There is a scene in the movie “Selena” where Selena Quintanilla and her father Abraham discuss potentially doing an interview in Mexico. While Selena is excited to do the interview, her father is not as excited that she will be doing the interview in Spanish. Although she spoke the language and grew up in a household that spoke the language, she was not fluent enough to do a full interview. This then prompts Abraham to say “Being Mexican American is hard. We gotta prove to the Mexicans how Mexican we are, and we gotta prove to the Americans how American we are. It’s exhausting.” Not wanting Selena to do the interview and not wanting her to risk embarrassing herself, he tries to talk her out of it. However, she did the interview and had a couple mess-ups, but the press was surprisingly forgiving of her blunders.
To most viewers, this was nothing but a funny little exchange between father and daughter. However, to many Mexican American viewers, this is a struggle that is all too real being portrayed on the big screen.
When I first started school, I knew no English whatsoever and knew little about American customs. We mainly spoke Spanish in the house and celebrated Mexican holidays. When I got to kindergarten, I learned not very many people spoke Spanish or celebrated Mexican Independence Day. Only a small number of us spoke Spanish.
They had stuck me in the ESL program, or “English as a Second Language.” I was in the program for a year and even attended summer school to learn more English. I graduated out of the program in the first grade. Though the journey was not easy, I quickly became fluent in English and even grew out of my accent. Although this was a huge accomplishment, I did not know at the time that, it was the beginning of a long-lasting identity crisis.
I felt as if I had to compete with the other kids who came from Mexican households over things that were not even a competition to begin with such as who’s been to Mexico or who spoke the most Spanish. This became more apparent in high school. With the growing political climate, it was difficult to really appreciate my culture without it being an issue with other people. I stayed cautious of how I acted in public. I could not speak Spanish to my mother in the grocery store due to fear of confrontation, and if I even spoke Spanish in school or mentioned anything about Mexico with my Mexican friends, immediately someone would say “go back to your country.”
It was a struggle to find friends who shared the same cultural background as I did, and I felt lost in my identity. I had very little Mexican friends, having mostly white friends. This is when I adopted the nickname “Coconut,” for someone brown on the outside, but white on the inside. I felt ashamed since I did not fit in with the Mexican students at my school because I was “too white,” but when I talked about my culture to my white friends I was “too Mexican.”
It was almost as if I were not Mexican enough or American enough for either. I was not the Mexican American archetype.
Senior year of high school, I was given an opportunity to find more people who shared the same struggle as I did. Many of my Mexican friends did not speak Spanish and some (myself included) have never even been to Mexico. From that moment on, I had realized that I was not alone. I was not the only one struggling to live in the space between Mexican and American.
I try to find a healthy balance between celebrating both cultures. I can celebrate the Fourth of July while also celebrating Sept. 15. I enjoy music and the food from both cultures, and I speak Spanish both at home with my family and at school with my Spanish-speaking friends. Most of all, I can truly appreciate both my cultures equally. I am not too Mexican or too American. I do not have to prove how Mexican I am or prove how American I am. I proudly live between the space.