My claim to a hyphenated identity

‘Where are you from?’

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

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 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 of ‘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. 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 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 check boxes 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 Pocho.com on February 3, 2014
 
Updated 3-Feb-14
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POCHO.com: I was a DREAMer before it was cool — and I got deported

This blog post first appeared on juancristobalquevedo.com titled A Personal Look at the First Generation of Undocumented Youth– ‘I was a DREAMer before the DREAM Act’.

It is my attempt to reflect back on the challenges I faced as an undocumented student in the U.S. Although the experience and struggles are by no means “cool”, the new generation of DREAMers have made this movement what it is today: a force to be reckoned with.

Featured Post in POCHO.com

by NANCY LANDA on MAY 6, 2013 in CULTURA

The immigrant rights movement has reached one of the most important milestones of the last two decades. Finally, politicians are responding to the demands of advocates asking to reform a broken immigration system that has marginalized millions of undocumented immigrants.

We see this in the form of Senate Bill 744 proposed by the Bipartisan Senate Coalition referred to as the “Gang-of-Eight” which is by far the most comprehensive piece of legislation we have seen in recent years. Such progress is due to the masses of brave DREAMers (undocumented youth) who came out of the shadows to declare their legal status for the purpose of telling their stories to the American public.

Senate Bill 744 incorporates many of the provisions outlined in the most recent legislative proposal known as the DREAM Act (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act) with added flexibility in the requirements for legal permanent residency by removing the age cap of 30 for applicants. DREAMers residing in the U.S., who entered the country younger than 16 years of age and prior to December 2011, would be eligible for Legal Permanent Residency (LPR).

This proposal is now inclusive of the elder generation of undocumented youth, those of us who came prior to the DREAMer movement. We were not called DREAMErs as the only known label used to identify us was illegal alien. That is because the term DREAMer did not exist until after 2001 when the first version of the DREAM Act bill was introduced in Congress.

To some extent, the illegal alien identifier was accurate in describing my experience growing up during my high school and early college years, which was one of alienation. Intrinsically, I knew that in order to survive and protect myself from danger, I had to hide the fact that I was undocumented. This seemed rather challenging when you live in neighborhoods and attend classes at a school where you feel and look like an outsider. Not to mention facing a communication barrier as you are trying to learn a new language. If my looks were not enough to alienate me, my foreign accent did the job. Consequently, as a young adult I felt so different from everyone. I also knew that my life would be about surviving in a society that did not care to recognize me as a full human being.

It was clear to me that the fight for survival was one I had to do on my own. During my high school years, I did not have any friends, mentors, or counselors to assist me as I was faced with sorting my life after graduation. How would I explain to someone that I could not apply for jobs, internships, financial aid, etc.? My parents provided the stability I needed at home, but when it came to navigating the outside English-speaking world and the educational system, I knew I had no one but myself.

Although I was an honors student and belonged to the top three percent of my graduating class, my future was uncertain due to my undocumented status. Could my way out of such predicament be an education? That was a question I did not know answer at the moment, but college seemed like my only alternative. I saw how much my parents struggled to climb the economic ladder with a 6th grade level education. So, if I wanted to have a different outcome, I had to do something different. My plan for self-sufficiency included pursuing a college degree. Thankfully, the hard work in high school paid off as I was accepted to California State University,Northridge (CSUN). I began attending college in the fall of 1998.

I get asked the following frequently – “If you were undocumented, how were you able to attend college?” My answer to this day is a simple one – “Nothing stopped me from applying”. But it is a valid question to ask because the outcome could have been very different if Proposition 187 had been upheld. I started college only four years after Proposition 187 (known as Save Our State Initiative) was approved by voters in California. Such measure was intended to create a state-run citizenship screening system to deny undocumented immigrants access to public services including healthcare and public education. It’s principals are not very different from laws that have recently been upheld in states like Arizona. Although the “Save Our State” measure was still facing legal battles in court, a restraining order preventing this law from being in place allowed many like me to stay in school. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals eventually repealed this measure and it was effectively killed in 1999.

Although such an anti-immigrant measure did not come into fruition in California, its aftermath was still felt. Such political climate furthered cemented the feeling of marginalization I felt growing up. I was simply a voiceless illegal alien that should not be in this country. I had no say, no vote, and no rights. That’s the message I got from those that wanted to criminalize my family and those like me. It was then that I decided to continue to stay “under the radar” and did as much as possible to appear a normal college student. On the other hand, this also fueled my desire to rise above my legal status. I wanted to be able to make it through college regardless of all the obstacles that were in front of me.

During my college years, I was living in the neighborhood of what is now called South Los Angeles which is 30 miles away from CSUN. Since California had also banned licenses for undocumented immigrants in 1994, driving was not an option for me. I resorted to making a four-hour daily trip to arrive at my college campus, which included a journey of three buses and a metro ride. This meant that after a full day of school and extra-curricular activities, I would return home at the late hours of the night. A 10 pm arrival was not too rare.

Breaking through the isolation became a second challenge to tackle. Thankfully, being on my own only lasted through the completion of my freshman year. I realized that somehow I needed to feel part of a community and began my involvement when I joined a student organization focused on volunteer work. I started to feel at home for the first time in my life in the U.S. Volunteering for the American Diabetes Association, AIDS Walk, Habitat for Humanity and many other non-profit organizations gave me an avenue to make a difference in others. This in turned helped me grow as a student leader and it encouraged me to be civically engaged on campus. It was here where I began to meet other students who were also undocumented. We created a type of camaraderie that served as a support system, but it was more on a one-on-one basis rather than in an organized way. It still felt we were the minority on campus and that in order to get through college, we needed to keep our status hidden to the outside world.

My last year at CSUN was life-changing as I stepped into the ultimate student leadership role, becoming the first Latina President of Associated Students– the university student government. The public fights we took on were primarily to protect college affordability given the proposed tuition fee increases by the Governor Schwarzenegger’s administration which continued to slash public funding for higher education in the midst of a state budget crisis. I knew this was an important battle, not only because it would impact all my college student constituents but also the at-risk students which included undocumented immigrants. But hiding my immigration status continued to be my modus operandi, especially in a more visible leadership role. Only friends in my closest circles knew about my legal predicament. Finally, in 2004, I was reaching the improbable finish line, becoming the first college graduate in my family.

I believe that my personal journey resembles that of First Generation DREAMers, as I would like to call us. Being undocumented was the cross each of us had to carry on our own. Some of us were lucky to have found a mentor or friend that understood our circumstances and encouraged us to continue, especially in challenging times when one is about to give up all hope.

Has anything changed in the last decade for the DREAMers? Not much. Lacking a comprehensive immigration reform policy, the struggles continue to be the same and perhaps even worse in states that have adopted anti-immigrant measures. However, somewhere in between, the newer generation of DREAMers became tired of being scapegoats and has done what their predecessors were afraid to do. They came out to the world as “Undocumented and Unafraid” demanding a change through a campaign that modeled other civil rights movements seen in American history. Now we are witnessing the rise of student groups on college campuses such as CSUNDREAMs to be Heard established to advocate for immigrant rights and create a support system for DREAMers.

The Undocumented and Unafraid movement has become an inspiration to me. It has taught me that in order to generate change at a mass scale, you have to be willing to put yourself on the line. Even as a deported DREAMer, coming out publically with my story of deportation has allowed me to be part of this movement which is reshaping the conversation on immigration. Most importantly, it has redefined the immigrant community itself. Being Undocumented is no longer something to be ashamed or afraid of.

Our stories could make the difference in passing legislation for DREAMersand their families in the U.S. as well as for those of us residing on the other side of the border.

Nancy Landa is a deported honors graduate and former student president of California State University, Northridge (CSUN.) Nancy has lived in Tijuana since her deportation in 2009 and has shared her story to highlight the need for comprehensive immigration reform in the U.S. You can follow Nancy on Facebook, Twitter or her blog at mundocitizen.com. This blog post first appeared on juancristobalquevedo.com