Growing up as a Mexican-American male, I never truly felt any persecution based on my race. Besides, no one could tell that I was Hispanic anyway. I’m light skinned, a trait inherited from my grandfather on my mother’s side. People often mistake me for other nationalities, such as Italian or Middle Eastern; even those who can tell I’m Hispanic think I’m Spanish or South American. Mostly, people see me as white.
Being seen as white hasn’t been a total drawback. Early in my childhood, other Hispanics explained why I should milk the idea, and I have to a certain point. Although in the same regard, it made me not want to learn Spanish. Instead, the language was a way to rebelliously mess with my parents. So I purposefully mispronounced words that they tried to teach me, and after a while they stopped trying. While I couldn’t speak it, understanding Spanish came easy. But I kept it my secret, since all the gossip and important news were spoken in Spanish in my house. If my family knew I understood them, they would go to the next room to talk.
In grammar school in Bridgeport, I was surrounded by Italian, Irish, German and Polish students. I was the only Hispanic in my class at the time. Curiously, everyone tried to pronounce my name in Spanish, but they completely butchered it. It was as if they were calling me “Undress” instead of “Andrés.” I couldn’t stand it!
Before I knew it, I was the token Mexican kid: “Andres, how do you say ‘paper’ in Spanish?” My response was always a confused “how the fuck should I know” look. None of the other students were asked to pronounce shit in Celtic or asked if their parents were connected to the mob…you get the picture.
After a few years passed, I found out about the Aztecs, and they sounded bad-ass. I raided the school library to find books about them. This would be the beginning to finding pride in my own culture. You see, my family was never uber-Mexican; we lived as regular Chicagoans. Our home was never filled with trinkets from Mexico other than a wool blanket from the Tarahumara Indians in Chihauhua. My mother cooked some Mexican dishes like menudo, but that was only for special occasions. Usually for dinner we had steak with spaghetti and corn on the side and sometimes Spanish rice. We did have plenty of pan dulce, tacos and tamales… the good stuff! Other than that, I didn’t have much exposure to Mexican culture. My parents immigrated to Chicago when they were still kids, so there were few stories of their life in Mexico.
I did anything to find my sense of culture: reading books, researching topics and checking out some Univision programs with my grandma. But for some reason the Mexican population in Chicago was never Mexican to me. They mixed Spanish and English together to form this odd hybrid language called Spanglish. I could never understand it; I remember thinking “these people are confused.” Now that I’m older I’ve come to accept it and I slip some in every now and then.
In high school, my Spanish skills improved, thanks to joining the almost all-Mexican soccer team and taking Spanish classes. Between the two, learning Spanish was easy; I was swearing, ordering tacos and calling out plays on the field, all in Spanish. Carrying conversations with random people became a game to see how long my Spanish could last before making a slip in speech.
It was a great time culturing myself, but I never letting go that I was guero–unlike all my friends who were dark or medium toned. It was here in high school where I felt Mexican, but only because the football team and other students would call us “the Mexicans.” I felt the need to stick to my tribe, no matter what; they knew I was Mexican, and that was enough for me. Fuck the rest!
After high school, I went to college downtown. Everyone walking the streets was of every race imaginable, but the scenery had no affect on me. I still held on to my identity. When I started working in retail, out in Cicero, I began brushing up on my Spanish since most customers were Hispanic. But there was a difference in the people I interacted with on a daily basis: one group was white collar, the other blue. I dressed blue collar, but talked as if I was downtown material. It was an awkward realization when people around where I worked saw me as trying to be better than them, and in downtown I was too casual.
One time a customer asked me where I learned Spanish, to which I responded, “in school and from my friends. I’m Mexican.” He looked at me closer and saw my features and agreed that I was indeed of Mexican descent. Then he said, “Asi lo vas hacer. Los gueros te van a trartar bien porque te miras como ellos y no como nosotros.” That took me by surprise. In fact, it set me back to when I had no sense of culture.
So then what was I?
I continued to strengthen my linguistic skills, but this time as me. There is no other way to put it. I kept no allegiances. Later I met other people who were Hispanic, knew the language, but didn’t label themselves. That was a new concept to me, but it seemed to fit. Then a friend, who moved from out of state told me I had a “Chicago look.” That would not be only time I would hear that. Who knew?
I had eventually found the sense of culture I was looking for growing up. It wasn’t buried in some book or in my ancestral tribe; it was in my city, where I was born. Chicago is a melting pot. The Southside is made up of major neighborhoods segregated by race with a slight mix of Blacks, whites, Chinese and Europeans. The Northside is similar in diversity, but the neighborhoods are more mixed.
Traveling to different parts of the city, I saw places and people that I would not see anywhere else. I am not a neighborhood person; I like to see different things and go out. My life does not revolve around ten blocks. Currently in my life I do not identify as being Mexican, personally I have developed into something more. I am a Southsider, but I hail from Chicago.