Diagrams, Labels, and the Spaces Between

Diagrams, Labels, and the Spaces Between

    There is a Venn diagram on Wikipedia describing the differences between Latinxs and Hispanics, sorting each nation neatly into its assigned place as if a whole country of people can fit into a piece of a circle, and on that diagram Argentina is right in the middle.  

I know a little bit how that feels, because when people ask me if I am Latina, I qualify it.  “Yes,” I say, “But I don’t really claim it.”

My mother was born the daughter of Argentine missionaries on the banks of Lake Titicaca in Peru. They lived there until she was six, at which point she moved to the Southern California.  She speaks English flawlessly.  And despite her black hair and the brown eyes I’ve inherited, her skin is only a shade darker than mine, less so if I’m tanned; no one who sees her would think that she looks particularly “ethnic.”  

I, of course, do not look it at all, so you can stop searching for telltale signs of ethnicity in my picture in the corner.  My skin is a shade between what makeup stores call “honey” and “porcelain.”  My hair is brown in shadow and golden in sunlight.  My mother tells me I am lucky I missed the black curls no hairdresser cuts properly; lucky I didn’t inherit the childhood inferiority complex that came with being American-but-not, of being Hispanic-but-not-Mexican in Southern California; lucky that I wasn’t different.  

Ironically considering he’s the one who’s half white, people think my brother looks more “ethnic” than my mother does.  He has my father’s laughter and my uncle’s analytical mind and my grandmother’s organizational skills, but to the people we pass on the street what matters is that he has my mother’s black hair and skin darker than hers, skin that tans to caramel in the summer.  He and I have the same eyes and the same nose and the same habit of saying yes to too many things, but someone once asked me if he was adopted because we “didn’t look anything alike” and “had nothing in common.”  

When my brother says he is Hispanic, or when my mother lets loose a string of Spanish on the phone, no one looks surprised.  But when they ask me if I am Latina, I don’t know how to answer.  I am 50% Argentine and 50% whatever the British-German-Irish mix my green-eyed, brown-haired, American father is, and I do not feel very much like either.  

See, I only visited Argentina once at six months old, too young to speak, much less recognize my heritage.  I have never been to Peru.  I cannot even imagine it.  The only thing that comes to mind are the mountain lakes of the Northwest, evergreens reflected in glacier water—the world I was born into, thousands of miles removed from my mother’s memories.  Argentina is as foreign to me as the summit of Mount Everest.

Don’t get me wrong: I know I am blessed beyond measure to live in America. I have traveled enough to know that my American passport is worth its weight in gold.  I know my privileges and opportunities and I am grateful.  But when my father spends long commutes listening to conservative talk shows or when I hear Americans laughing loudly, heads thrown back in quiet French restaurants, I do not feel very American.  

My family never ate turkey and mashed potatoes at Thanksgiving—we made empanadas.  My mother wished me goodnight in Spanish, sang nonsense songs with curling, rolled r’s when I scraped a knee. She gave me tiny sips of mate through metal straws, showed me how to boil condensed milk until it turned to dulce de leche, taught me to say por favor before please. Is it any wonder that apple pie and “Rock-a-Bye Baby” never measured up?

But then my Spanish never measured up either.  “I can’t believe your mom never taught you,” people say, and I don’t know how to tell them that she tried.  Of course she tried.  But things have a habit of changing when we least expect, and so when my grandmother died my mother’s Spanish dried up—or else dissolved in tears spilled on foreign graves, and in my wispy three-year-old hair when she came back from the funeral. While time has dulled that pain, and she tried to teach me when I was older, I have never been able to reclaim the years my Spanish lost in her grief.  

People remind me that I speak French after a year abroad, as if that makes it all better, and again I don’t know how to respond.  How do I say that I chose French because it wasn’t Spanish, that I chose it because I wanted Europe and not Latin America, that I chose it because I am inadequate and a blood traitor and, most of all, not because I am ashamed of my heritage but rather because I do not know how to claim it.

It wasn’t always like this. I called myself Argentine proudly as a child. In middle school I had to give a presentation on my cultural background, so I went to the library and checked out a couple of books and did my sixth-grade research with diligence. I was excited about it, until I overheard a conversation between my classmates about how I didn’t count; I wasn’t as Argentine as another boy in my class because he spoke Spanish, had dark skin and darker hair. I didn’t call myself Argentine very often after that.

Growing up, it got more complicated.  What do I say to other Latinxs or Hispanics, people who have been marginalized and discriminated against?  Apart from a few holiday foods and stories of my mother’s childhood, my family does not adhere to Argentine traditions.  How do I say “I am like you” when I do not feel Latina, I do not feel Hispanic, despite Wikipedia’s Venn diagram that tells me I am both?  My white privilege means I have never been asked where I am “really from” or “where I was born” or “where my parents are from” or to “just speak English.”  I do not want to claim my heritage insensitively—to live blissfully in my privilege and still get to say that I’m Latina when conversations about race grow awkward or tense.  I want to be responsible about my past, ethical about the labels I adopt.  But no matter how conflicted my feelings, these labels are still mine to claim.

As a sixth-grader hearing that I didn’t look Argentine enough, I was confused, hurt.  How could I not look like what I am? But if my mother and brother are Argentine enough, then so am I.   If I am Latina, if I am Hispanic, then my experiences are Latina and Hispanic experiences, although I do not speak Spanish, although I do not fit the stereotypical views of my ethnicity.  

I am tired of being afraid to claim my past.  I am tired of feeling guilty for not speaking Spanish.  I am tired of qualifying my responses, of saying “Yes, I’m Latina, yes, I’m Hispanic, but I don’t speak Spanish and I have white privilege.”  I am tired of feeling like I cannot claim my heritage—as if the terms Hispanic and Latina are not big enough for me.

Is there space in the Venn diagram for a Latina/Hispanic-American girl who doesn’t feel like either?  Can our labels and language stretch and change that much? Are there enough words in the narratives we use for my stories, too?

I don’t know.  But maybe next time, when someone asks me if I am Latina, I will simply say “yes.”


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