing up without a father left me confused about my identity at a young age. There was an entire line of genetics within me that I had absolutely no idea about. I secretly hoped I was like Princess Mia of The Princess Diaries series, and would learn my long lost father was a great prince of a European country, and left me a great inheritance. Of course that would be far, far from the truth.
I knew the majority of family I’d known about, had lineage descending from Mexico, and this was the culture I longed to embrace, but was only able to live in it when I was with grandparents. With them I would be around Spanish speakers, enjoy authentic Mexican dishes, and learn more about my family tree by pestering everyone with questions and writing down their answers in my notebook. Other than the little information I had, my immediate family did not follow any cultural traditions, and I wished we did.
When I had to take statewide exams in elementary school, it would ask students to write their names and to mark our race before we started. They were incredibly limited in options: White/Caucasian, Black/African-American, Latino/Hispanic, Pacific Islander, Other. I didn’t know what half of those meant, so I marked white because my skin is white. I was never educated about what race actually was. It was something we were just supposed to know and not talk about. In this respect, I have high hopes the conversation around race at a young age will begin and children won’t be as confused as I was.
Another aspect of elementary school I didn’t enjoy, was the infamous day when we all had to turn in our family trees. Given that an entire parent and their family was missing from my life, it became an embarrassing assignment for me. The one parent I did have information on was severely limited to only three generations. I felt like a hodge podge of the unknown. The last thing I wanted to do was share, what I considered humiliating, with my entire second grade class. I loathed the assignment and would have rather failed the class than be forced to turn in an incomplete assignment that caused me so much shame.
It wasn’t until my early 20s when I started to do my own research. I eventually learned that my biological father’s side was Mexican and Italian. I loved to learn I was even more Mexican than I had originally thought. It made me feel more validated and justified in how I chose to identify myself when I became more educated on the matter: Latina.
I was very self-conscious about identifying as Latina because I have incredibly light skin, can’t fluently speak Spanish, and I’m fourth generation. I only grew up with a hint of the culture and traditions from great grandparent. I was afraid I was going to be labeled a fraud by those who grew up with all of the things I didn’t. Then I stumbled on a quote from an interview with the late, great singer, Selena Quintanilla, that spoke of her Mexican-American heritage, that would forever change my life and confidence in how I identified:
“I feel very proud to be Mexican. I didn’t have the opportunity to learn Spanish when I was a girl, but … it’s never too late to get in touch with your roots.” -Selena Quintanilla
She was a woman after my own heart. It was as if she took the words right out of my mouth. I now know I didn’t need affirmation about how I identified, but it still felt good when I received it. I began to learn Spanish, and can read it quite well, but still struggle verbally. I even learned how to make my grandmother’s enchiladas. I know these small things don’t make me Latina of the year or anything, but it does make me proud of my roots, and I look forward to learning more about the culture in which my ancestors embraced.