I hear this a lot: “You’re Mexican? You don’t look it?” A friend I have had for over 40 years always says, “I don’t think of you that way.” I am never quite sure how to respond to these opinions. So, here, I muse.
My grandparents on my Dad’s side came over from Mexico in the early 1900’s. My grandfather, Juvenal, was a farmer and rancher for most of his life. Blond haired and blue eyed, his twinkle and staunch demeanor always made me wonder about his story. Unfortunately, I never met my maternal grandmother, Sofia, as she died when my father was 12 years old.
On my mom’s side, my great, great grandparents (Leonardo Romero) came over from Mexico in the 1800’s and helped to settle Tucson. The Romero family has spread far and wide throughout the West, but you can still go to the Romero House in Tucson, where they have art classes and have kept it has a historical landmark.
I am incredibly proud of my heritage – as light skinned and green eyed as I am, I consider myself Mexican American, and I proudly state that. Funny thing is, so many are uncomfortable with it. And, I wonder why.
A few weeks ago, I gave a talk and someone came up to me after to chat with me. She said, “You are such an engaging and articulate speaker.” I replied, “Thank you.” Her next question stunned me: “Are you Mexican?” I hesitantly responded, “Yes, I am Mexican American.” Her response? “That’s nice.” And the conversation ended when she turned and walked away. I stood their wondering, Was she surprised that I was an engaging speaker, and a Mexican?
Also this last month, as I sat at a luncheon with homemade Mexican food, the man next to me and I bantered back and forth, until he asked me if the salsa was spicy. I responded, “Well, I am a bit of a wimpy Mexican, but, it seems OK with me.” If looks could talk, he literally examined me, up and down with utter disgust, actually grumbled something incoherent under his breath, and turned away from me for the rest of the luncheon. I wasn’t so much surprised by this interaction, but, I was enlightened.
Humorously enough, I have also had people actually tell me, as if it were factual, that I am not Mexican. “You are too light skinned to be Mexican. You’re Spanish.”
On the flipside, I have had people from Latin American countries, telling me I am not Latina – but, I am American.
I seem to not be winning here. All this rhetoric makes me wonder … what the hell I really am.
I continually ponder these interactions, because the judgement for not fitting in to the perceived notion of what a Mexican woman looks like, acts like, does, her skin color, the language she speaks (or doesn’t speak), who she is – doesn’t fit in with the narratives that people maintain, believe, and create. It’s a bit mind numbing, that we, as humans, can’t consider a different narrative. I believe this is part of the problem of our racial and bigoted viewpoints and contributes to our utter intolerance of each other in a wider context.
The Funny thing is – I don’t care. I am who I am, and people need to get over it. I am that Mexican woman with the physical attributes – the curly hair, the green eyes, the big hips, the great mama thighs – I’ve got that covered. Mi espanol? Oh, mi espanol es muy terible. And, I am OK with that too. I am smart, sassy, opinionated, hot headed – you know, all those stereotypes that men say they dislike, but, then, when you show them that side, they express what a hot Latina you are.
That most recent incident, where the man turned away from me, is where I felt I needed to write this piece. In that moment, I envisioned all my sisters at the border, with their children, vying for a better life, and America turning its back on them. I envisioned all the domestic helpers around the nation, working for white families – good enough to clean for and nanny their children, so they become bi-lingual – but, that’s all they’re good for. I envisioned all the farm workers, on their knees, with protective gear on, picking all the fruits and veggies on the table that day – earning pennies for their labor and ceasing to be the “hot Latina” because they are so dirty from the back breaking work they do, for hours a day – and that’s all they’re good for. I envisioned all those who are stuck in Honduras and whose children are being forced to join gangs, or they will die.
I envisioned all my sisters In Venezuela, where mothers are choosing to not eat, so their children can. In El Salvador, I saw women who would rather die crossing the border, than have their husbands kill them first. In Tijuana, I remembered all the white men, who were there, seeking sex, from young Mexican women, who were no doubt, being held against their will – to satisfy greed and sexual desire that’s not theirs, nor, ever will be. And here in the US, all my Latina sisters, struggling to get an education, maintain jobs, take care of our children, be dutiful daughters, respect our heritage, dress appropriately, wear the right size hoop earrings, always have red lipstick on hand, don’t laugh too loud, don’t be too confident, be a good cook, respect your husband, and always expect to be discriminated against, in some way, shape or form – because that’s all we’re good for. And lest we forget, my Puerto Rican sisters. Light, dark, American, left out of the overall conversation amongst being Latina – but they are. Steadfast, fierce, resilient, I envisioned their lives, after hurricanes and political bigotry have left them simply trying to survive on their island, as well as on the mainland.
All at once, I felt them. I saw them as others see them. I cringed that this man, and so many others, see Latinas in this way. All at once, I was them. They were me. We were each other. We are each other. Yet, all at once, I was so proud to be a part of a sisterhood where women from my culture and my heritage are so strong, so enduring, so tenacious, and just so beautiful.
I am Mexican. I am Latina. I am American. I stand strong in that place. People can judge as they will, think us not articulate, or feisty, too opinionated – whatever narrative they would like to tell. It doesn’t matter. Because we know who we are, what we are, how we are. We know.
I am her. I am her. I am proud to be her.
Karen Leslie Hernandez is a theologian and interfaith activist. With a focus in Christian-Muslim understanding, as well as religious fundamentalism and extremism, Karen is the only theologian who is a Latina and a United Methodist doing this type of theological work in the US. She has published with several media outlets including the Women’s United Nations Report Network, The Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue/Studies, the Interfaith Observer, and she is the only Christian to have published an ongoing Op-Ed Column with OnIslam out of Cairo, Egypt. Some of her past gigs include designing and teaching an Interfaith Dialogue workshop with Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago, as well as spending three years working with United Religions Initiative, in several different positions. As an Over-Achiever, Karen has not one, but two theological master’s degrees – one from Andover Newton Theological School, the other from Boston University School of Theology. She did her BA at Wellesley College, graduating with honors in her major, Peace and Justice Studies, where she wrote her thesis on Al Qaeda and how they misuse religion for political gain. Karen currently lives in California, works at two faith based non-profits, teaches workshops throughout the Bay Area, is pursuing a Doctor of Ministry degree at Claremont School of Theology, and she is also a certified domestic violence advocate.