Marc Leroux-Parra: A Reflection on Latinx Identity

Marc Leroux-Parra is a member of the Harvard College class of 2022 and a proud resident of Cabot House. He is pursuing an A.B. in Art, Film, and Visual Studies – Film with a secondary in Government. He is a publications intern at ReVista.

 

By Marc Leroux-Parra

            When I introduce myself to people, I usually don’t mention my Latinx heritage. It may come up at some point during that conversation, but I even have had instances where I surprise close friends by speaking Spanish. They sometimes say they had no idea I spoke Spanish, let alone that I am half Mexican. It occasionally leads to expressions of disbelief, since how could I, a preppy-dressing and pale-skinned college student, possibly be Mexican?

I sometimes ask myself why I don’t immediately reveal my Mexican heritage. After all, I often go to visit relatives in Mexico and I often speak Spanish at home. I have grown up with countless Latin American friends and family members with whom I have wonderful memories and relationships.

 How come I do not wear my Mexican heritage on my sleeve? Why do I keep it hidden behind the outer layers of who I present myself to be? The easy answer would be to say: “I don’t know, that’s the way I’ve done things so far and so I’ll continue to do so.” Fortunately I have never quite been a fan of these cop-out answers. Unfortunately, there is no concrete way to answer that question. But I can try.

One could start by pointing out the turbulent political climate in the United States, as reflected in the response of disbelief that someone like me could be Mexican. When a cultural or ethnic people is unfairly singled out, as Mexicans are often singled out by the conservative voices in the United States, it makes sense to try and minimize that “otherness” in order to fit in. One could go as far as to say that the United States pressures its immigrant communities to abandon their strong cultural ties and pledge absolute allegiance to the “American” way of life. Cultural assimilation is good, they say, because it makes newcomers feel welcomed by this country. They feel like they fit in with everyone else.

Notwithstanding the wonderful lie that is, those are not quite the reasons. I don’t readily share my Mexicanness because I feel culturally pressured to hide it, although that is the truth for many first-generation immigrants. If anything, everything about my Latinx heritage demands, screams, to be shared with the world. My parents have always taught me about Mexican history and culture, and stressed how proud my brother and I ought to be to come from such a distinguished people. Every story I write is shaped by the experiences I have had visiting family in Mexico, and my worldview is defined by my Mexicanness.

In spite of all that, I can’t help but feel somewhat out of place when it comes to publicly embracing my Latinx heritage. It’s a feeling that I am immensely proud of who I am and the culture with which I identify, yet simultaneously not being identified with that culture.

My mom has occasionally asked me whether or not I have considered joining Latinx or Latin American organizations on campus. My honest reply has always been “yes, I have considered it, but no, I do not plan on joining.” I have never really felt comfortable in campus Latino organizations mainly because I don’t fit into one of the two primary archetypes of Latinos: one being the white, upper- and upper middle-class students who have come to the U.S. to study at elite universities or whose families fled one of the many redistributive leftist regimes in Latin America; the other being the students of color who generally come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, whose families are either fleeing persecution and violence or lack of economic opportunity in their countries of origin. These organizations also have other archetypes, like the few mestizo, or multi-racial, immigrants from the upper classes, or even rarer, the mestizo immigrant from the lower classes. Instead, I am a white-passing, second-generation immigrant student from the middle class who dresses like a stereotypical preppy, or fresa in Mexican Spanish, young adult. I cannot deeply relate to any of these categories, simply because I have not lived and experienced the archetypical conditions of these students’ backgrounds.

As a result, I am a member of a third archetype in the Latinx community: those caught in the middle. At the organizational level at an elite institution of higher education, both of the primary archetypical groups come into conflict, sometimes quite seriously. There is a marked over- representation of the white-passing, upper-class students in many elite colleges and their ethnic organizations, particularly in leadership positions. This naturally causes a divisional rift, where students of underrepresented communities feel further underrepresented. A good friend of mine, Caesar (name changed for anonymity), mentioned to me that this conflict boiled over at Emerson College, where students of color fairly criticized the white and wealthy leadership of the Latino organizations, the response to which was quite abrasive.

At a superficial level, this degree of conflict within the Latinx community seems baffling. How could a people as committed to unity and solidarity as the Latinx be subject to these bitter conflicts amongst themselves? Yet it makes a lot of sense at an institutional level. In Latin American countries, the key, politically salient societal division is socio-economic status. This is what political elites use to mobilize support, what irritates people most, the lens to which they analyze and try to solve injustice. In the United States by contrast, that key, politically salient societal division is race. That is not to say that race does not play a crucial role in Latin America—it definitely does due to the racial distribution of socio-economic levels—nor that economic class does not play a crucial role in the United States; rather, race in Latin America and class in the United States still do not drive political mobilization.

The importance behind this distinction means that being Latinx means different things to different people. And ultimately, everyone, to some extent, defaults to the stereotypes they have internalized from their respective societies. For immigrants, being Latinx means having Latin American heritage, although people from similar socio-economic backgrounds develop stronger familiar bonds. For Latinx-Americans, being Latinx is defined by the experience of being a racial minority community which faces systematic racism and often outright hostility by members of the majority. In my view, herein lies the clue to understanding the conflict occurring at elite college campuses. The white, upper-class immigrants tend to see the organizations as collections of Latin Americans as a whole, and feel offended when they are criticized on the basis of racial discrimination because they, for the first time, are experiencing some degree of racial “otherization” since Latinxs are all labeled as a racial minority here in the United States. Their naïveté puts them in a position where they expect strong solidarity from the Latinx community, because they fail to understand that the Latinx community itself is further subdivided by race, even if the broad category of peoples is already a minority; minorities and discriminations stack. The Latinx of color tend to be frustrated by the difficulty in achieving leadership status and approaching their organizations, and further bristle at the economic inequality inherent in the elite college environment.

Those of us caught in the middle are quite different, because there are a lot of Latinx people who don’t fit into these archetypes for reasons as diverse as Latin Americans themselves. In my case, I feel like I don’t belong because my physical appearance categorizes me as one of the upper class, white elites. Yet I can in no way relate to this group because I grew up between two middle-class households, each of which had one of my divorced parents working modest jobs and struggling with the demands of being a single parent. That upbringing makes me more sympathetic to Latinx peers with similar socio-economic background. Yet I also cannot fully relate with the majority of them either because I do not struggle with the racial difficulties that Latinx of color confront daily. I’m sure the white-passing Latina from a middle-class family in Texas who was in my Freshman Seminar would relate with being caught in the middle as well, for her own reasons. Reasons which do not lend themselves to the creation of an umbrella organization, for they are too far apart, but to lend themselves as a simple point of connection.

Unfortunately, the saliency of the racial pressures placed upon everyone living in the United States makes it challenging to avoid being “otherized” by your own people. Personally, I experience this most painfully in the form of language. I have practically given up trying to speak Spanish to strangers I know are native speakers, because the overwhelming response I get is English. The assumption triggered by my stereotype-breaking appearance, someone who learned Spanish in high school and is using it to pander—while a fair assumption—hurts. In a country where language is a political flashpoint—all you have to do is look at Sam Huntington’s thoughts on the Spanish language and conservative pundits assertions across the media landscape—this denial of such a fundamental point of connection serves as the ultimate “you are not a part of my community.” What hurts most is that I have seen and heard of friends of mine who are Chicano receiving this same response, simply because they can’t speak the language at the highest level of standard fluency.

This sense of “otherization” from within the Latinx community is precisely the reason I keep telling my well-intentioned mom that I don’t want to go study abroad in Mexico. I love visiting my various family members, but outside the cozy, confined walls of their homes creeps a lack of belonging. Even with close family friends my age I feel this subconscious tug that I don’t quite belong. And why would I? I am Mexican-American after all. Growing up in the United States has made me an American, whether I like it or not. Yet this feeling of not belonging is this subliminal undertow by everyone which seems to say, “you’re a visitor, here for a short while before going back to that other place.” While it doesn’t bother me anywhere else, it hits different when it is my heritage rebuffing my place in it.

I do not share the experience of deported dreamers or Mexican-American children, but I can empathize with their lack of place in Mexican society, although the rebuffal in their case is worse because Mexico doesn’t see them as temporary visitors, but an inconvenient problem with no easy solutions. To add insult to injury, they often have few personal connections to Mexico themselves—they are culturally American—thus being dropped in a place where they are told they belong by the United States, only to realize that they cannot belong because they are not members of that people. They are abandoned by their country and rebuffed by their heritage.

Which makes me wonder, can Latinx even encompass the entire Latinx community? Is it fair for every one of Latin American heritage to fall under the same label? To what extent should we further fragment the Latin American community? Does our collective political power in America not come from a unified front? Does the term Latin American not inherently refer to a people which transcends the geopolitical borders of more than a continent and a half—South America, Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean?

Our identity as Latin Americans is one of the most diverse identities in the world. There are very few places where citizens of two different nations could identify with each other as strongly as Latin Americans. That is because the struggles of the continent are incredibly similar: all of the countries have vibrantly colorful cultures which carry the visible imprint of colonialism, all are politically mobilized by class, all have been subject to U.S. imperialism in some form, most all speak the same primary language, and most all suffer similar injustices of different magnitudes. Yet that cohesive strength erodes when you include the United States. The experiences of Latinx-Americans are strikingly diverse, not to mention the drastic differences between them and immigrants, both temporary and permanent—both types of which have their own differences. It is important that we Latinx recognize each of these vast experiential differences as being legitimate in their own right. To drive conversations both with the wider U.S. public, and, most importantly, within the Latin American communities. For we are a diverse people, and the strength of diversity comes with understanding those experiences, and being able to find those similarities which bridge us, rather than those differences which would divide us.