As I think about my identity and reflect on the woman I’ve become, I’m flooded with so many different types of emotions. My journey as a fourth-generation Mexican-American often feels like navigating uncharted territory. I am a product of my ancestors’ experiences and the choices they felt were necessary to both survive and thrive. My family has been in the United States for almost a century but my sense of belonging still wavers. By fourth-generation, the “Mexican” in Mexican-American has become almost invisible, yet somehow, I’m still not “American” enough for this country.
Growing up, I strived to be seen as only “American” or, in other words, White. I grew up in a small, Polish suburb of Chicago. No one in my entire family spoke Spanish, most of my cousins were half-White, and my friends at school with were all White. Family gatherings consisted of cookouts celebrating the Fourth of July and Memorial Day, playing bean bags, and eating hot dogs and hamburgers. That was normal to me. Whiteness was normal to me.
I still remember the day I consciously rejected wanting anything to do with being Mexican. In fourth grade, I was criticized by new students in my class for being a Mexican who couldn’t speak Spanish. Not only did I feel humiliated and ashamed, but I didn’t know why I felt those things. My family never spoke Spanish, we were American.
Soon that humiliation and shame turned into anger and rejection of my Mexican roots. I spent the next few years of my life in a bubble of whiteness: honors classes in high school, small liberal arts college, and Teach for America. Each of these experiences holding necessary struggles and hardships on my journey of self and identity.
In 2011, when I joined Teach for America, I was placed on the Zuni Pueblo, a Native American reservation in New Mexico. For the first time in my life, I was in a place where being a minority was the majority. Being immersed in a culture so rich and unapologetically non-White was life-changing. It was as if an invisible weight, one that I had no idea even existed, was lifted from my soul. I spent the next five years of my life attempting to teach my Native babies as much as they, their families, and their culture were teaching me about myself and my identity.
During my third year of teaching in Zuni, there were two crucial moments that helped me recognize my power. The first was after I started living alone and came to the realization that spending time with just myself was so natural and easy. Being left alone with nothing but my thoughts was not only exhilarating but it was also energizing! Just as I’d spent most of my life trying to fit into the White majority, I was also fooled into believing I needed to be the outspoken, extroverted type-A teacher/leader. My quietness and thoughtful nature were never affirmed or considered strengths. I now know what it means to be an introvert and what I need as an introvert. This has been crucial to my identity development and has led to deeper reflection and healing. I proudly claim “Introvert” as part of my identity now.
The second moment happened in the classroom. I saw so much of myself reflected in my students and the way they were growing up. Like me, they were beginning to push their culture away. On this particular day I almost broke down in tears as I desperately pleaded with my students about the importance of their culture and how lucky they were to still have their language and traditions practiced and valued each day.
While sharing stories of my upbringing and the rejection of my own culture, I became painfully aware of all the hurt I had stored away over the years and the fact that I was never really given the chance to experience my own culture. My family did what they felt was necessary to survive in this country and for that I am forever grateful, but I will always recognize the cost at which it came.
It is never too late to embrace your cultural heritage. While my family has been pretty Americanized, there are still small traces of our roots that survived, like my grandma always calling us “chula” or “mija” or greeting our elders with kisses on the cheek or the idea that no matter what, family is always first and most important. It’s never too late to learn, observe, ask questions, and most importantly, listen. Who you are runs deep within you and through your veins and I’ve learned no matter how hard someone may try, no one can take that away from you.
Personally appreciating and sharing my journey and experiences with others as a fourth-generation Mexican-American, has become a crucial part of how I build relationships and connect with my students of color both inside and outside of the classroom. However, trying to create the space within our Western education system for the delicate yet radical notion that students of color should be allowed to explore their identities, become self-aware, and love and accept themselves just as they are, is challenging.
As people of color on this journey, it is important to find a strong support system. Find people who love and accept us for who we are and who we’re becoming. Through my experiences, I was lucky enough to have gained some incredible friends and examples of what strong confident women of color embody and possess. I am forever grateful to these women because without them, I wouldn’t be where I am today. While I am still in the classroom, I hope to one day focus specifically on helping young girls of color embrace who they are and recognize the full potential they hold within them.
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