You Don't Look Mexican
Updated: Mar 12, 2019
By Ana Villarreal
Ana and I have been classmates for almost three years now, and yet I knew almost nothing about her. It’s so easy to take the people we see everyday for granted and to forget that every person hides an entire experience that might not be entirely evident. I’ve become closer with her in the last few months, and she casually mentions things like “oh yeah, I went to high school in Seoul” that completely throw me for a loop. I selfishly asked her to write something because I was so curious about her life. The result was more enlightening and complex than I ever could have imagined.
Being a Mexican child growing up in suburban Mexico City, race wasn’t something I thought about very often, not consciously at least. I can’t recall a single time in my childhood years in Mexico when the thought of any of my friends or classmates as being of a different race. I assume the other kids, like me, just thought we had different skin tones because of arbitrary factors. The color of our skin was comparable to the color of our hair or eyes.
If you had asked me to think of a person of a different race than me, I would’ve thought of a person from a distant continent like Asia or Africa; people who I had only seen in movies
and television. Within Mexico, children like me had little notion of race.
I suppose this is common. Knowing Mexico’s history of colonization and mass immigration from all over the world, most of us, (except those of indigenous descent) think of ourselves as mestizos–mixed– not belonging to a single race. As Mexicans, we want to think that Mexico really is the way we saw it as children: we are all the same in that we are all a mix, there is no one Mexican race and hence we all belong, we are all equal. And though we are the same fundamentally, reality proves otherwise.
I was naive, like most children are. It took me moving to a different country to learn that not all latinos were seen the way I saw everyone as a child. Whether I liked it or not, my skin tone and features would affect my life in different ways than other people from the same place as me.
But returning to the child mindset, I thought of race and nationality as synonyms: equivalent, interchangeable words. I was Mexican, period.
Or at least that was before I was able to understand that I was also American.
I guess I always knew that the place where I had been born was called Michigan. I knew that as a statement, an abstract concept more than anything else. For the first eight years of my life I didn’t know that that place was on the other side of an imaginary line; I had no memory of it and I couldn’t point it out on a map. In many ways, me being American carried no meaning; I was American on paper. My parents had moved to Michigan for my dad to complete a work assignment when my brother was little and my mom was pregnant with me. Then they moved back when I was still a baby.
Citizenship and geopolitical divisions are difficult concepts to understand as a child. I had previously thought that nationality defined the way you looked. I guess I wasn’t really American, right? I mean, how could I be American if my parents are Mexican and my veins have Mexican blood? And why do some of my family members joke and call me “gringa”? I started to realize that nationality and what you were made out of were not the same thing.
The first time I was informed that not all latinos/Mexicans were seen as equal was when my family moved back to Michigan eight years after I was born. When I started the third grade at Baldwin Elementary School it was the first time someone told me, “But, you don’t look Mexican.”
I had to explain to my other third grade classmates that Mexicans came in all shapes, sizes, and colors. And later on I explained that in fact I was also American, and from Michigan. One eight-year-old thought that that was actually the rational explanation: (by 8-year-old logic) I was white because I had been born in Michigan. I had to explain then, that your place of birth didn’t really affect the way you looked, that depended on your “blood.”
You can’t really blame 8-year-olds for repeating stereotypes fed to them through movies and television. Maybe you can’t blame anyone at all when those stereotypes are repeated even within Mexico. More than once my mom–a petite, blue eyed, red haired, Mexican woman– was mistaken for a foreign tourist in different parts of Mexico. Several times she was also complimented on her perfect Spanish and asked where she had learned to speak it so well. We still laugh about that and make jokes that Mom is secretly a Russian spy.
After returning from Michigan and living in Mexico for seven more years, my dad’s work required my family to move again. This time to Seoul, South Korea. Never had we been so obviously foreign in a place. I remember getting stared at on the subway and being able to spot my mom with incredible ease on the other side of a crowded store.
Being a foreigner in Korea came with perks. Especially as a teenager. It was widely known throughout my and other American and international high schools that even if you were underage you could get into most bars and clubs. There was a theory that when you looked foreign most locals couldn’t estimate your age and would assume that you were a university exchange student, or simply older.
It was a very different environment than what I was used to. Apart from the prevalent underage drinking, my high school was very cliquey. And the divisions of the student body often fell along the lines of ethnicity and nationality. Most of the Korean students were friends with other Korean students, most Americans gravitated towards others of similar cultures: Canadians, Australians, Brits, etc. Most Europeans identified with other Europeans and so on.
There weren’t many latinos at that school and that left us floating in a grey area, wondering which group we fell into. Because I was only American on paper, I had a hard time identifying with other American students and somehow I ended up in what was perceived as the “European” clique. The group was composed of French, Norwegian, half Swedish half Korean, half Dutch half Malaysian, Australian, American students who had lived all over the world and I, Mexican. The term was used loosely. Outside of school, nationalities didn’t really matter as we were all pooled into the category of white foreigners.
Moving back to the U.S. again after living in Korea, this time to Philly, was a bit of a culture shock. I had gotten used to not blending in and having a sense of entitlement like the rules didn’t apply to me because I was foreign. Once again I was both native and foreign.
At plain sight, most people assume I’m from somewhere around here. It’s when I speak though that people begin to notice a strange, nondistinctive accent and wonder where I’m from. Most people don’t ask right away, as it can sometimes be considered rude to ask a person where they’re really from. The first time I went to the nurse’s office during my freshman year in college, while the nurse was setting up and looking through my file, she suddenly turned with a puzzled look on her face and asked, “You’re Korean?” in a way that sounded like she didn’t want to be rude. To which I explained that the permanent address on my file said South Korea only because my parents still lived there.
Generally it seems that most people struggle with reconciling the way I sound with the way I look. It might be an accent that they have heard before, but their first reaction isn’t to connect it to one of the neighboring countries. Rather, I’ve had people tell me that they had thought I was from somewhere in Eastern Europe. Once, a guy told me “I thought you were French,” wanting to make it sound like a compliment.
Attending a liberal school in a liberal city, it’s obvious that people are becoming increasingly more aware of the need to be sensitive towards people of different backgrounds. But I still get the classic “you don’t look Mexican” from time to time. Sometimes I’m not sure if they mean it as a compliment, as in you don’t look like the negative images pushed by the media of lazy and
uneducated, or as a misinformed observation.
These sort of comments are mostly harmless to me, as they actually denote that I am in a position of privilege. It makes me feel guilty and think about other people that came from the same place as me that are not afforded those privileges.
It becomes obvious that this country has no problem with foreigners as long as they don’t look like they come from “shithole” countries. We don’t hear much of Swedish people being told to go back to where they came from or French people being told to speak English. If I speak Spanish with my sister at a store, we get asked with curiosity if we’re from Spain and perhaps if I didn’t look the way I do, someone would actually tell me to go back to Mexico.
It’s important to recognize that despite us Mexicans wanting to believe that racism doesn’t exist in Mexico because we are all mestizo, there is still discrimination there too. Perhaps it is not as apparent as it is in the U.S., but it’s there. Oppression and privilege within the latino community both in the U.S. and in Latin-American countries is a problem that must be acknowledged by everyone.