I have no idea why the argument started or what it was about – it was third or fourth grade, after all. I just remember how it ended: with Lorraine Garcia very pointedly and angrily in my face saying, “You are not Mexican! You don’t look Mexican, your family isn’t Mexican, so stop saying it!”
I was aghast. Of course I’m Mexican! My mom was white as white goes, and I inherited a lot of her phenotypical traits, but, as I always maintained, “Zazueta” ain’t just a fancy name. My dad and his family did look Mexican and, in many ways, acted Mexican. Well, Americanized Mexican, any way.
I spent many a holiday at my aunt’s home surrounded by family as the women cooked in the kitchen and the men messed around in the backyard or gathered to watch the game. The food on the table was always flavorful and spicy, often including mole from my grandmother’s secret recipe (which she would later explain was simply a jar of Dona Maria mixed with a Hershey’s bar). My cousin drove a low rider in the late 70s and early 80s, complete with shag carpeting and a chain steering wheel, a living stereotype pulled directly from a Cheech and Chong movie.
The debate over my Mexicanness is one I would have dozens of times throughout my life – especially with folks who both looked and acted WAY more Mexican than I ever could. When I went to school at UC Berkeley, a light was constantly cast on each student’s ethnic background in a well-intentioned effort to celebrate our diversity and learn from one another. But that light always caused me discomfort.
As a college freshman waiting in line at the registrar’s office, someone asked my ethnicity and I replied “Hispanic”, which resulted in a five minute long lecture on why that’s a bad word. I was offered to join MEChA – a Latinx student organization that offered tutoring that may have saved my engineering career – but I felt like the only white bean in a pot of pintos. More importantly, I knew at the time that I did come from some level of privilege and I felt joining and using the resources those organizations offered would have taken them away from folks less privileged who needed them more.
At some point, I just stopped defending my ethnicity altogether. Technically, it turns out, Zazueta is a Basque name, but it’s very common in the region of Mexico from where my grandfather immigrated into the United States. My grandmother’s maiden name is a bit more traditional – Bueno – but that, of course, is not at all reflected in any part of my name or heritage. So, when people ask me where my name comes from, I just tell them I’m Basque. No debate necessary – the only people who know what a Basque is are other Basques, and they’re amazingly lovely people.
But, it turns out, that’s not true either.
My parents divorced when I was seven, and my mother passed away suddenly when I was 30. Up to that point, I never questioned my heritage – my mother was my mother, and my father was my father. I spent many moments staring in the mirror and seeing parts of my mother stare back at me, but I had to squint very, very hard to see any resemblance to my father. I wrote it off as my mom having more dominant genes and ignored the fact that I knew many other mixed race folks who had a more equal share of traits.
Shortly after my mother died, my wife and I told my father that we were planning to have kids soon and we’d likely have to go through fertility treatments like I knew my mom had because both my mother and my wife have polycystic ovaries. Dad just kind of looked at me funny, which was an odd response. When Danielle had left the room, he asked, “Is that really what you mother told you? That we had to go through those treatments because of her?”
He then explained the truth – that he was sterile due to a childhood illness and that they had me through artificial insemination. They went to UC Irvine, where my mother apparently went through a book of potential donors to find someone who would be a close match to my father. He concluded the detailed story with what he considered the most important fact: “But she chose a Mexican guy, so you’re still Mexican.”
But she didn’t.
A family friend told me that she actually chose someone who she thought was Italian or something. Not sure why, but she decided against finding someone like my father. My mother and I shared everything when she was alive, but this news came after she was gone, so I will never have the chance to get the story from her.
I did both the Ancestry and 23AndMe tests last year, and they confirm it – not a lick of Latino in me. I am, for all intents and purposes, a standard, British-dominant, euro-mutt, American, middle-aged white dude.
My Mexican family (and, make no mistake, they are still my family – DNA is not what makes a family) has always been heavily Americanized, despite my desperate clinging to those aspects that made them different. This ultimately stemmed from a decision my grandparents made about the time my father was born – that their children, being American, should act and speak like Americans. My father learned very little Spanish and shows few hints of any Mexican culture. If you ask him, he’ll tell you he’s far more Basque than Mexican anyway, which feels like a weird cop out.
I have no Mexican blood and only the slightest hint of Mexican culture, despite my desperate attempts to prove otherwise throughout my life, all because I believed I had Mexican blood in my veins.
The dawn of genetic testing has empowered a whole bunch of American white people to start claiming heritages they know little or nothing about. This need to belong to some group other than “American” – to seem more interesting than we are – may not be unique to Americans, but we sure as hell have embraced it. America, as they say, is a melting pot of cultures (I prefer the “tossed salad” metaphor, personally). The only true Americans, if we allow ourselves to admit it, are Native Americans, though even they migrated here from somewhere else tens of thousands of years ago. I’m not sure why this quest to find our “true heritage” is even a thing, aside from the fact that it is de rigueur to be a minority. If that offends you… well, it should. I can’t imagine what it must be like for a person of color, someone who has experienced actual racism and discrimination first hand, to have all these white folks suddenly claiming to be their people.
Ethnicity is absolute bullshit. If we go back far enough, according to anthropologists, we are all “African Americans” (though there is some healthy debate about that right now), but there is nothing that actually connects a vast majority of us to the African continent. DNA talks about how you were built, but has very little to say about who you are.
If my father had passed down the Mexican culture he experienced growing up in his family down to me, I’d still proudly call myself Mexican, no matter what a DNA test says. Even though he’s not my biological father, he is still my dad and his family is still my family. That doesn’t come from DNA; that comes from the experience of growing up with and loving those people. Our experiences and the cultures in which we developed help define who we are far more than anything actually going on inside our bodies. My father, who was raised with at least some Mexican culture, is, therefore, clearly Mexican. I am not.
Ultimately, I am an American. We’re at a point now where American culture is a real culture that one can easily identify with, one that is far different than that of Native American, but is still aligned with a similar place and time. Strictly speaking, my dad isn’t really Mexican either, but Mexican American – that is, Mexican cast through the lens of American culture. Culture matters far more than ethnicity. As we continue to embrace a world where white parents can adopt non-white children, people of different races freely interbreed, and the whole of humanity begins to diverge from old ideas of race and converge instead toward new ways of being, we need to stop decrying folks for their lack of the “proper look” and start honoring the cultures in which they were raised.
White people eager to claim minority status because they have a drop of non-white blood need to stop. We need to stop looking for a culture to identify with and embrace the one we have. If we’re ashamed of it because it carries a ton of racist, privileged baggage, that’s OK – it only means we should continue to work to change the culture. We can’t change our DNA, but we can change how we live.
We should also look to other cultures and embrace them as well, adopting some of their customs as needed to improve our lives. For example, I’m rather fond of the Danish concept of Hygge, with its emphasis on comfort and conviviality, and have been trying to find ways to weave it into my hectic life. This may feel like cultural appropriation – something reviled by many – and it is in a way. But it’s “good” cultural appropriation: taking a concept embraced by a particular culture, understanding its purpose, and fitting it into your own culture to improve your life and those with whom you share that culture. “Bad” cultural appropriation is, essentially, blackface – dressing up and/or acting like a stereotype of another culture, usually for some form of entertainment (frat parties, Halloween, etc.).
As Americans, we already practice the “good” kind of appropriation every day. That idea of taking the best of all of the cultures immigrants have brought to America (along with those that were here for millennia already) and adopting them to our lives is, perhaps, the greatest part of American Culture. There’s no good reason to stop now.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t be curious about where your family comes from. My great-grandfather came to the US from the Shetland Islands. We still have family there. The culture he brought with him helps explain my grandmother’s childhood, which was reflected on my mother’s childhood and corrected in mine. Learning about our heritage through the stories told by our family and ancestors helps us puzzle out how we came to be who we are, and can help us figure out how to get where we want to go. You just can’t get that from a test tube.