What’s a Mexican ?
by Storyteller Olga Loya
Approximate Length of Video and Audio: 8 Minutes, 48 Seconds.
The search for identity is a personal one. No one can tell you who you are.
When we accept all aspects of ourselves, we feel more comfortable in
our own skins as well as in the world.
Storyteller, Olga Loya, talks about exploring different aspects of her ethnic identity. When she was in college she wanted to fit in with the dominant culture and so emphasized the American part of her Mexican-American identity. She felt complimented when anyone said she didn’t look Mexican and embarrassed when she discovered that, to her classmates, she spoke with an accent.
Then, in college, she heard Cesar Chavez talk and was inspired to go to Mexico. There she discovered the many accomplishments of her ancestors and that Mexicans came in every shape and color. She was now emphasizing the Mexican part of her Mexican-American identity.
When Olga moved to Northern California she was introduced to several First Nations groups. She began to claim her own Indian heritage much to the chagrin of her parents. Now, Olga identified as Chicano.
Over the years Mexican-Americans have been labeled many ways and called many things: Hispanic, Latino and so on. Olga is able to rise above the labels by having pride in herself, her language and her culture and, therefore, being comfortable with herself wherever she goes..
- Video of What’s a Mexican? (MP4 format)
- Download Audio of What’s a Mexican?(MP3 format)
- Transcription Text of What’s a Mexican? (PDF format)
REFLECTIONS & DISCUSSION QUESTIONS
About What’s a Mexican?
1. Why would Mexican Americans have “a thing about color”? Why were light-skinned Mexican-Americans more favored?
2. Why was Olga complimented when people said she “didn’t look Mexican?”
3. What did Olga discover by going to Mexico? Why was it important for her to go?
4. Olga said that when she moved to Northern California from East Los Angeles, she felt lonesome for people of color. Is this a prejudice or is it important to be around people who have similar experiences?
5. Why would Olga’s parents be all right with her identifying as Mexican but not Indian?
6. How is it that Olga is now more comfortable with her identity? How is that she has come to accept all aspects of herself?
Think or journal about parts of yourself that you may have discarded in order to fit in. How can you accept yourself even more?
Think about when you have teased others when they were just being themselves. How can you let friends know that you accept and enjoy who they are?
STORY TRANSCRIPT of
What’s a Mexican ?
by Storyteller Olga Loya
Note : The transcript below of the video and audio story is not in correct text book English. It is a transcription of the spoken story. There are also a few variations from the spoken word. This text is for your guidance and reference as you start to study and think about this story.
Hi. My name is Olga Loya and this is an excerpt from a longer story called Nepantla: Between Worlds.
Among us Mexican Americans, there’s a thing about color. If you were guera, light-skinned, you were more favored than if you were prieta, dark skinned. I have been mistaken for Italian, Greek, and French. When I was younger, I thought it was cool that people didn’t know if I was Mexican. In my late teens, I went into my Mexican-AMERICAN stage.
Oh, I wanted to be an Americana. Even though I hung around with my Mexican friends, I wanted to be in the white world, speaking English, and being oh so la-di-da.
People often came up to me and said, “But you don’t look Mexican!” As though that was a compliment. When I was in my Mexican-AMERICAN stage, I smiled and said, “Thank you very much.”
So, I was a Mexican American. Mexican AMERICAN.
.One day I was standing around with some college classmates and someone asked me how I had gotten to college.
I said, “I was the weener of a scholarship”
They all started to laugh.
I said, “What’s so funny about me being the weener of a scholarship?
They laughed even harder.
“I don’t get it. What’s so funny about being a weener of a scholarship?”
One of the students finally stopped and said, “A weener goes into a hot dog. You were a winner not a weener of a scholarship.
It was the first time I realized I had an accent. How would I know? Where I grew up, everyone talked like me. I was so embarrassed! It was humiliating to have people making fun of the way I pronounced words, to have people make fun of the way I looked, of the way I was.
I continued my move away from my cultura, my raiz, my race. I was seriously in my Mexican-AMERICAN time. I was most comfortable in the white world. I spoke perfect English except when I got excited or spoke too much Spanish. I went home but I didn’t stay long. I had chosen another world.
I didn’t know there was an emptiness in my heart. I did not know I was missing the warmth of the family gatherings and the sweet, lilting sound of Spanish being spoken. I did not know I was missing the music and the affectionate way we Latinos greet each other.
Then I went to see a man speak in East Los Angeles. He was soft spoken and charismatic. He talked about our powerful ancestors and the importance of standing up for oneself and one’s people. He stopped and stared at all of us with his kind brown eyes and said, “Yo soy orgulloso ser un mejicano. I am proud to be a Mexican.” I felt like a bolt of electricity ran through my body! I wanted to cry because I had never heard anyone say those words.
Then he talked about how we should be proud of ourselves, of the cultura, and about how everyone was equal. His name was César Chávez, the leader of the United Farm Workers of America, the union that protects farm laborers. As I listened to him, I began to feel I needed to go to Mexico to see what made him so proud.
So I went to Mexico to learn more about my cultura. What a revelation! Color exploded everywhere—in the flowers, the clothes. There were many different tribes in their beautiful clothes. I went to the mercados and the smells of flowers, yerbas, herbs, chocolate, and café surrounded me.
There were people with white skin and dark skin, people with blue eyes, brown eyes, and green eyes, redheads, blonds, and brunettes, and all of them Mejicanos!
There were the pyramids and the museums that showed what my ancestors had done. I visited churches that looked like my own church in East Los Angeles. I saw the Virgen de Guadalupe statues everywhere, just like home. In my family’s homes, everyone had at least one Virgen de Guadalupe statue or picture on the altar.
I went to a cafe and drank café con leche just like my Grandma Loya used to give me. I watched the people, listened to the music, heard the Spanish, and I felt at home. I saw the elegance and grace of my cultura in a whole new way. In my late twenties, my MEXICAN-American stage began.
When people said, “But you don’t look Mexican!” I didn’t thank them. Instead I replied, “Oh, what does a Mexican look like? My grandfather and uncle and aunt were light skinned and redheaded. I have one aunt who was blond and green eyed and I have uncles and aunts who are dark skinned and dark haired. So what does a Mexican look like?”
So I had gone from being a Mexican American to a Mexican AMERICAN and, now, a MEXICAN American.
A few years after I went to Mexico, I moved to Northern California. I missed being around people of color. The only people of color were the Native American tribes, and they rarely left their reservations. I missed being around people of color.
Then, I was invited to go to a Native American ceremony. The first time I went, I was stunned. All the old people looked like my tías and tíos, aunts and uncles. There was tía Neni, tía Licha, and tío Loli. They all were brown skinned and brown eyed, and the women were bossing everybody around and acting as if they weren’t. It made me feel so at home. I went as often as possible to the ceremonies. I loved the dancing, the chanting, the music. I loved the rhythms.
But they weren’t my rhythms.
I began my return to my heritage with my trip to Mexico and I continued my search for my own rhythms by going back to East Los Angeles and really looking and listening.
As I walked the streets of East L.A. as an adult, I heard the rhythms of the Spanish language, of the cumbia, ranchero, and salsa music coming out of houses and cars as I walked around. I saw brown people who looked like they had just come from Mexico walking along the streets with Mexican Americans whose families had been here for generations. I saw a proud people doing the best that they could. At family gatherings I saw love and the vitality.
I looked at East Los Angeles and I saw the beauty!
Then I discovered the Chicano world. I was glad we CHICANOS were exploring our indigenous past and feeling pride for our people and our land. I felt pride in having Indian blood. After all, I had gone to Mexico and seen the grandeur of my ancestors. However, my family didn’t like it.
They said, “y qué es eso? Eres mejicana. Eres Americana. Pero no eres Chicana. And what’s this? You are Mexican. You are American. But you are not Chicana.”
I said to them, “But Mom, Dad, I want to feel pride for my ancestry. I mean, we’ve got some great ancestors—the Aztecs, the Toltecs, the Mayans, the Veces, the Tarahumaras.”
They said, “No, you are not calling yourself a Chicana in our house. You are American. You are Mexican. You are not an Indian.”
But I argued: “But don’t you get it? A Mexican is a mezcla, a mix of Indian and Spanish. The best of both are in the Mexican.”
“We don’t care. You will not call yourself a Chicana in this house. Just think what your grandparents would say!”
SO I was a Mexican American, Mexican AMERICAN, MEXICAN American, CHICANA.
Then, came the word Hispanic. His panic. Her panic. Whose panic? I know I am not Hispanic. When I first heard that word, I felt as though the government was trying to box me in with another label. I didn’t need any more labels.
Then people started using the term “Latino” more and more. I thought, “Oh no, here we go again!”
One day I asked my daughter, “Maya, what does “Latino” mean to you?”
She looked at me and said, “Can I get back to you?”
A few days later she came over and said, “I think being a Latina means anyone who uses a language with Latin as its root.”
She thought for a while longer, “But if I say I am a Latina, you know I speak from a Latin-based language but you don’t know where I come from.”
“Hmm,” I thought, “this just gets more and more interesting.”
All my life I have been in a state of Nepantla. Between worlds. Mexican American. Mexican AMERICAN. MEXICAN American. Chicana. Latina. Now I am orgullosa de mi cultura, proud of my culture, orgullosa de mi idioma, proud of my language, orgullosa de mi misma, proud of myself. I walk the world between worlds and I am comfortable wherever I am.
©2011 RaceBridges For Schools. This lesson plan is part of an initiative for educators called RaceBridges For Schools. It is a project that seeks to provide free tools for teachers and students to motivate them to build stronger and more inclusive communities. This guide may be freely used, reproduced and distributed for educational purposes as long as this copyright information is displayed intact. The video and audio excerpts and transcript included in this unit is copyrighted by Olga Loya. Used with permission: www.OlgaLoya.com