My name is Isabelle, and I am often asked, “Where are you from?”
Let me tell you.
The answer always begins with, “Well, my parents are from…,” as I explain my Mexican roots that trail their way into Ciudad Acuña, Mexico, and San Juan, Texas. Then, there’s the, “But, I was born in Central Florida.” There is always the “but.”
My complexion, dark hair and eyes, and American accent are incompatible with my response. They suggest a different answer. A different experience. A different story.
As a child, my elementary school mentors encouraged me to learn Spanish. I joined Spanish club, where I spent afternoons in a school portable cutting along the dotted lines of vocabulary sheets. I mouthed my way through “Feliz Navidad” with a group of other Hispanic girls at a school function. I got a thick Merriam-Webster Spanish-English dictionary and tried to teach myself the language. My dad taught me my first sentence: “Tú eres mi amigo.”
Learning Spanish became my lifelong obligation. It might have been why I took the opportunity to study it in college. Part of me thought that if I could just get the language down, maybe I would fix the hole in my story. Maybe I would stop feeling like an outsider to a culture I thought I didn’t belong to.
However, my parents’ choice not to teach me Spanish was not an attempt at Americanization. Rather, they experienced first-hand the struggle of a language barrier as children, and they didn’t want me or my siblings to experience it, too.
So here I am: a Mexican-American who learned Spanish later in life.
A couple of years ago, someone I admire explained that when people ask the “Where are you from?” question to someone who belongs to a minority, they are looking for a way to place others, a way to categorize them and better understand them based on whatever that category entails.
All of those years, what was my definition of what it means to be Mexican?
I’m not sure. I just know I thought my experience was not legitimate because I lacked one of those most significant layers of Latinidad.
But the truth is that being a Mexican-American is a spectrum of experiences, all of them legitimate, all of them somehow shaped by the forces of two lands blending within millions of bodies.
Here is where IOLit comes in:
I was thrilled to be a part of a literary journal that celebrates the unheard and underrepresented.
We all know, consciously and subconsciously, the story applied to the marginalized and perpetuated by those in power. It is the assumption held by those who ask, “Where are you from?” when they really mean, “Who are you?”
Then there is the only legitimate story there is: the one told by the individual. The one that bears the healing power to transcend assumption. The one IOLit hopes to share.
Perhaps a better question is, “What’s your story?”