What Is ‘Mexican’? Understanding Cultural Identity
By Karla Loya-Stack* – The Washington Post
I have struggled with how to describe or define my identity
since moving to the United States from Mexico at age 10—a struggle that was
internalized and personal for years.
After migrating to the U.S. with my family in 1995, I
identified myself as a Latina, Mexican girl, daughter, sister, granddaughter,
niece, and cousin of a large Mexican family. That identity came into question
more and more year after year in both Mexico and the United States.
I was not Mexican enough for my family in Mexico. I had
become too “Americanized.”
The opposite was true in the U.S., as my friends and peers
recognized me as “the Mexican girl” who had not assimilated enough to be
recognized as “American.” For years I did not know where I fit in and I had
trouble understanding where and how my culture, heritage, race, gender, and
upbringing defined my identity.
People would ask, “What are you?” I chose to answer “I’m a
woman”—and not get into any specifics. My internal turmoil made it difficult to
explain anything further and that response made it easier for me to attach
myself to a simpler sense of identity.
This comes when identity is often conflated with immigration
issues. According to an ABC News poll, 57% percent of Americans disapprove of President Joe
Biden’s approach to immigration. According to media reports, at least 4,200
unaccompanied children are in U.S. custody care at the border (with another
15,000 in the care of Health and Human Services). The crisis surrounding their
treatment and living conditions and the delay in response and unification of
children with their families continues to be of public concern.
For me, it was not until years later in 2007 that I realized
the importance and impact that my cultural heritage and race have on my sense
of identity and how others see me.
As a young professional, I volunteered at a local school in
Dallas with a group of elementary school students and was paired with two young
Latina girls for their field trip. During the bus ride, the girls were speaking
in Spanish when I overheard them speaking negatively about the field trip and
using inappropriate language.
I came up to the girls and told them in Spanish to stop
speaking that way and give the experience a chance. The girls were surprised to
hear me speak Spanish and began to question me.
“Miss, you speak Spanish? How do you know Spanish? Miss,
where you from?”
When I explained to them that I was Mexican and fluent in
Spanish, they asked more questions.
“But Miss, you don’t dress like a Mexican. How come you
dress like that? How come you speak like that? How come you don’t have kids?
You are getting too old not to have them. My mom had me when I was 19. That’s
what I’m going to do too.”
I was shocked by their questions. I was dressed
professionally, but not in a suit and jacket. I had taught myself over the
years to speak mostly without an accent and avoid words I struggled with in
English, but I never really thought much of it.
The conversation forced me to realize that many of these
girls had let others define their path, that they did not know that they could
be more than what they had seen or what they assumed their community expected
them to be. They had let society, history, and Hollywood tell them what being
“Mexican” meant or what was expected of a “Latina woman” to be.
In the 14 years since this encounter, perhaps that is
changing. According to a 2019 NBC report on U.S. Latinas, “Millennial Latinas
with an associate, bachelor’s, or graduate degree grew 70% over the past two
decades—from 17% of Latinas in 2000 to 30% in 2017. This growth rate outpaced
both Latino males (56%) and non-Latina females at 35%.”
But the struggles for Latina women are prevalent as they
are only earning 54 cents for every dollar earned by
non-Hispanic men. While Equal Pay Day for all women in this country was
acknowledged recently, Equal Pay Day for Latina women is months down the road.
Latinas are pursuing associates, bachelors and doctorate
degrees and entering the workforce, unfortunately, many of these women are not
reaching executive-level positions.
Hispanics make up 17% of the labor force, yet only 4.3% of
executive positions, the widest gap amongst any group, according to a 2019 analysis by Fast Company. Cities with
lower populations of color show more equity in labor level positions and
executive positions, yet in states with large Hispanic populations, they
continue to primarily make up the laborer and service work positions.
In order for Latina girls in this country to change the way
they see themselves, they need access to professional women and for these women
to have opportunities to not only rise in their careers, but also create
platforms and narratives that showcase their stories.
Before I met those young girls as a volunteer, I had never
had to prove my “Mexicanness” to anyone before—I had always been identified in
some way as Mexican.
But I had to prove to them that I was more Mexican than
either of them, as I was born in Mexico. I told them that being Mexican did not
mean that they had to have a baby, that being Mexican meant more, and that they
could do and be anything they wanted to be.
It was then that I decided to go back to school for my
master’s so I could help impact girls like them, as I knew that change started
in the classroom.
Pursuing a higher education degree, advancing in my career
into an Executive Director role was not just about my success, but about
creating opportunities for other women and girls to see themselves reflected in
I hope I have made a difference. I invite more of my Latina
sisters in leadership roles to extend a hand, create an opportunity and start
the conversation that can elevate Latina identities in this country.
One response to “What
Is ‘Mexican’? Understanding Cultural Identity”
Enrique Meza Buelna says:
This is a fantastic piece! We definitely need more
Mexicanas/Chicanas/Latinas sharing their experiences across all sectors of
employment and life experiences. Our voices and our stories are critical to the
American narrative and must be heard. The vast majority of Latinos are young —
over 60% are less than 30 years of age — and they are in the process of
remaking this country. I think it’s better that we jump onto this moving train
(sorry, I’m a historian), get our stories out, and help guide a future in which
Mexican Americans, and Latinos all, are slated to play a significant role.
*Karla Loya-Stack is executive director of
Catch Up & Read and a Public Voices Fellow through The OpEd Project. Twitter: @KDL0430