Labels. We all use them. Our lives are defined by description: poor, rich, Republican, Democratic, married, single, Anglo, Latino. What if you don't look like who you are? Ever met a person who looked like one of the homeless kids on the Drag only to find out they're one of the wealthiest software designers in town?
My life has been a never ending assertion of my culture. I am a proud Latina who looks extremely caucasian. I have pale skin that burns easily in the sun, never tanning although I freckle. I have blue eyes and brown hair. I have my father's Anglo coloring and my mother's passion for our ethnicity.
At a family reunion over the weekend, I was struck by how different I look from my relatives. My mother and her siblings all look alike. I resemble them, but only when you carefully compare us. My mother has dark hair and eyes, and her skin is light brown, as are most of my relatives. I look like one of the in-laws, related by marriage. As I looked around at the many shades of brown faces, from lightly colored to a deep, nutty hue, I was very aware of my paleness. So I reminded myself of my heritage, my family connection and bond.
I am the great, great, great granddaughter of Pedro Rosales, who was born in Coahuila, Mexico but founded our family home in Campbellton, Texas. Thrice-great Grandpa, known by his nickname of Po Pira, was married twice, fathering 8 children who became the building blocks of our family. I looked at pictures of my ancestors who died long before I was born and saw in them the same faces of the elderly relatives around me. I looked at a picture of my great grandmother Porfiria and saw shades of my grandmother Dorotea as well as the resemblance to aunts and cousins.
My great grandmother cooked tortillas on her outdated wood burning stove and didn't speak any English. Never fluent in Spanish, I managed to communicate well enough with her. Her tiny home would be hot and airless, windows and doors open in the vain hope of catching a light breeze but still we'd gather in the kitchen waiting to be handed a warm tortilla, fresh off the comal.
Almost every trip to Campbellton also means a visit to El Campo Santo, the cemetary, to pay respects. The joke in Campbellton is that you can tell the Anglo portion of the graveyard from the Hispanic part by the absence of vividly colored artificial flowers and wreaths decorating the plots. The Anglo portion has few if any flowers, real or otherwise. It's the easiest to mow and edge around, says the caretakers. As it is in the cemetary, so it is in my life. My Anglo relatives are not nearly as colorful and vibrant as my Hispanic ones. The Anglo side has boasted some fairly eccentric and interesting members but the current generation is tame in comparison.
I embrace my Latina-ness in all areas of my life. My cooking reflects it, down to menudo in the winter or if a hangover cure is necessary. My every day conversation includes a sprinkling of Spanish words mixed in when there isn't an English one to convey my meaning. I have friends who will text message me in Spanish and another who engages me in bilingual conversation, scolding me when I speak almost solely in English. He reminds me that to be fluent I have to put forth effort. His family has ceased to speak English around me, only switching to it if I become completely puzzled, unable to follow the conversation by translating in my head. Even then, they'll question "No entiendas? Did you understand, Kay?", give a brief explanation in English and go right back to Spanish.
I may look different from your average Hispanic woman, but inside I am one of la raza. Latina, chicana, Mexicana-American...a Rosa by any other name would still carry the same sweet fragrance of family, of respect for heritage and a pride in knowing my roots. The strong women in my family have instilled in me the idea that I am in control of my destiny. When I voice dreams aloud, the strong men of my family don't ask "why?" they say "why not?". As a Latina friend of mine says, "We're Mexi-CANS, not Mexi-CAN'Ts!".