An anonymous Minnesotan of Hispanic heritage speaks about her personal experience as an immigrant growing up in a majority white environment.
Growing up, people couldn’t pronounce my name correctly and I would say, “Oh, that’s fine,” but now that I’m older, I stand up for my heritage and the proper pronunciation of my name. I stand up for my identity and what it means to be a Hispanic or Latina here in Minnesota.
My parents are of Hispanic descent. They are from Mexico and are immigrants. Growing up in Minnesota, having to understand their lives and their struggles of being in this country that doesn’t feel as yours when you are trying to make a living, helping your children get an education, sometimes feels like two different worlds. Nevertheless, that’s why they moved away from Mexico where they didn’t see much opportunity for me and my sister. My dad was offered a job, and so with that, he felt he would make it here. His job was as a carpenter. My uncle had already been living in the U.S. and was aware of how the system worked.
What was it like coming from Mexico to America in the 90s? What was that like for your family? How is their living experience now?
So the plan was for myself and my siblings to get an education, but my parents weren’t sure how to make that work. After they came, things became more difficult for the citizenship process. In the 80s it was easier to become a citizen because of the legislation. Legislation changed in the 90s. Knowing the English language well and passing the citizenship test became an increased priority. The process became even harder and more stringent after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. So talking now to my parents asking them, “Why didn’t you try to start the citizenship process right away?”—they make it seem—and I don’t completely understand yet—complex. It takes many years.
You come in and get temporary citizenship, but that doesn’t last as long as the actual citizenship process. Is that kind of how it is?
Even I don’t completely understand it. I’d have to ask my family. When I was little I couldn’t really pay attention to that. I was too young to see it. Now growing up, through high school, college, and as a working professional, I understand more of the issues experienced by immigrants and more of the racism, prejudice, and biases behind all of the processes. It all encourages me and makes me stronger. My goal is to go to graduate school. In the back of my mind, though, I am always thinking about the future of my family. I want to spend as much time with my family as possible. Some of us weren’t able to say goodbye to our parents and grandparents when they passed because of them being in Mexico and us being over here. That just kills me emotionally. A lot of us know once they come over hardships surround us.
I think it’s important for people to hear your story. It’s one thing to read this but another to actually speak with someone who’s gone through the issues. What makes it difficult to open up about this topic?
The trust and how they’ll see you. The thoughts of who they tell, if they tell. Stigmas. Right now, knowing the Diversity Council and what you all do. I feel very comfortable talking with you about this.
Sorry if this is an ignorant question. I’m just trying to understand. How do you stay connected with your family and friends from Mexico?
It’s fine. You’re fine. You just want to learn. Without this dialogue or communication, how could you or anyone know what it is like? We stay connected to our families through phone and Skype. We had two uncles and one aunt visit once. It hurts that I never really knew my grandparents. I met them when I was a baby but I can’t remember those interactions. When people complain they don’t even want to see their own grandparents saying, “Ugh, I have to see my grandma,” I can’t help but think to myself how lucky they are that they get to even see them, to hold their grandmother’s hand. It just hurts. Grandparents are very different to your parents. They give you a different form of love. It’s painful but I do believe and have faith that I will see them again in another life. My mom and dad have families full of brothers and sisters. We haven’t been able to meet yet, but I do have faith that we will.
So what ended up bringing your family to the Midwest?
Education and employment opportunities. My parents saw that the education was better up here than back where we were. They wanted us to be in a good school system with great teachers, as well as give my sister and I the opportunity to become professionals. That’s what they believed.
What was it like to grow up in a majority white city and school district?
It’s interesting that I think people can see that I am a minority more than they can see my sister that way, because she is much whiter and I am much tanner. So growing up there was a lot of scenarios where I would get asked “Where are you from?” And I’ve been asked “What are you?” And that’s interesting getting those questions.
What do you think of those questions?
I’m literally thinking “Okay, you’re curious about me; okay, I guess I’ll answer to that.” And then I respond, “I am Mexican. I’m of Mexican descent. I’m Hispanic.” And then they just go “Oh! Ok,” like, “Now I see it!” And then sometimes I either get, “Are you something more?” I don’t know if it’s because people see Mexicans as dark-skinned people with dark hair, and I know I don’t fit that completely. People are just, I don’t think ignorant is the word, but they don’t know that Mexico also has the blonde-haired, the blue-eyed, the redheads.
“Mexican” is not one thing.
No it is not. They would really have to travel around and see that there are white people there. I guess the majority does have darker tan skin, but that’s not all we are. I’ve been asked, “Are you Native American?” “Are you Hawaiian?” People have literally asked me these things, because I guess people don’t fully see me for what I am. It’s interesting that they need to know, like they need to know.
It’s one of the first things they ask you, right? I guess somewhere deep down in the human experience we decided that that is pertinent information for how the rest of our relationship goes. It’s like a qualifier.
How do those questions make you feel?
When I was younger, they made me feel uncomfortable, and I was like, “Why do you need to know?” Now I think to myself and know that I am a proud Hispanic. I am happy now to say that I am Mexican. But years ago I wasn’t so much. Mexico and Mexican have bad connotations. And people see all these dark-skinned people and say, that’s Mexican, but that’s not all we are. There’s such a lack of education. I just think people need to get educated.
I grew up in a predominantly white community. We’d visit friends in larger places like the Twin Cities, and my sister and I would be like, “Why didn’t we grow up here?!” Growing up with predominantly white people – most of my friends were white—I think one out of my ten closest friends were understanding of people from other cultures. I’ll say that. I really will. Just comments. Belittling comments about where I’m from. Most of the time I would just laugh it off. I just hate that I didn’t stand up for myself as much as I could have back then. You don’t want a bad reaction back. So when I was in college I had that first experience of being around many more people from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Even then, though, I would have friends come up and visit me from California, and they’d say, “This isn’t diverse”.
California is just on another level.
Yeah! It’s different for each person. Even when I was at college, I would hear my friends and others saying how uncomfortable they were when interacting with different individuals. College wasn’t their little white community, and they had to deal with black people, Hispanic people, people from Somalia, people from Jamaica, all of these different countries. I think fear comes from a lack of understanding. It’s the unknown.
So what about the switch from “Latino” to “Latinx”, what do you think of that? I remember when I first saw it, I didn’t really get it but I accepted the change because I’m outside of the group. I understand that I don’t get a say in the change. But do you think? Should it be “Latino” or “Latinx”?
Don’t laugh but I’ve actually never seen “Latinx”!
Oh wow. I’ll show you. *googles “Latinx”* It’s pretty much the more inclusive form of Latino and Latina, because some people might be offended if they don’t identify as either masculine or feminine. It has a lot to do with the gendering of the language and breaking that down in order to be more representative and accepting of all people.
I’d honestly never heard of that! I can understand though. It is a very gendered language. I see why that would come up, especially with most millennials now. I think they see things differently and are making so many changes. There’s so much work that needs to be done.
Our interviewee elected to remain anonymous for safety reasons and for reasons that I understand and will honor. I know that I’ve also been in situations where I elected to remain anonymous when speaking the truth for fear of backlash. Have you noticed this in your world and culture? In what ways do we as a country suppress the truth, and who benefits from the suppression of truth? Is there a way we can shift our interactions with one another so that they feel, and are indeed, safe. What can we do to make it easier for others to share their true stories without fear? This is the challenge this month. Reflect on how you can not only make others feel safe but ensure their safety. The Diversity Council has many resources and trainings dedicated to fostering safe and welcoming environments. Know that we are always here to support you in your journeys towards inclusion, equity, and unity. I am very thankful for this interview and our brave and gracious interviewee. Thank you.