MI RAZA: Changing identity

(Photo used by permission of Gabi Alvarado)
Junior Gabi Alvarado and her chore group at Quaker Camp in Santa Cruz.

This summer changed my view of what it means to be Mexicana, Latina, Chicana. This is the first of three columns about my growth in this sense over the past couple months.

Gender is a sliding scale. One cannot simply look at someone else and say what gender they are based on what they’re wearing or how they act. My piece isn’t about gender – it’s about race – but I understand how malleable and fluid gender is much better than I understand anything about race. Especially my own.

This summer I have learned that race and identity can be just as fluid as gender. But let’s go back three months ago, to the beginning of the summer. How did I view my race, my ethnicity, my background then?

I grew up speaking solamente español at home. My dad was not so strict, but if I spoke to my mother in English, she would ignore me. Yes, that’s right. She would actually pretend that I had said nothing at all. I hated it. But that’s how my mom preserved my ability to speak Spanish, and for that I am so grateful. And the need was dire: I am the only one of my 12 first cousins who speaks Spanish.

I often joke that the best part of being Latina is the food. There are (almost) always homemade beans and rice in the fridge (courtesy of my mother) and, of course, cheese and tortillas. Whenever I’m hungry at the house, there’s a delicious meal that takes just two minutes to prepare, and even fewer to devour. I cannot imagine what I would eat if I didn’t have bean-and-cheese tacos or simply rice and beans mixed up, a classic Latin American dish that goes by many different names throughout the Americas. Two years ago I would have added carnitas and birria, two classic Mexican dishes that I found delicious then and not so much anymore, now that I’m vegetarian (How many Latina vegetarians could you run into on the street? Probably not many. Yes, I get funny looks at restaurants.)

As I’m sure you’ve noticed, I’m ticking off things that I think contributed to my identity of “Latina” as of three months ago, and probably still do. Music is another huge cultural identifier. But I mostly listened to classic rock (in English), not mariachi, banda, cumbia, bachata, salsa or reggaeton. The one kind of music in Spanish I did listen to was bolero, mainly because my grandfather on my dad’s side loved that music and listening to it made me feel closer to him.

As I grew up, I stopped speaking so much Spanish at home. I didn’t want to listen to music in Spanish, so my mom practically had to force me to listen to it during car rides. I told myself it was because I’d grown stubborn. But looking back, I realized it was something else altogether.

(Photo used by permission of Gabi Alvarado)
Junior Gabi Alvarado and the whole Quaker Camp staff, including counselors, counselors-in-training, support staff, directors and the kids.

I’d felt pride in my people before watching “Walkout!”, hearing people speak or even listening to the news. But I’d heard a lot of hate toward us as well.

What people don’t seem to understand about racism is that if someone makes a racist comment it applies to everyone of that race. And: racism evolves. How we voted in the last election – how America voted – is racism. It’s just different from what we read in our textbooks. The United States has evolved from the Jim Crow era. We are an entirely different beast now, to the same end.

Donald Trump’s campaign confirmed how much hate there is toward Mexicans in this country. “Mexican” started to seem like a bad word. The tone of voice a lot of people use when talking about Mexico and Mexicans and Latinas is so demeaning – and that media is everywhere.

I am Quaker. This society is composed mainly of elderly white people with good intentions, but that demographic is causing problems for me and mine right now. When I was a counselor at Quaker Camp in the Santa Cruz Mountains in late June, this fact resonated with me, especially during staff training. I remember looking around and noticing that I was the only person of color in the room. Again, at Pacific Yearly Meeting, a five-day-long conference for Quakers all throughout the West Coast, I remember sitting in a room full of people, where I was the only person who was not white.

I love Quakers. I feel at home in that community – except for those times when I’m painfully aware that I am Latina, and that I am a Mexican, and a Salvadoran. But I wasn’t proud of my background three months ago. It was very hard to be proud of my identity when the most prominent person in the United States, in my country, whom my society elected, spoke of me and my family as if we were vermin.

(Photo used by permission of Gabi Alvarado)
Junior Gabi Alvarado speaks to fellow Quakers about the Quaker Process.

So back at Quaker Camp in staff training, I sat in my bunk and cried because I was so ashamed that I could not be proud of my own people. And I scrawled this poem in my notebook, intending to never show it to anyone else. But here you are.

There’s a shame that comes

When the golden light illuminates your skin,

And you look down to find that it is not


And where is that still, small voice?

There’s a fear that grips

When you get up and look in the mirror,

Looking behind your brown skin,

And you see only deeper darkness.

And you find that that still, small voice has gone silent. 

—By Gabi Alvarado

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