Reflections on My Heritage and Cultural Pride
It should go without saying these last few months have been physically, mentally, and emotionally draining. Emphasis on the latter ailment.
There hasn’t been a day since that hasn’t been preoccupied, at least partially, with the current racial tensions bubbling over in every major city in the United States, even spilling over into major global cities. It’s exciting in that regard, that we, as a global civilization, have reached a general consensus that we aren’t as progressive as we thought, that true progress, true growth deserves meaningful reflection and introspection. Black lives, native lives, womyn’s lives, Latinx lives, queer, trans, non-binary, every life truly should matter, but it doesn’t. Not yet, and it’s up to us to gather the reins of our future, not to correct the wrongs of the past, but shape our future, make right with what is systemically wrong today for a better future for our children and our children’s children.
Naturally, at least I hope, these tumultuous events have caused each of us to carefully evaluate and rethink our relationships with race, ethnicity, stereotypes, cultural appropriation, and the granddaddy of them all, systemic racism and its various micro-aggressive manifestations. Not just how we perceive specific races and diverse cultural identities, but how we consume them and consciously perpetuate harmful prejudices of Black, Latinx, Asian, Native American, etc. What, of our heritage and ancestors, should we revel and preserve? And what importance should any external opinion or preconceived image determine in our pride?
These are the inquiries I’m grappling with lately.
In the past few months, I’ve been struck with this inner shame I can’t shrug, and it’s due to the present domestic state of my country. The black community is making it quite clear they are not and never will be ashamed of their heritage, their identity, their lineage, their fight for humanity. Nor should they. Now is the time to affirm their love for their culture, to embrace more than the color of their skin. Yet, as I’ve mentally overhauled my perspectives on race and the injustices inflicted upon the black community, I’ve confronted a reality I ignored for many years, as far back as the first person who told me, “You’re not a great Mexican, are you?”
For anyone who knows me, I’m not fluent in Spanish; I can read better than I can speak it. I don’t know my family crest, I can’t remember where my parents’ home is, their region or ancestral origins. I never fit in with the Mexican student body in high school or college. I gravitated more towards grunge music and alternative rock than grupera or traditional Mexican folk music. I remember harboring resentment to fellow Mexicans or Hispanics who could speak Spanish and displayed their culture and heritage with pride. In summary, I have never truly been comfortable with my Mexican roots. I even doubted if those roots were legitimate, as if I needed to go someplace to renew them.
If ancestral roots had expiration dates, ho boy, mine expired in, say, 1998.
Certainly, this was and is a source of ennui, but it never boiled to a depressing head. Not until I heard that dreaded phrase and its variations. Intentionally light-hearted, sure, but ultimately leaning towards insulting.
“You’re pretty bad at being Mexican.”
“He speaks better Spanish than you? Funny.”
“What kind of Mexican are you?”
“You’re not that great at being Mexican are you?”
“He’s better at being Mexican than you are.”
And for awhile, I played along. I even jested a few times that so-and-so is more Mexican than me that they could be Mexican for the both of us. That they could compensate for my lack of “cultural and ancestral respect.” But as I grew older, my discomfort intensified. I would be incredibly embarrassed when ordering food at a taqueria, wondering if the vendors would treat me with disdain if I spoke English. Or if I encountered anyone asking for directions, self-consciously muttering “Lo siento. No habla espanol.” I remember the visits to my grandmother, how sad I was, yearning to speak with her, but ultimately relying on my mom to be my interpreter. So many days I spent pondering the possibilities of another life of embracing my heritage, another dimension where I was fluent in Spanish, knew the importance and relevancy of my roots, and could look my fellow Mexicans in the eye and smile, sharing a brief but genuine camaraderie unlike that with my friends.
I have a wild imagination, in case that wasn’t obvious.
For years, I’ve bottled this up, fearing it’d sound like I was complaining. Even now, I can’t shrug this “woe-is-me” victimization while some non-diegetic violinist accompanies me with sad music. I’ve considered learning Spanish, but for me, I feel it’s too late. No, actually, that’s not the case. Truthfully, I just don’t care to learn. Because for me, my inner conflict runs deeper than the surface complaints. I’m confident most of my critics will concede that being a “true” Mexican doesn’t revolve solely on speaking perfect Spanish. That being said, my disenfranchisement stems more from miscommunication and can’t be solved with Spanish for Dummies.
How about I put it this way?
In the early 1980s, Black gay activist Joseph F. Beam was disheartened that there weren’t any positive images of Black Queer individuals. They were either quaint props in the background, egregious fetishized stereotypes, or both. He then set out to meet a demand: compile a resource and refuge for Black queer short stories, poems, essays, and art. In the first of two anthologies, In the Life, Beams opens with “Leaving the Shadows Behind”, an earnest confession detailing the struggle of embracing his Black heritage and Gay heritage, raised on the ignorant idea that the two were incompatible. In the Life and Brother to Brother were adamant refusals of that philosophy, a rebellion against inter-communal homophobia. Through these writings, these gorgeous expressions of Black and Queer heritage and embracing of cultural and identity, Beam, along with a hefty handful of writers, artists, and poets, were paving their own path, creating a new self while reclaiming the dignity and respect they deserved. Beam concludes the introduction with an inspirational fervor and passion that stirred my pessimistic morale:
The bottom line is this: We are Black men who are proudly gay. What we offer is our lives, our love, our visions. We are risin’ to the love we all need. We are coming home with our heads held up high. 
Coming home with our heads held up high. I shed a few tears the first time I read that line. Even in the face of his brethren denying his right to identify as part of the Black and Queer community, Beam rebelled against the persistent voices. He fought, through love and action, for that right and the rights of his brothers and sisters who were discriminated based on their skin color and sexuality. Despite the external criticism, despite the maddening obligation to talk, act, and think like a “man”, amidst the disheartening bigotry and racism, Beam sought to embrace himself as a whole, every aspect and nuance that defied stereotypes.
You say there’s no such thing as a Black, Gay man? Well, guess what? You’re wrong. And there are two Black, Gay anthologies to prove it.
This was exactly the comfort I needed. My struggle for my Mexican identity was natural, and even if I was more fluent in Spanish or listened to specific Mexican folk music or dined on a more exclusive Mexican cuisine, there would still be a constant flux of inadequacy. I would be anxious over external opinions as much as I am now. I am, by virtue and birth, Mexican, and I carry my ancestors’ blood as do my brothers, sisters, cousins, nieces, nephews, aunts, uncles, and plenty more whom I haven’t met. My existence is their legacy, and though I can’t speak Spanish or lean into the stereotypes of a Californian Mexican, I can embrace who I am now.
I can touch my skin, marvel at the brown shade I turn when I’m in the sun too long, the warm shade of my mud-brown eyes, my coarse, raven-black hair, the sinews of my thighs, my calves, a throbbing, flesh-and-blood sculpture of lineage, my family’s history. The smirk I give myself in the bathroom mirror might be the same smirk of my great-great-great grandfather, a forefather making ends meet in a small rural town in eastern-central Mexico. When I part my hair or drape it behind my ears, it might be a stark image of a great-great-great aunt, finding a moment’s rest from her long day of child-rearing or farming. It’s difficult to pinpoint the theories and possibilities, but I’ve accepted this ambiguity. Presenting myself with an extensive family tree means little to me unless I inform and define myself today and pay homage and respect to my ancestors through my present action and education.
It’s mental tangents like these that reinvent my initial perception of “holding my head up high.” Smiling at my reflection, taking pride in walking and thriving in this land of opportunity (ignoring that cruel irony for a moment) as a descendant of native Mexicans, making a name for myself, preserving myself through the rising tide of the times.
And that, for me, can be accomplished in more ways than learning Spanish or drinking ungodly amounts of horchata.
Of course, tuning out my own critics, Hispanic, white, or both, can prove difficult as well. It’s simple to succumb to pessimism and nihilism. When you hear phrases along the lines of “You’re not a true Mexican/Hispanic until…” enough times, the seeds of doubt are nurtured and suffocate whatever hope you reserved. What’s the point of preserving my heritage and cultural when I’m unaware of what to memorialize? Where’s the pride in that?
My silver lining is solidarity through struggle.
In this Fox News interview, the late Glee actress Naya Rivera admitted to not being fully fluent in Spanish, how it “sucks.” Honestly, I can’t phrase it better. Further in the interview, she emphasizes, more to herself, the need to teach her children Spanish, possibly to enforce the importance of aligning her cultural pride with her status as a “Latina role model.” As with Beam, Rivera strove to be the best Latina role model not just for her child, but for herself. She chose to ignore the jabs and doubt and vowed to lead Spanish, explore her own lineage and pride herself in her heritage.
Desperate Housewives star Eva Longoria has admitted to feel ostracized by the Latinx community for her own lack of Spanish fluency. In a similar vein to Rivera, she took initiative and improved her bilingual skills to gain some clout, which, yikes. It merely reinforces the toxic idea of gaining clout only through learning a language (referring to immigrants devalued for not properly speaking English), but that’s a topic of debate better reserved for a night at Fair State. Both womyn have experienced discrimination within their respective communities and had their identities questioned and even denied. However, they chose to look within themselves to discover what it truly means to be Latina/Hispanic.
I don’t want to mislead you readers. I love and adore my parents. Flawed, imperfect certainly, but loving and mindful. Whatever decisions they made for their children’s future, it was out of love. They chose not to teach us Spanish, encouraged us to learn sign language, and marveled at my late-’60s-Beatles-Summer-of-Love phase in my early high school years. I’m sure they contemplated the ramifications of their decisions, noting the potential jeers and dubious comments about my siblings’ background and upbringing. I trust they made the best decision they could, and it’s up to me to determine my own identity and Mexican image.
Do I regret not learning Spanish? Naturally. Do I view myself as a terrible Mexican, shaming my fellow Mexican brethren? Hard to say.
Some days are better than others. It’ll be a life struggle, and in that regard, I’ve accepted that. I’ll constantly be doubting my existence, struggling to reconcile my self, my being, with my lack of Spanish-speaking skills and literacy. For me, however, there are plenty of methods to embrace my heritage and culture aside from speaking Spanish; I’ll attempt to learn, within time, but not in such a rush. As far as I’m concerned, I don’t have anybody to impress, nor should I. If I’m going to bolster my pride, it’ll be for me, not you. Work on your own self if it matters that much to you.
And as a friendly reminder, identity crises afflict every creed, race, ethnicity, and background. We’re merely hammering through our growing pains. How about we bond over our joys and strides instead of criticizing our shortcomings?
There will come a day when it won’t matter as much as it does now, when I balance my respect for my heritage and ancestral pride while challenging my peers’ ideas and notions of how a Mexican looks and acts. At least this Mexican, yours truly. Until then, I’ll keep fighting to hold my head high. I’ll fight to rise to love I deserve, that I need. I’ll keep striving to slip comfortably in my own skin. All while shaking your hand, smiling, introducing myself, and weirding you out with my eclectic knowledge of horror exploitation films.
It’s a living, I guess.
 Beam, Joseph. “Leaving the Shadows Behind.” In the Life, edited by Joseph Beam, 13–18. Boston: Alyson Publications, Inc., 1986.