During my freshman year, I wrote an article for the Indicator about cultural assimilation. I discussed coming to terms with being half Mexican-American and half white. With a topic so large, I didn’t necessarily come to a conclusion. The piece was more of a reflection on identity. I expressed the need/desire for second and third generation minorities to keep in touch with their roots. Looking back, I feel like I’d been grasping at something else. Throughout the course of Amherst Uprising, I slowly realized what it was.
As far as appearances go, being half white hasn’t done me much of a favor. When asking a friend if I could pass for white, we agreed that I was too morena. My skin was too brown. My sister, on the other hand, has fair skin. As I struggle with ethnic ambiguity, her Mexican heritage goes unrecognized. While people ask “what I am”—I’ve gotten Colombian, Indian, the painfully uninformed “Spanish”—they assume my sister is white. I felt strangely disappointed when I realized I couldn’t pass. I felt so empowered, but knowing that people might form judgments about me based on my skin was unsettling. Skin has weight; last names have weight. While I forget this about myself, others are constantly reminded of it.
As friends and strangers shared experiences of discrimination and microaggressions on campus, I was shocked. I couldn’t believe what I’d heard. Whether due to lack of sleep, the emotional charge in the room, or both, I couldn’t help it; I wanted to cry. I also felt guilty. I was brown, but I’d only experienced some of what people were describing and on such a small level. I didn’t feel as affected as my POC peers. The POC struggle felt far from my own experience.
I rarely feel like I deserve the title of minority. I have trouble with labels. I hate identifying as anything. When surveys ask about my ethnicity, I begrudgingly check “Mexican-American” and “White.” I’m proud of my heritage, but I hate the boxes. Sure, I’ll contribute to some statistic. Checking “Prefer not to specify” feels silly to me. Why not tell the researchers what they want to know? Because I feel so white. Because I’m not the one struggling. I may be struggling in other ways, but I do not feel oppressed. I feel empowered. Yes, I can benefit from internship programs specifically designed with the purpose of recruiting minority students. But do I feel like a minority student? No, I’m just a student. But do I appreciate my Mexican heritage? Yes.
My father grew up in Boyle Heights, a predominantly Mexican-American neighborhood in Los Angeles. He came east for college. He visited for the holidays, but started a family in New York. He never moved back to L.A. The longer he stayed away from home, the more distanced he was from Mexican culture. As my father’s daughter, I’m the product of his experience. If anyone felt the stigma of being Mexican-American, it was him. I reap the benefits of his life’s work and of generational change. For it, I am more privileged. I don’t feel what generations before me felt and what similar waves of Mexican immigrants and Mexican-American families feel today.
I feel removed from oppression. Whether this is true or not, it’s hard to know where I come into the kinds of conversations that occurred at Amherst Uprising. At times, I felt just as out of place as I imagine some non-POC students did—both inside and outside of Frost. I felt like a listener. As I took in stories from those around me, I could empathize. But I hadn’t experienced those things. Did it make me less of a Mexican-American? No, that would be ridiculous. But to ignore my privilege in feeling like a listener would be just as ridiculous.
I identify with my Mexican roots to an extent, but I don’t confront this identity on a day-to-day basis. I carry on with daily life. I struggle with things that a person might expect to struggle with—overwhelming stress, mild social anxiety, occasional homesickness. But I don’t feel beaten down by the questions of identity that plague other POC students on campus. These questions are heavy; they’d affect anyone’s ability to worry about lighter—albeit stressful—matters.
As a POC privileged in so many ways, I can’t help feeling removed from the struggle. It’s easy to feel that the struggle is not mine. Despite this, I stayed in Frost. Though it didn’t feel like “my” struggle, I felt the weight of discrimination and microaggressions that affect so many on campus. To ignore the mental and emotional battles faced by fellow students was impossible. So I stayed.
Of course, I wasn’t in Frost the whole time. I exercised, showered, celebrated a friend’s birthday. But it took me a few days to sleep in my dorm. My room was reduced to a changing room, with clothes strewn everywhere, from having gone in and out so much. The need to clean up was non-existent; I wouldn’t be spending much time there anyway.
When I debated sleeping in Frost for a second night, the trip back to my dorm made the decision easy. There was a UMass frat party going on across the street, and there were people in my dorm who hadn’t been to Frost at all. At that moment, the world outside the library seemed so repulsive. I most readily perceived apathy, an unreadiness to listen, and a lack of optimism. That was what kept me in Frost. Despite grappling with POC identity, I had to be there. The conversations in Frost and the lack of these same conversations outside of Frost are what kept me there. To be there was not for my sake, but for the sake of something larger. Change starts at a small level. I didn’t stay in Frost because I had something great to contribute, but because it was just as important to be there and listen.