Apparently, I wasn’t Mexican enough.
A Mayan mosaic mask caught my attention at the local store in Cancun, Mexico. I was looking at it closely as I turned it around at different angles – debating whether should I buy it as a souvenir. I suddenly felt a strange sensation there was someone standing behind me. I turned around, surprised to see a man staring at me; I looked at his face who was burrowing his eyebrows together, blinking dumbfoundedly.
He was probably talking to me but just didn’t hear him, I thought. He began talking in Spanish, but I couldn’t catch what he said.
“No habla Español?” he repeated as I tried to read his lips.
“Mas o menos,” I gestured “so-so.”
“Ayeeee, porque??” he said.
This wasn’t the first time I’ve read that on someone’s lips nor will it ever be the last – well, maybe. For the 12th time or so, I replied a smile and a short explanation.
“It’s not just that I don’t really understand Spanish, it is that I’m Deaf too.”
Various reactions range from “Oh…” with sympathetic or embarrassed looks to “Ay pues, pero eres un Mexicana! Necitas aprender Espanol!” (“Well then, but you are Mexican! You need to learn Spanish”) I smiled and shrugged my shoulders and walked away feeling somewhat defeated. I actually personally prefer seeing the “well, you’re a Mexican!” than their sympathetic reply “oh…,”
I can’t tell you how many people have stared at me in disbelief – their eyebrows raised and their lips parted. Some reacted with an encouraging smile in their eyes but just as shocked, “porque?!” The constant “shame-on-you” reminders for an entire week in Cancun kept replaying my head for a while, making me cringe. Although I’ve experienced these reactions from other Latinxs in America, it was more common in Mexico.
Growing up, I’ve visited Mexico a lot to see my family, but I don’t recall experiencing such encounters like this from strangers except once (other than my family). I remembered when I was 15 years old, my cousin told me that her guy friend asked whether if I was from America, “porque se ves como un gringa.” I was taken aback by that question which led me to even question myself how was it that I looked like a gringa?
Another personal challenge was that I’ve always had a desire to explore around Mexico as much as I wanted but couldn’t due to my family. My female cousins, who were around my age at 8 years old, they were able to roam around freely as they wanted, even in small towns.
“Abelita, tia, quiero ir a la plaza. Yo puedo ir solita!”
“no, mjia.” they said.
My abulita and tias never told me the reasons but I could see it in their eyes: I’m a Deaf female who probably have a big giant label on my forehead: un gringa (a disparaging slang for a foreign female in Latin America).
It was almost 8 years since I last visited Mexico, and I was at this stage of exploring my own identity and the purpose of my life (quarter life crisis, anyone?). I never had a chance to ask my grandparents about our heritage and stories. The language barrier wasn’t the ultimate obstacle – it was the communication barrier since I’m the only Deaf child in this HUGE family with a primary language: American Sign Language. Hence, I wanted to explore my motherland and my heritage, although Cancun wasn’t the place where I imagined to start.
I imagined heading to Guadalajara, Guanajuato or Mexico City to explore my cultural identity; instead, my mother wanted to go to Cancun, and I didn’t dare to discourage her since she never went to Cancun before. Maybe I’d learn something in Cancun anyways, I thought.
And I did.
It wasn’t what I hoped for, such as learning about my heritage, the history of Mexico nor my family’s stories but the challenges taught me a lot about myself in Cancun.
Such “shame on you” comments from strangers affected me, questioning my own identity: Mexican and lacking fluency in Spanish.
At their faces, I secretly wanted to shout with a pride, I’M MEXICAN AND I’M PROUD!
but how could I if don’t know my own heritage very well? Or the history of Mexico? Or Spanish?
The ongoing criticism in Cancun subtly implies:
You’re not Mexican enough.
Know little/some Spanish? You’re not Mexican enough.
Not pronouncing Spanish correctly? You’re not Mexican enough.
You’re born and raised in America? You’re not Mexican enough.
You don’t know the history? You’re not Mexican enough.
You don’t “look” Mexican? You’re not Mexican enough.
In Cancun, it made me feel excluded for the first time (and it is only because I’ve become more aware).
How could I feel excluded in my own motherland? I’m already alienated enough in the Hearing* world, so having another sense of alienation wasn’t something I wanted.
As a second generation, my first language was Spanish. However, as I grew up, I started learning English and American Sign Language (ASL). I do not speak, read and write Spanish fluently, although I could speak Spanish at a conversational level.
Even though I know Spanish at a conversational level, it still wasn’t enough. The constant pressure manifested into negative thoughts, that I was being shamed upon on: I wasn’t “Mexican enough.” That I wasn’t good enough.
After visiting Cancun, I was going through cultural identity crisis: American and Mexican.
A relatable quote in Selena film,
“We gotta prove to the Mexicans how Mexican we are, and we gotta prove to the Americans how American we are, we gotta be more Mexican than the Mexicans and more American than the Americans, both at the same time. It’s exhausting. Damn. Nobody knows how tough it is to be a Mexican American.
I was in a constant battle and torn between two cultural identities, and I felt that I had to constantly explain myself again and again to my family, friends, and strangers. I found myself studying history of Mexico to prove myself. I also found myself proving that I’m also a proud American (despite what’s going on right now in America). I was going through such crisis that I talked with two different professors who have knowledge in diversity and identities. One of my professors once said:
You don’t need to prove how Mexican you are. You have to apologize for not speaking Spanish fluently? Your parents moved here to America for a better future, and they had to assimilate to the American culture. You were born here for greater future, greater opportunity.
She made several more points that were very enlightening. It made me realize, you know what?
I am Mexican “enough.”
Does knowing Spanish fluently really justified whether I’m Mexican or not? Does it really justify whether I’m allowed to be proud as a Mexican? Over time, I was learning how to embrace my cultural identities. It wasn’t until I visited Costa Rica and Nicaragua where I have fully embraced my Mexican identity (a future post coming up!). Since my backpacking trip in Costa Rica and Nicaragua, I’ve learned that I should not have to prove my ethnicity to anyone because I know who I am.