Believe it or not, I grew up thinking I was.
In Colombia children learn that there are three main races: black, white and native. The combination of those creates races like “mulato” or “creole”. When identifying with a race back then, I looked at my family and my blond hair and light eyes, and thought of myself as white. However, the whole label thing was never important and it did not come into play every single day of my life. I would like to think that I was not a minority when I would not think of people as colors. I did not know one of my parents was somewhat racist until much later in life, and I lived here in the U.S.
My rude awakening to race issues came on the first day I was in the US. I was sitting down by some members of my family, and was told that I should not socialize with pretty much anyone. Do not trust anybody, not even people from your own race… I was like what? wait? what race? slow down? How do I know how a Puerto Rican is different from a Mexican? And what the heck is Latin? I thought that was a dead language.
In just hours from leaving a bunch of friends and family back at the airport, people that were bawling their eyes out because I was leaving–some even that I did not know then I would get to see again–my world view had to change. Not only did I have to very quickly learn that wearing the wrong color at school will mean I would get beat up, but also that someone speaking the same language as me was not trust worthy. The only positive thing that came out of all that was that I tried to learn English as quickly as possible.
In some instances my family was right. The school that I went to was full of gangs. Mexicans hated me without even knowing me. I quickly learned the difference between a “Chicano” and a “Chilango.” I quickly learned that half of my vocabulary was to lay dormant because the Spanish most people spoke was limited. Most of the Spanish speakers I know were told by their parents to learn English, and their mother language was pretty much lost.
I still have a hard time fitting with the concept of being part of a race. I am very proud of being Colombian, but as far as being Latino, it is an identity that is hard to fully embrace, let alone define. I made friends in high school based on personalities and not colors. Working at McD’s I made friends with co-workers regardless of race. I am not fluent in “Vato” anymore, but could probably still pick it up. But thanks to my high school experience I know the differences between the Mexican and Puerto Rican dialects very well.
There is a movie coming out soon that looks spectacular. It has action, violence, a love story. However, when my wife saw the trailer she pointed something out that I did not think about. “This is why people think of Latinos as all being a bunch of thugs.” In a way I have to agree, because so much of what people know about my “race” is because of movies. Some might think that not being able to identify myself with my race makes me lack identity… but I would disagree by saying this. The color of my skin is not something that defines who I am. While I do not ignore the baggage that comes with being a foreigner or from a different color, I try to live my life as a human being that interacts with others at that level and hopes that I am being judged by who I am and not by the label this particular society tries to put on me.