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Being a Mexican-American is not like being a German-American, an Italian-American, or even an Egyptian-American. For some Mexican-Americans, it is not enough to be of Mexican lineage. One must pride themselves for having come from Mexico and being descendents of the murderous Aztec Empire. Most importantly, they must not forget their mother tongue, Spanish.
Earlier this month, I was annoyingly reminded of these individuals who feel they have a right to demand other Mexican-Americans speak Spanish. They also feel it is their moral imperative to inform me that I am not a real Mexican. I know right? Real a**holes. After leaving this less-than-pleasant individual, I could not help but think of my family history and what brought them here.
My father does not know Spanish. My mother only speaks ranchero Spanish, which is more slang than actual Spanish. I am a 4th generation American, and my ancestors came from the poorest regions of Mexico. They did not come here for vacation, or even temporary work. They came to make America their home, as their lives were largely fated for agrarian poverty if they did not.
A Mexican’s social status, income attainment, and even education, have mostly been determined by the color of their skin and by their pedigree. It is very easy to see this disparity today. One only needs to look those at the fore of Mexico’s government, commerce, and even television personalities versus those who work the fields in the rural states. Who looks more white and who looks more moreno (non-pejorative for “brown”) determines who is at the top in Mexico. My ancestors have all been moreno, and therefore poor.
In spite of this, many 3rd and 4th generation Mexican-Americans fly the Mexican flag with pride. They believe “the border crossed them” and America owes them for their grievances against the gringos. They demand all Mexican-Americans know Spanish fluently. For them, a Mexican-American who does not speak Spanish is not worthy of the designation.
Other Mexican chauvinists I have encountered have literally said my parents did me a disservice by not teaching me the Spanish language or Mexican culture. As if I needed a critique from a man with neck tattoos or another who was looking for the nearest bus stop.
They fail to recognize the racial injustice many Mexicans fled and the opportunity America continues to hold. For many morenos, including my ancestors, a life in Mexico meant grinding poverty and a judgmental society that looked down upon them for being more Native than Spaniard. They would never be invited to dine in the walled villas of the Mexican elite, but they could clean their dishes. Why would anyone do that in Mexico, when you do the same in America and have indoor plumbing?
A moreno in America could earn enough money to send his children to school instead of having them till the fields for subsistence in Mexico. A moreno could live a more comfortable life in America and with less discrimination. The United States even 30 years ago was not as discriminatory as Mexico is today, yet many Mexican-Americans ignorantly deny this claim and argue that it is America which is more racist.
That is not to say Mexicans have not experienced racial prejudice in America. An ignorant American once shouted a racial epithet at my grandfather, but he would go on to tell me, “They’re only words. F**k them. They don’t control me, mijo. I control me.” My grandfather ignored both ignorant Americans and ignorant Mexicans who wanted America to become more like Mexico. He let them live in their ignorance while he worked hard and cared for his family as best he could.
My great-grandfather worked until his dying day, but some his children went to college, others got good jobs, and some joined the U.S. military to fight in World War II. He learned six languages (including English) to become one of the best-paid Mexicans in his town. He even earned more than some of his white peers. My grandmother wanted for nothing as a child and the family was comfortable. In Mexico, that would have never happened. It is not that well-paying jobs did not exist, but rather the best jobs only went to people who were not moreno.
I will never feel badly for not speaking Spanish, and I will never feel Mexican pride. Why should I speak the language and cherish the culture of those who treated my ancestors more like serfs than citizens? I have pride in my ancestors who have done what all good parents do: ensure their children have a better life than they did.
I have often desired to engage those who ignorantly espouse the tribalist tenets of La Raza and selfishly demand Mexican-Americans speak Spanish. I have wanted to ask those who criticized my parents, “Why don’t you return to Mexico if you have such pride for it?” But to do so would give credence to their ignorance. Instead, I will follow the lessons of my ancestors and remember: “They don’t control me. I control me.”