I wrote this a few weeks ago before the end of October but kept myself from sending it out, but I think it's time:
The upcoming campus Dia de los Muertos event brought these thoughts to
mind. As a member of the campus Latino students group, the upcoming
event is one of the highlights of the year, and yet I don't feel connected to it. This is because in the Mexican American community, I have experienced culture, but as a cultural orphan.
As a multiethnic 3rd gen American, I grew up in a predominantly American culture, but don't "look" the part of the American to the world. I speak the fluent Chinese of a three-year old, the well-traveled Japanese at a fifth-grade level, and the college Spanish of a cultural orphan. Not only that, but I just look Asian, and don't receive recognition from Latinos from my appearance.
On the internet I have seen a couple of descriptions of the term cultural orphan, and generally it is used for actual orphans in a multicultural and postcolonial context (1). But I also saw a blogger's post on culturally being from everywhere, yet nowhere (2).
I refer to cultural orphan as I grew up speaking English. My Mexican family also was highly religious when I was a child and practiced a faith that did not celebrate holidays. I felt so blessed when, in high school, I was able to write my first letters to my grandmother in Spanish and to be able to read letters from her. I didn't learn about Dia de los Muertos until high school Spanish 2.
I attended a recent event on racial microaggressions. In the general theory, microagressions are from perpetrator to recipient. But, arguably related or not related, there is definitely continuation and variation of this theme. There are the looks of the outsider that I get when I go to the Mexican supermarket, the sudden language switch from Spanish to others but instantly to English just by looking at me. (BTW - Have you ever met the grumpy Latina cafeteria worker who is friendly to Latinos only?) I'm not seen as Latina to those who don't know me as they let me know that they don't recognize me. Unless I say something and claim my heritage, Latino elders do not see me as a cultural daughter.
I have a Chinese mother and a Mexican father. My Latino heritage is something I feel as a part of life, looking through my ancestors' lives. I don't know how to dance to cumbias, or salsa, or anything really except hip hop. I don't know the everyday family normal Spanish I wish I did. I had mole just a few years ago but grew up on my grandma's chicken and potato tacos - of course, the best in the world!
Being Asian has been easier. The Chinese American world has welcomed me. I grew up going to elementary school in LA Chinatown. Even decades later, before the big migration into San Gabriel, old classmates and I greeted each other in the streets of Chinatown. Despite my 3 year old level Chinese, this is not important as we experienced Chinese American childhoods in that small pocket north of Downtown LA, now increasingly inhabited by artsy white hipsters who have moved in and claimed the historic Chinatown architecture. Anyways,childhood friends had never made me feel less Chinese or less Asian for being mixed.
I enjoy being Asian and feel joy in participating at Asian American community events. I also love being my (although elusive) Mexican self. I love being mixed and wouldn't want it any other way.
Later, I quickly walked through the Dia de los Muertos event that day - I can say that I supported it. But I had absolutely no inclination to paint skulls on my or anyone else's face. I feel no urge to play with skulls and themes of death. From a religious perspective, I'm still uncertain of what I think of altars. Would one have to want to do these things to be officially Mexican? I don't believe in this or most other prescribed ideas of requirement to be Mexican or Mexican American or Chicana, or Latina, etc. I still support and enjoy participating in my graduate student Latino events but will refuse to convince myself that I have anything to prove. Simply by default of phenotype, I'm a Mexican orphan to the outside world, but I know who I am nonetheless.
1. Cultural Orphans in America: http://www.upress.state.ms.us/books/260