My identity is something I have dealt with all my life. It is human nature to judge a book by its cover, especially when it comes to people. And whether people like to admit it or not, it is something everyone does. Sometimes these preconceived notions of what people are or will be like are positive but, from my own experience, they have not been the best. As a white-passing Latina immigrant, I felt a connection to how Tayo was ostracized by friends and family due to him being half-white and his hazel eyes were a constant reminder to those around him that he was the child of a white man. My main struggle is with my own cultural identity and my sense of belonging or lack thereof.
Much like Tayo at the beginning of Ceremony, written by Leslie Marmon Silko, I could not relate to either one of my cultural or racial identities. His father had been white and his mother, an Indian, had been looked down upon for having relations with a white man. As a result, Tayo was not embraced as a real Indian. His hazel eyes were a constant reminder to his Auntie of her sister having relations with a white man and the fact that Tayo was half-white. He never felt a strong tie to his Native roots nor did he relate at all to being white. He was in between and did not belong. While this was not exactly the case for me, I did encounter identity issues throughout my youth.
When I tell white Americans that I am Peruvian I get nearly the same response every time. It varies from “Oh you do not look it”, “Were you born here or there?”. My absolute favorite one is, “Are you legal?”. When I tell other Latin Americans I am from Peru there is always some type of doubt because of the color of my skin, hair, and eyes or I am asked if I speak Spanish. Due to these frequent responses, I felt a disconnect from being both American and Latina.
Throughout my life, there have been people who have, albeit unintentionally, enforced the disconnect to my identity. I vividly remember an occurrence in which my friends heard sirens, began to laugh and told me to hide because ICE was coming to get me. This had happened a few months after finding out I was not even here in the U.S. legally. It only confirmed my beliefs that maybe I was not American and it made me feel less of a human. I came to the United States when I was a year old. I have absolutely no concept of what Peru is or was like and I did not “feel” Peruvian. The fact that my parents had divorced a year after we arrived to the United States did not help, much less when they both got remarried and had kids. I had to cope with the idea that I was not American nor Peruvian but also the fact that I did not belong to a single family. I was figuratively floating in between what I felt like I identified and literally floating in between households to families that were not mine. I felt as though I belonged to no one and it is still something that I struggle to cope with. Everyone in my direct family is from Peru and look what “normal” South Americans do. While I have absolutely no control over these things, I do believe they also had an impact on how people initially perceive me much like how Tayo was perceived.
All of my direct family members, with the exception of my dad, have brown hair, brown eyes, and tan skin. My grandfather was German and he passed down his light-colored eyes, skin, and hair to my father who then passed down the genes to me. My appearance was something that has always been brought up by my late grandmother who liked to tell me about how much I looked like her late husband. I was, and still am, constantly reminded that I looked outside of the norm and again it reinforced the idea that I had some type of disconnect from my roots. And even many of my step-moms family members like to comment on how good my Spanish is for someone who is basically all American.
In high school, many of my Hispanic friends that I made originally saw me as some white girl and even when I told them I was from Peru, they practically insisted that I prove myself. In order to do so, I had to speak in Spanish and the response was frequently that it was so weird to see a guera speak Spanish. The comments made me feel a sense of shame because maybe I was not Latina enough. This scenario is all too common especially when it comes down to language. Monoracial people, or people that appear monoracial, are more hesitant to integrate racially ambiguous individuals because they prefer to accept people that look like them and especially speak their native tongue. An all too frequent problem is that when a person is from a Spanish speaking country and they do not speak the language then they are looked down upon or seen as fake. And while it was not the case for me, my authenticity was still questioned.
In Ceremony, Tayo is made to feel ashamed because of the problems that came along with the fact that he was half-white by people like his Auntie and Emo. Not only was he shamed by them but, during that time the white population discriminated against Indians and Mexicans. So not only was he shamed by the people on his reservation for not being fully Indian but he was frowned upon by the rest of society for being Indian despite him being partially white. It is very difficult to live in a society where you are rejected by everyone you try to have a connection with. It is hard for many biracial or multicultural individuals in America to be able to make a definite connection with one particular group that they feel that they belong to. They may be referred to as half-breed, off-brand, half-blood, so on and so forth. But what purpose does that serve? All it does is alienate people and make them feel less authentic, more disconnected, and shamed for being “only” half of something.
But on the flip side, many non-white individuals are labeled as foreigners and is something I hear from so many Americans in my own age group. For example, old friends would frequently make commentary about how foreigners need to assimilate to American society but, I would remind them that I am also a “foreigner”. Their response, most of the time, was, “Oh, well you’re not like them”. I was being alienated from a culture I developed a deep connection with by both Latino groups and American groups. I am always acknowledged but never fully accepted. I am discreetly, while unintentionally, made aware that I am different.
The struggle with identity is something that not only I face but that many other biracial or multiracial people, and especially immigrant youth, face. In the process of trying to belong and discover ourselves, we are told we are not enough, do not belong, or treated differently when people find out about our cultural background.