by Olga Loya

Story Summary

Olga explores the various labels for her ethnic group: Mexican, American, Mexican American, Latina, Chicana and so on. In doing so, she finds out how she wants to define herself and her pride in her cultural life.

Discussion Questions

  1. How do you define your culture?
  2. Growing up were you satisfied with your culture?  If so, why or why not?
  3. Who was an influential person for you when you were growing up that helped you to accept all parts of yourself and your background?


  • Becoming Mexican American: Ethnicity, culture, and Identity in Chicano Los Angeles, 1900-1945by George J Sanchez
  • Tell the World – Storytelling Across Language Barriers edited by Margaret Read MacDonald
  • En Mi Familia (In My Family) by Carmen Loza Garza


  • Civil Rights Movement
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • Family and Childhood
  • Identity
  • Languages
  • Latino Americans/Latios
  • Taking a Stand and Peacemaking

Full Transcript
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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, blondes, 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 blonde 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 Chicanain 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.