Commentary: My connection to Mexican culture is mainly my DNA, is that enough?


Ali Juell

Heritage is important, but what if that is the only connection one has to a culture?

“Are you Hispanic or Latino?”

As I’ve filled out college applications, I’ve seen this question pop up again and again, and whenever I click yes and identify myself as Mexican, I feel a sense of guilt.

I’m half-Mexican on my mom’s side of the family. She was born in Tepache, a pueblo in Mexico, but moved here with her siblings and parents at a young age. Her father was a farmer for his whole working life, a man who was devoted to his work in order to provide for his family.

It’s a very stereotypical story of a Mexican family coming to America to achieve the American dream, but I feel like a fraud whenever I claim “Mexican” as part of my heritage.

I pass as white; only one time has anyone ever guessed that I was part Mexican and it honestly shocked me. My mother and most of her siblings also pass as white, Spanish-speakers are almost always surprised when she is able to speak to them fluently in Spanish.

I didn’t learn the language as a young child. I learned it at the same time as many of my classmates; and, I wasn’t necessarily a gifted Spanish speaker. When I got a B+ in Honors Spanish 4, it made me feel like a failure of a Mexican; I couldn’t even learn about a part of my own culture easily.

I have never been able to have a real conversation with my solely Spanish-speaking nana, my grandmother. To me, this represents my separateness from a culture that my family was fully representative of only two generations ago. I almost feel like I don’t belong.

— Ali Juell

I don’t know much about Mexican culture either. My mom was encouraged by her parents to try and immerse herself as much as possible in American culture; so she and her siblings could feel like the United States was their home.

I know virtually nothing about what it’s like to be a Mexican-American. I just quite honestly can’t say I share the experiences many Mexican-Americans face.

So then what am I?

If I don’t fit the physical description or have the cultural knowledge of a Mexican-American, do I even count as one?

I used to get so mad when people would just call me a white girl. I somewhat infamously posted a Snapchat story where I wrote paragraphs and paragraphs about how mad I was about these assumptions about me that didn’t acknowledge my heritage. But now I wonder if I was even entitled to do so.

How can I claim my ethnicity to be Mexican-American when I hold none of the factors of that identity?

It seems in hindsight kind of tone-deaf of me, someone who is a recipient of white privilege everyday, to whine and pout because I don’t look or feel Mexican enough. I don’t want it to seem that I only want to be part Mexican when it’s convenient or interesting to me, but I’m afraid that’s just how it will always seem to others.

As I navigate my way through life, I hope that I’ll be able to figure out my identity for myself, to feel confident in however I choose to identify.

But for now, I’ll continue to wrestle with what counts towards cultural identity.