I remember when I started as a second grader at a new Catholic school in Chicago and a group of blue and green-eyed girls encircled me on the playground. “What are you?” they shouted.
“I’m Chicana!” I retorted standing my ground.
“Chic-a-go-ana?” one of them tried to repeat back in confusion. “What does that mean?”
“It means I’m Brown and proud,” I answered confidently.
My parents, both Tex-Mex, met in Chicago in high school. Their families left the Southwest for Chicago in the 1950s on the migrant trail, and they found common ground in their Texas roots. As former farm workers, they taught us about Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, the history of the Chicano movement, the Brown Berets and Aztlán.
On many weekends of my 1970s childhood, we would go to a local grocery store in a suburb of Chicago and hold a one-family protest to boycott grapes.
After years of being asked a version of this “Where are you from?” question, I don’t always answer it the same way.
Sometimes I say I’m Latina. I’m involved in a campus group comprised of Latina women of different origins such as Mexico, Peru and El Salvador, and it makes sense that I say I’m Latina in that context.
In academia, the term of note right now is Latinx. I use it often to be gender inclusive in the classroom.
I say my parents are Mexican-American. Or that I’m of Mexican heritage. But rarely do I just say “I’m Mexican.”
This is because most Mexicans don’t see me as Mexican. Maybe it’s because too much time has passed since we called Mexico home. My maternal great grandparents migrated from Mexico to Texas in 1890 and my paternal grandparents left Mexico in the 1920s.
In 2002, I became a reverse migrant and moved to Guadalajara, Mexico, for four years. I worked as a freelance writer and found a part-time job teaching journalism and writing at a university.
They hired me in part because English is my first language. My fellow teachers and students never called me Mexican. Instead, they called me nortemericana or some even called me a gringa.
It is my accented Spanish that gives me away. My Spanish skills are strong, especially since I took four years of university-level coursework in literature, translation and history. But you can still hear a little bit of the pocha when I speak Spanish.
I think it was based on my accent, not my Brown skin or dark hair, that Mexicans struggled to understand why I still felt connected to the motherland after more than a century.
Often non-Latinos have been impressed by how well I speak English, calling me eloquent. I often reply, “Why shouldn’t I speak English well? I was born here.”
My identity has also been shaped by how non-Latino people in the U.S. see me as a Brown woman, as other, as from being from someplace else.
Sometimes I have felt between two worlds, ni de aquí, ni de allá, especially growing up in Chicago. Even though Chicago is 30 percent Latino, race is still very much framed in black and white terms.
One of the reasons I moved to California six years ago is that here I don’t have to explain myself as much as I do in the Midwest or the East Coast, where there are fewer Chicanos. California was Mexico after all. I also welcomed a chance to teach at a university where half my students are Latino/a/x.
How we choose to identify can be a very personal and political question. In some circles, if you don’t use the correct term your authenticity may be questioned, or you may even be even corrected.
There’s been a recent backlash against the term Latinx but I like that it is genderless. My mom, 88, certainly doesn’t understand the term, so I don’t use it around her.
Latinos to me feels exclusionary to women and non-binary people, but I still use it in certain contexts as an umbrella term. Perhaps the one term I avoid using is Hispanic because it was coined by the U.S. government.
How I answer, how I identify, depends on the day and who is doing the asking.
For now, I’ll say I’m a Chicana from Chicago who has adopted California as home.
Teresa Puente is the opinion editor at CALÓ News, a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project and teaches journalism at Cal State Long Beach.