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 on February 3, 2014
Updated 3-Feb-14

The Use of “Illegal” in Academia: An Unscholarly Approach

It seemed like yesterday when I arrived in London ready to begin the academic year in a weather that was surprisingly warmer than I expected. I was eager to develop the ability to look at an issue so personal to me in a new way so that I could contribute to an intelligent debate about migration. I was hungry for facts, theories, philosophical and legal frameworks to help steer a conversation in a more meaningful and productive way.

I had gotten tired of the pervasive rhetoric that plagues most public debates, especially those we have seen on immigration policy in the United States and United Kingdom. I had shared my personal story of deportation over year ago hoping to convince others to get past the black and white view of immigrants lacking a legal status; one in which you are either judged as an illegal that deserved to be expelled from a country or deemed a traitor who had abandoned her country of citizenship. However, articles that would include my personal account were bombarded with hundreds of comments like those below that in some shape or form vilified us:

‘…Most people here in the US see you ‘as a problem’ and you’re ‘stigmatized’. You’re the illegal alien. Your parents had no respect for our laws and borders and they and you are resented for that here’ –UT San Diego reader (September 15, 2013)

‘…Although the humanistic factor never dies… we should care less for those that decided to flee our country [Mexico] and believed they could live outside the laws of such countries that deports them… for breaking the law’. (translated from Spanish) – Frontera (September 6, 2013)

‘…as far as you and your family goes ,you got what was coming to you. your family did not know this could happen when your parents willingly broke the law by overstaying their visa ,or crossing the border illegaly? didnt your parents know that maybe someday you had to go back to mexico because they condemn to a life in the shadows by dragging you with them to commit an illegal act?…’ – Colorlines reader (August 14, 2013)

‘The reason these people were deported was because they have committed crimes. They weren’t picked up off the streets and deported because they were here illegally. Currently, illegals can only be deported from our jails if they have committed three crimes’. – New York Times reader (May 8, 2013)

‘Is the United States……NUTS……????????? Stop this nonsense & please [call] them illegals, not undocumented. They broke a law & should not be rewarded. There are lots of people waiting in line legally that deserve the right to come to the US’. – New York Times reader (May 8, 2013)

‘…speaking as a liberal progressive these deportees need to stay put, no second chance. There are far too many other people in other parts of the world that have been waiting for a green card for years. They should take priority over a deported illegal’. – New York Times reader (May 8, 2013)

‘My sympathy is limited by the fact that these people were deported because they were in the country illegally. They should get in line with the millions of others that are waiting and hoping, following the legal path’. HuffingtonPost reader (April 24, 213)

‘The USA, if it is a sovereign nation, chooses who to allow in, when, and how many. The illegal aliens do not get to decide these things, though that is the way it appears to have been working since the seventies’. – AlterNet Reader (September 9, 2012)

Drop the I-word
Credit: Drop the I-word campaign

I began to get used to the negative views, even anticipating comments as expressed by most individuals who rarely engaged in an open dialogue about how someone like me could find herself in circumstances of “illegality.” Often times, the other side of the story is overlooked, that which involves systems, including economical, social, and political frameworks that also create situations of “illegality” for millions. Does critical thinking on this matter not call upon us to question if such laws embody the principles of fairness and dignity which have been deemed as the foundation of most liberal democracies? This is what I expected entering into the academic setting, and anticipated a change on how immigrants are talked about.

Surprisingly, the academia is not immune to the biases of those that lack an in-depth understanding of the issue. Particularly here in London, I often hear a professor in class or a researcher in a public lecture use the word illegal. In completing the readings I am assigned in my courses, I discover that the most common used label used by scholars to describe the experience and conditions of undocumented immigrants is illegal. I find it quite odd to witness the use of this term, especially when the objective of these “scholarly” debates is to humanize the experience of migrant communities.

Despite the polarized debate about immigration in the United States, I am thankful for advocacy groups that demand for a shifting view of migrants as seen in the “Drop the I-word” campaigns. Their success has reached tangible results with media publications like the Associated Press dropping the use of the illegal immigrant label recognizing its lack of objectivity. This year, the campaign also reached the academic arena, including the UCLA and UC Berkeley campuses when their student governments passed a resolution to ban the use of the term they declared to be ‘racially derogatory, offensive and unfair’. To what extent will this translate to scholars adopting this position? Will academia oppose such efforts and view them as too liberal?

The Ryerson University’s Centre for Immigration and Settlement recently released a report which also calls for a responsible approach to describing undocumented migrants. The report argues for the adoption of a new term striking a middle ground in the debate: ‘Illegalized immigrant’. The merit of the argument is that it acknowledges the power of language, on how it is used as a tool to elicit emotional responses from individuals which then translate into behavior in communities and institutions that engage with immigrants. The position of these scholars on the use of the term ‘illegal’ to label a group of people is that it is de-humanizing and the consequences can be evidenced in the hostile environments they live in. There is also recognition of a process of “illegalization” by factors like stringent immigration policies that play a role in the legal status of migrants. As someone who lived most of her life without documentation, I agree.

In a world that has constantly changed territorial boundaries and one that will continue to experience an inevitable increase in human mobility, it is only for the un-critical minds that resort to the use of the term illegal. For those seeking to research and further their understanding of immigrants from a human rights context, it becomes our responsibility to use terminology that is sensitive to the communities being studied. Language that blames migrants for the legal status they hold has no place in academia. Even at the international level, there is recognition of this principle and human rights law instruments coming from international bodies like the United Nations refer to migrants lacking a legal status as “irregular”, NOT “illegal”. If we hope to change the conversation around migration, this change needs to happen in our day-to-day conversations with others, in the written scholarly work we publish, and even in the comments we leave at the end of an article.

Click here for more on the “Drop the I-word” campaign:

Some organizations in UK and Europe involved in similar efforts:

No One is Illegal – UK

No One Is Illegal Network – Sweden

Published in Latina Lista on December 10, 2013

Click here for version of blog post in Spanish.

Update on 22-Feb-14: Spanish translation of article available

Otra Dreamer in London

Six weeks have passed since my move to London; the start of new journey, a new dream. It is the first time in my life that I made the conscious decision to migrate. I did not have that choice at the age of nine when I was brought into the U.S. as an irregular migrant child, nor did I choose to return to Mexico when I was deported four years ago.

The excitement still lingers alongside a sense of exploration as I am afforded certain level of freedom to be able to reside in a foreign country legally to pursue a graduate degree. It took overcoming very difficulty challenges, but I did not do it alone. An entire community supported me along the way to be here. It is a privilege that I do not take lightly as well as a responsibility to represent the collective challenges of migrants who have gone through similar experiences wherever I am.

There was a point that I began to feel a bit stressed shortly after my arrival, partly due to the insurmountably pressure I feel to do well in my graduate program. I had also underestimated the challenges of relocation. Although I navigate the English language and British culture with ease, the small things like learning to move around the city and finding where to purchase basic personal items at reasonable prices was incredibly stressful (after all, it is London).

Understanding the transport system in London Photo: Nancy Landa
Understanding the transport system
Photo: ©Mundo Citizen

Arriving alone in a new city and having to start a social network from scratch was overwhelming. But slowly, I have been able to find help along the way. Meeting new people that have became a support system (thank you hall buddies and classmates!!!) and having friends from abroad that had introduce me to their friends living here has helped make this transition smoother.  Now that I feel more stable, I hope to be able to keep my readers up-to-date on a regular basis with my experiences abroad.

October was a great month for visibility and exposure. The media continues to be interested in my story and that of Los Otros Dreamers. Take a look at the following articles recently published:

The IndependentThe Americans deported to a country they don’t know: ‘I didn’t know the city or the language’

CSUN Daily SundialDreamers continue to fight for immigration rights and reform

NPR Latino USALos Otros Dreamers

Published in on 4 Nov 2013