My claim to a hyphenated identity

‘Where are you from?’

That is a simple question, isn’t it? Well for some of us, the answer is not so straightforward.

My experience in London in the past four months has included fascinating dialogue with people I have come across. It is one thing I have come to expect from such a global city where you are bound to meet people from so many places around the world. Such interactions have sparked in me the need to explore my conception of identity as part of my own self-discovery process. Primarily because most of us conflate the place of origin and ethnicity with identity. If I claim to be from a certain part of the world, what does that mean about the way others expect me to look, speak, act, and be? In engaging in this inquiry, the first realization I have made is that the answer to the question of ‘Where are you from?’ is very telling not only about one’s own perception of identity but also of the one imposed by others.

My standard response to this question when I first arrived was ‘I am from Mexico’. However, I did not anticipate the confusion this simplified answer created. I was also faced with having to explain why I speak English with an American accent.

I began to be confronted with a part of myself I have been denying since my ‘return’ to Mexico. I suppose that part of the process of incorporating back into Mexican society after living my formative years in the U.S. included embracing my mexicaness to avoid being perceived as an outsider. Once again, I was posed with assimilating and adapting to fit in into a new host society. I did not find it safe to publicly embrace the American identity I had formed growing up in the U.S. because of the negative discourse about those that emigrated from Mexico and those that return due to a deportation. I felt I needed to hide any evidence that would label me a foreigner.

Despite my best efforts, my American accent was also picked up in my spoken Spanish. I was not saved from having to excuse it by saying,  ‘… well I really don’t sound Mexican when I speak Spanish because I grew up outside of Mexico’. Then, I hoped for no further inquiry because I did not want to explain why I was back in Mexico.

However, my response to ‘I am from Mexico’ attached with such a disclaimer was still excluding a part of me. The fact is that I am far from being ONLY Mexican. I simply had to look at the way I carried my life on a day-to-day basis. That little inner voice that we all carry with ourselves every single moment speaks to me in English. At my previous job during team meetings, even if they were conducted in Spanish, I would write my meeting notes in English. I would read the news in English as well as listen to American radio stations. I still watch American shows. I keep networks of friends in the U.S. with who I communicate in English. I continue to celebrate Thanksgiving and NFL Superbowl becomes an excuse for organizing family and friend gatherings.

I also acknowledge Mexican Independence Day. I speak in Spanish with my parents. I can only pray and listen to mass in Spanish and Mexican food continues to be my favorite cuisine. I am Mexican by ethnicity and nationality but I lived most of my life in Los Angeles as an American. When you factor all these variables, what conclusion can I arrive about my own identity? Am I more Mexican or American?

Coming to London did not save me from this identity dilemma.  My answer to THE question now has a second part; ‘I sound American because I am ALSO American?’. I am culturally American. That is the truth I cannot hide any longer. Interestingly, most people agree with that. They understand. Your home is where you grew up. Where you set up roots. Where you formed your identity. Unfortunately, immigration laws fail to acknowledge that.

Regent Street, London
St. Regent Street, London   Photo Credit: Nancy Landa

So when I am asked about my identity, I now explain that by nationality I am Mexican, that culturally I am American. That you can be removed from home if you are undocumented. That one day you can get picked up by immigration officers and be thrown back to what is supposed to be your home. That when you are back in this foreign place where you hold a nationality, you are questioned as to why you do not speak as someone that grew up there, or why you think or act differently. At the end of this complicated explanation, the inquirers would then understand the injustice of restrictive immigration laws. They understand why I am here studying global migration.

Mexican Embassy, London
Mexican Embassy, London   Photo Credit: Nancy Landa

I return to the question – how can such a complicated experience be captured in a single label? It seems that the only thing left to do is to accept that I have a hyphenated identity (1). I am Mexican-American. That is the identity I declare for myself moving forward, whether or not there exists a document to validate it. Because who you are should not be dictated by a government or a society. Because it is my choice to embrace the worlds that I am part of, even if it means engaging in a fight for inclusion and belonging. Just because there are immigration policies that do not permit me to return to the place I grew up and was once my home, it does not mean that my identity also remained on the other side of the border. It goes with me everywhere I go and it has followed me to London. It just took me to answer a simple question in an honest manner to realize it.

The problem is that we are trained to have a simplified view of a complex social construct as is identity. It is easier to place others in categories that match the ethnic checkboxes we are used to seeing in government documents. The problem is that when you adopt a label that is not easily understood, it can be quite threatening. But I dare to say that is precisely the reason why such conceptions need to be challenged. Because if we are not able to embrace who we are, we cannot expect our friends, our communities, and governments to do so either. The process of claiming our own rights begins with each of us embracing the truth of who we are.

(1) I came across the concept of hyphenated labels and identities in my reading of the following book which discusses the claim of American identity by immigrant children/youth that arrive in the U.S.: Stepick, A. and Stepick, C. (2003) ‘Becoming American’ in N. Foner (ed.) American Arrivals: Anthropology Engages the New Immigration, New Mexico: School of American Research Press, 129-161.
Published in on February 3, 2014
Updated 3-Feb-14

Migrating to Study Migration

Last month marked the one year anniversary of Mundo Citizen Blog. Reaching such milestone prompted me to start thinking about all that has transpired since its inception. 2012 was the year I “come out of the shadows” and made my story of deportation public. I could have stopped at the first article that was published about my experience. However, after encouragement of friends, I started this blog.

At first I asked myself, “What else do I have to say about my life?” I did not think I would make it past a third post. A year later, I find myself with new insights and experiences shaped by my past that might be worth sharing. When I start questioning my writing and began to wonder whether this was just a space for rumblings I should keep private, I receive a note or a message from someone interested in my perspective and experience. It is a reminder that this is not about me, but of a collective experience that needs to exist in a public forum. With that in mind, Mundo Citizen is ready to continue for a second year.

Photo Credit: Nis Solis
Walking past the Tijuana Border, Photo Credit: Nis Solis

It was unthinkable to me a year ago I would be in such different circumstances. Life has an interesting way of working. Although looking carefully, I noticed there were some similarities in my experience of arriving in Mexico and living abroad in the United Kingdom. First, I continue to reside in a foreign country! Mexico was as foreign to me is Britain. I suppose the one advantage I have now is that I speak and think in the language that comes more natural to me.

Secondly, obtaining my immigration paperwork to study abroad was as tedious and difficult as obtaining all my documentation in Mexico after resettling. Actually, at some point I thought I was not going to be granted a UK visa as it was denied the first time I applied. Although I had the acceptance letter from my university and the required funds to quality on the point-based visa system, I had missed the requirement to prove I had possessed those funds for 28 consecutive days. If it had not been for a last minute scholarship that came to the rescue, I would have not made it to London on time to start my graduate program.

Despite of it all, here I am migrating to engage in an academic dialogue about a topic that is easily politicized, oversimplified and misunderstood: Migration. To Be Continued…

Food For Thought

Increasingly, borders have been opened to capital and goods, but closed to people. As a result, migrants who are forced to cross borders in order to survive have become modern outlaws.*

*From Borderless by Min Sook Lee (2006). Click here to watch documentary.

Updated Nov 08, 2013.

Transcending Borders

On August 5 I launched a fundraising effort that I named Dreams Without Borders. It is about a dream that had been buried along with many other aspirations for some time. After graduating from college when residing in the U.S., I knew I wanted to earn a graduate degree. I had not figured out exactly what I would pursue but I was sure it had to be aligned with my life purpose; a work in progress that was halted the day I returned to Mexico.

Some of us experience life-altering moments, those in which we see our dreams fall into pieces right in front of us. In my case, a border became the physical and emotional barrier to a future I had once envisioned. Some of my friends encouraged me to look for options to continue my education in Mexico. Given that it was my country of nationality, it was assumed I would be able to pursue opportunities I was not easily afforded as an undocumented immigrant in the United States. Right?

I forced myself to be hopeful in the midst of the turmoil that became restarting a life from ground zero. I outreached to all the major universities in Tijuana to inquire about graduate school. After my fourth conversation with a university representative, I realized that having finished college outside of Mexico posed a problem. My U.S. degree would not be fully recognized by the federal education entity, Secretaría de Educación Pública. This meant that all the years invested in education abroad did not amount to a valid degree here. I would need to take a significant number of courses to obtain a bachelor degree (Licenciatura) in Mexico. Graduate school was a goal that seemed light-years away.

Three years later, on a casual Saturday afternoon, I was in the middle of my least favorite errand, grocery shopping. For no particular reason, I walked over to the store’s magazine stand. Skimming through the business section, I noticed a magazine cover with a catchy image: a young attractive man holding a crystal ball in front of him, reflecting images of success. He was clearly conveying his own view the world and his future.  The upper right heading read “Education Special: Study Abroad”. It got me to thinking. Could pursuing a degree abroad be THE option for me? That night I could not sleep pondering on this question.  As I do when I can’t calm down the chatter in my mind, I sat in front of my laptop ready to search for answers.

I knew I had to be clear on my academic intentions. I wanted a program that would take me out of the corporate job where I was reaching a dead-end.  There had to be a way back to a career of service, ideally with an international entity like the United Nations.

Edited Photo Credit: UCL
Edited Photo Credit: University College London (UCL)

After much consideration, I had discarded all the graduate programs I had once considered to be a match: Public Administration, Business and Economics. Although each has its own merits and would certainly prepare me for a path in international work, there was something missing in their curricula.  I was not quite sure what. Then, I accidentally stumbled upon one of those moments of clarity. It began with a question that revealed a stupidly obvious answer:  “Why don’t I study migration?” Yes, of course.  My life IS migration. I had experienced it in many ways: emigration, immigration, detention, deportation, forced displacement…the list can go on.

This epiphany propelled me to search for programs in the study of migration. I found that those in the United Kingdom were the best fit. Even if there had not been bureaucratic obstacles to study in Mexico, I could not find a postgraduate program in migration anywhere. I found it to be ironic considering that Mexico, according to the World Bank 2010 figures, is the largest emigrating country in the world. In contrast, the UK not only offered a world-class curriculum but also would accept my education in the U.S. without the revalidation process.

Although I finally had a reason to feel inspired, I soon realized this journey would not be an easy one. Having started the application process in December left me with limited funding options in the 2013-14 academic year. Most major scholarship program deadlines had passed. Additionally, applying to very competitive programs (including Oxford and University College London) was a long shot and I was unsure I would be offered placement. I had also decided that waiting for the next academic cycle would mean wasting more time. I had already lost over three years recovering from deportation. Life was passing by and I was at a crossroads; it was now or never! There is no way of knowing what other life circumstances would get in the way. It had happened to me one too many times before.

Consequently, when I received my acceptance letter this past March from University College London, there was no turning back.  I quit my job so I could focus on finding ways to finance my degree. It was a huge risk to take, but I had to be 100% committed. It turns out the risk has been well worth it. I have now funded more than 80 percent of my tuition and living expenses and I have decided to involve an entire community that believes in my life story to help me reach this dream, one that is beginning to transcend borders.

A few days after I launched the online tuition fundraising efforts, a friend who I had lost touch shortly after settling in Mexico, had heard of the campaign and sent me the following note which I quote with her permission:

I am so excited that you will be in London earning your Masters… I know that I haven’t communicated with you very much… but know that I carry you with me every day. I carry you in my prayers. I carry you in the service to AB540 students. I see you in every [#DREAMer] that I assist. You doing well gives me hope that they will do well. Thank you for being successful.

I was very moved by this message which only confirmed what I know to be true in my inner core… this is bigger than my own dream.

Almost four years after being deported to Tijuana, Mexico, Nancy Landa is looking to begin her graduate studies in Global Migration in London this fall at the University College London (UCL). See more details and lend your support here.

*Read article about the campaign recently featured in

Published in and Latina Lista

Updated Aug 23 2013