Am I Hispanic? It seems like such a simple question.
But ethnic identity can be complicated these days.
I’m 6’5″ with grey eyes and light skin. My mother was from the Appalachian hills in east Tennessee. That is not typically how one thinks of a Chicano. I don’t think I’ve ever had a person who just met me assume I am Hispanic.
A Mixed History
But my father was first generation Mexican-American. He grew up in the barrios of Orange county back when it was more known for its orange groves than its housewives. He worked the fields as a child and attended a segregated elementary school, the whole nine yards. My Dad was also the only Hispanic graduate in his law school class, he was active in the Chicano civil rights movement, and in the 1980s became the first Latino appointed to the California State Supreme Court. The Latino Bar Association is even named after him in the Sacramento area.
The rural community I grew up in was mostly Anglo. When I got to High School, there was a much larger Hispanic population but I never specifically identified with that community. My mom was the most prominent parent in my upbringing. She was Anglo, so I was raised culturally Anglo. Since the mother typically passes down language, I didn’t even grow up speaking Spanish.
What About Me?
Despite being half Mexican, I look white. I am white. Culturally, I was raised as an Anglo. But I also have a strong Chicano heritage. A heritage of which I am proud, but only partly identify. This tension has been a defining part of who I am. Much of my artwork grows out of the idea of social groupings and an individual’s relationship to those groupings.
This theme has come into my scholarly work as well. As part of my Ph.D. work, I organized a Chicano art show, View from the Bench: Social Justice in Art, Law, and Religion of the Chicano Community, which I wrote about in the article Cruz Reynoso’s View from the Bench: Drawings in the Context of Chicano Art. This was an important show for me because it explores issues of religion, art, social justice, and ethnicity. Which are all important to my personal identity.
It was personally affirming to me also because when I lectured to a U.C. Berkeley Chicano Studies class and held a round-table about the exhibition, I brought up the question of my own Chicano-ness. Consistently, other Chicano artists and Scholars affirmed my identity as Chicano. Before moving cross country to take a tenure track position, I was even scheduled to begin teaching in the Chicano Studies program at U.C. Berkeley.
Homeless… seeking a home
The theme of homelessness has been repeated in my life recently. Years ago, I used to speak about being between worlds. I wrote about this for the Christians in the Visual Arts blog though they no longer publish the full article. The full text is available on Academia.edu. But what has occurred to me more recently is that when one lives between worlds it isn’t that both worlds are home, but rather neither is home. This phenomenon is true in multiple facets of my life.
The exhibition and opportunities in Berkeley opened a crack for me to become more comfortable with the Hispanic side of my heritage. But now I have moved to eastern Tennessee where that part once again seems more distant. I think the reality is that I will always feel a bit homeless.
Still, I want to claim my Hispanic heritage.
This year, I became the faculty sponsor for our University’s Latinx club. This challenges me at my core but I want to lean into this part of my heritage.
As Hispanic Heritage Month begins (September 15- October 15), I think more about this. I don’t have answers but I believe there are two parts to heritage. There is the physical. My father’s side of the family is from Mexico. My Dad would remind me that in the part of Mexico they are from, there are quite a few light-skinned people even those who are blonde with blue eyes. But, there is also the emotional and intellectual identity. Not everyone wants to claim certain parts of their ethnic identity. I do, even if it is at times a struggle.
I may be homeless… but I am claiming that home nonetheless.
** Defining some terms**
It occurred to me as I was writing that I use the terms Hispanic, Latino, and Chicano somewhat fluidly. I think brief definitions may be helpful to some readers.
Hispanic- A person who descends from a Spanish-speaking culture.
Latino or Latinx- A person who descends from a Latin American country.
Chicano- An American resident who descends from Mexico.
These are very simple, even simplistic definitions, but may be of help to some.
This essay is from our Anastasis Series where we resurrect articles from the past that are either still relevant today. This piece was first published on September 17, 2019, and has been lightly edited and updated.