Being my parents’ first child has always been a large part of my identity. I am their mixed daughter; the result of a 1960s high school romance between an eastside Chicano boy and westside Anglo-Catholic girl. I attended Catholic school from first grade until college — Catholicism formed the bulk of my my cultural identity through out my childhood.
My parents, whose racial divide had brought them social discomfort in the 1960s and 1970s, including difficulties renting and buying homes in parts of Los Angeles, did their best to shelter my sister, brother and me from the worst of their experiences. I knew I was Chicana and identified as such, but my identification didn’t mean anything more to me than my mother’s distant identity of “Irish.” When my teachers commented on my speaking and writing in perfect English, I didn’t recognize the loaded compliment in their words. Later, when I struggled in high school Spanish (as did both my siblings and most of my cousins), I never considered why the Spanish language was so hard for me, why when my bilingual father helped me, my accent was somehow considered “wrong” and “too Mexican.” It would be years before I realized my struggle with Spanish was, in part, due to an ingrained distrust of the Mexican side of myself.
Then, coming onto UCLA’s campus as an undergraduate in the late 1980s, my Chicana identity became much more of an issue. Attracted to Left student politics, I first joined, or tried to join, the campus MEChA organization. It made sense to me. I was a lonely Chicana student, lost on a huge campus. Leaving Catholic education and its sense of belonging to a common religion suddenly made me feel much more of a racial outsider on the campus. Among white students it was clear, despite my middle class West Los Angeles upbringing, that I wasn’t quite white enough. But the other students in MEChA saw me as not really Chicana either, not like them. As one said “maybe you’re not quite white, but you’re too close for me.” My skin color wasn’t the issue, or at least not the main issue. The leadership of MEChA looked like me or my cousins. The division came on issues of language and culture. I didn’t speak Spanish, had grown up in the white part of the city, had a white mother, had attended a West Los Angeles private girls school. In short I was weighed and found wanting in nearly every way (while my abuelita’s house in East Los Angeles counted in my favor it was deemed not nearly enough). In their eyes I wasn’t truly a Chicana.
It would be poetic to say I railed against this redefinition of my identity, that I told them my father wasn’t a sell-out for loving my mother or for having me. I wish I could claim that I argued and convinced all of them or any of them of my Chicana-ness. But the truth was, at their words, I was mostly silent and felt exposed as a fraud. There was part of me that could see their point. What did I, with my West Los Angeles upbringing, know of their Eastside experiences? East Los Angeles, apart from trips to Liliana’s for tamales, was my father’s and abuelita’s home place, not mine. Maybe they were right that I only identified as Chicana because of affirmative action, had only experienced it as a positive without experiencing either the poverty or racism which they had collectively suffered. Worst of all though, I felt like they had been able to look inside me and see the traitorous part of myself, that secret place that wished I were whiter. The part that envied my blond-haired cousins, knew their fairness was in mine and my family’s eyes, more beautiful. The same part that wished I had inherited my mother’s blue eyes and willowy frame instead of my own stocky darkness. I felt like the other Chicano/a students could see there was something inside of me that found my darkness as ugly and even worse, as unclean and wished it away. Feeling stung and exposed, I slunk away from MEChA. I instead became the comfortably not-too exotic other in the white / Anglo students’ anti-apartheid movement on campus. Academically I moved away from any part of Chicano/a studies and into British and Celtic history and literature.
I came back to my Chicananess through reading This Bridge Called My Back and Borderlands when I was taking English literature classes at The Ohio State University. At the time I was homesick for California, for my family, constantly feeling exotic and other socially. I saw myself in the definitions of mestiza, in the notion of being torn between ways. When I read Cherríe Moraga’s Loving In the War Years, it sort of all came together for me and I realized I could and should claim Chicana as my identity, however uncomfortable it might be.
All of this anxiety came back to me at NACCS — not in a bad way, but I realize I associate hearing Spanish (which I generally understand if it’s spoken slowly enough, but can’t speak) with being found out to be not Chicana. This is ridiculous and I recognize it as such, but still get caught up in this sense of belonging / not belonging. It makes me wonder how much I’ve changed, whether for all my study and research I’ve really embraced this part of myself.