Much of my life has been a racial identity crisis. I was born in Mexico and came to this country as an immigrant. I am also mixed race, so my nearly “blond” hair blends in better in the United States than it ever did in Mexico City. I grew up in the Boston area, surrounded by people who accepted my two completely different last names, and perhaps identities, without question. It didn’t matter where I had come from, just that I was there.
I was only vaguely aware of how easy it was for me to walk into almost any place in Boston and feel at home. When my parents were working really late and needed me to find somewhere to entertain myself until they were ready to go home, I could walk into a hotel and sit in the lobby reading for hours without being bothered. “Just walk in and act like you are supposed to be there,” my dad told me once. And it worked — because I blend in easily. This is not a reality for a lot of people.
While my parents encouraged me to speak up in class, be vocal and defend my opinions politically and socially, many other immigrant students lived quietly in limbo with seemingly fewer options as they got older. I was comfortable sharing my story as an immigrant, despite all the layers that came with it. But I never experienced the sting of rejection or judgement. Around my American classmates, they looked at me and saw someone that they recognized as another generic looking “American.”
What does it mean to “blend in?” Sometimes it’s the unspoken but necessary factor in making your case when you meet strangers. Can they connect with you? Can they imagine you being a daughter, a neighbor, a sister or girlfriend or friend?
Sometimes, whether we acknowledge it or not, we stop listening when the story is too far beyond anything that we can imagine happening in our own lives, right?
In the eyes of the public, and even my community, I am white. My race only comes up at certain times: When a friend has had too much to drink and asks me why I still identify as a Mexican even though I haven’t lived there for years and look just like “everyone else here.” It comes up whenever I correct the pronunciation of my name – Dee-ah-nah… not Die-ann or Die-ann-uh.
It came up when I visited friends who look more stereotypically Mexican than I do. Society sees them as Latino, the kind of Latino that politicians flash on the screen during their speeches in Miami Dade, Bridgeport, Connecticut or Texan political rallies.
It came up when I went shopping with a friend and the saleswoman followed him around with her eyes, looking uncomfortable, but let me wander around on my own without more than a nod of her head in acknowledgement.
The definition that society uses for “Diana” is not the same one I would choose. But it is a definition that has fundamentally shaped my experience as a Latina in this country. It is unique to me and cannot be used to generalize the “Latino experience” in the United States. While there were some experiences that I share with other Latinos, I will never completely understand the experience that other students, who look more stereotypically Latino, face on a regular basis.
There are days when people will listen to my story and my reasons for fighting for immigration reform and it will mean something to them. And there are other days I go to other communities who look at me and don’t see themselves in my face and my skin and my story. Race is a factor in our experiences, whether at home or away.
I notice it most when it comes to politics. When I am trying to address a room full of people who all have a different concept of what the “American experience” really feels like. As an activist, I am constantly struggling to find the right language to get my message across. I’m working on finding that balance between my personal experiences and a more inclusive message.