Today, I was struck by NPR’s Michele Norris’s newest Race Card Project subject, Elysha O’Brien, a Mexican-American married to an Italian-American.
O’Brien was not taught Spanish. Her parents wanted to spare her the pain of prejudice. Not learning Spanish at home silenced her Mexican voice, but her appearance would often betray her. In the interview, she says that when she was teased in her teens by other Mexican children she says:
“It was my parents’ language; it wasn’t my language. When you’re kind of rebellious and you’re trying to find your identity, I used to say, ‘Well, I’m not Mexican, my parents are.’”
Like many of us who are trying to assimilate to our American Imposed identity, O’Brien is struggling with the pain of rejecting her Genetic racial identity. She says very effectively in response to her teen reaction, “I think it sounds very flip. It sounds very much like I’m trying to make amends for a really deep wound — just trying to put a Band-Aid on something instead of digging out the infection that’s there.”
As a mother, she, like me, is struggling with the best way to guide her children and help them celebrate this part of themselves that has been suppressed in her. Her conversation with her children when they are presented with the ethnicity box, a box that creates confusion and frustration, is mirrored in our family. She recounts the scene:
“And there was a box for ‘white,’ there was a box for ‘black,’ a box for ‘Asian’ and a box for ‘Hispanic.’
And my son says, ‘Well, where’s the Italian box?’ And I said, ‘Well, that’s just if you’re white.’ And he goes, ‘And what about Irish?’ I said, ‘Well, that’s white, too.’
‘But Hispanic’s there and Italian isn’t?’ my son asked. And … I couldn’t really answer him. But it’s interesting that when you look at the Hispanics … Mexicans are very different from Cubans, and Cubans are very different from Puerto Ricans, and Puerto Ricans are very different from Peruvians. But yet we are all lumped together as Hispanic, and we are all assumed to … speak the same language.
My children have the O’Brien last name, and they’re all fair-skinned, and they appear white. I always make sure I check off that ‘Hispanic’ box. Because I know that as a white male, they’re not going to be given certain privileges as if they were a Mexican male, which perhaps is slightly racist on my own part, but I want them to be able to have access to things.”
I understand this dilemma. I often felt so confused by the ethnicity questions and the boxes. As you have read, a college researcher changed my ethnicity when she read my name and saw that I had “checked the wrong box” for Asian.
O’Brien is determined to make sure her sons learn her native language, despite the fact that she doesn’t know it. I also want my children to learn my Cognitive identity native language, Spanish.
While my son is learning Spanish, he does not feel the same connection to the language that O’Brien’s sons will. But I will keep steering him down my road to racial recovery.