As a child, I had no concept of what race or ethnicity was until I started going to school in the late ‘90s. I remember filling out some forms in the first grade and somewhere on it read “Race: _____.” I wrote in “no,” and thought to myself, “I hate running.”

I remember my teachers referring to my friends and me as “Latina,” but I was so confused because I thought they were saying “la tina,” which means “the tub” in Spanish. I asked my mom, but she couldn’t give me a straight answer at the time. She didn’t refer to herself as Latina but as Salvadoran. 

I was always under the impression that we were all American, and I would proudly recite the pledge of allegiance every morning in school alongside my classmates. When I would have to fill out my demographics for standardized tests, I never knew what race to check off, because I am neither black nor white. I’m not Native American, Asian or Pacific Islander either. 

To this day, people think that I am anything but my actual ethnicity. I’ve been asked if I’m Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Korean and even Black. Growing up, family members would give me nicknames that today are considered offensive like “china” (for my eyes), “india” (for my hair) and “negra” (for my skin). 

My favorite Disney princesses were Mulan and Pocahontas, because they both had long, black hair just like mine. I saw myself in those characters and I hoped to grow into a strong woman just like them. However, when I got to middle school, I began to not like my brown skin, brown eyes and black hair. I wished that I was born with lighter skin, blue eyes and blond hair, because that was the image of beauty that was presented to me through television and magazines.

I was considered “white-washed” or “Americanized,” because I didn’t listen to Spanish music, like reggaeton and bachata. I also didn’t watch novelas, rather I watched the Disney Channel, Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network. I never learned how to dance either and didn’t want a quinceañera like other girls did. To top it off, I grew up in an atheist household. My family and I don’t celebrate religious traditions that are popular in Latino culture like Semana Santa.

Now, one thing is for certain, that I absolutely love Latin American cuisine. It is the food that my ancestors survived off for hundreds of years, before Cristóbal Colón and his men stepped foot on American soil. It wasn’t until I got to college that I began to learn the truth of who I really am.

The truth is that I am indigenous to this continent, but in the United States I cannot claim my indigeneity. My ancestors were the Lenca people and lived in what is now known as El Salvador and Honduras. 

In January of 1932, the Salvadoran people together with the Communist Party under Agustin Farabundo Marti’s  leadership rose up against the dictatorship of Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez . The regime responded with brutal repression killing an estimated 10,000 and 30,000 people. Anyone who looked “Indian” was killed. It’s no wonder that there is hardly any type of indigenous recognition among the Salvadoran community. 

It’s taken me years to finally truly understand who I am and where I am from. Even though I am proud to be Latina, the term still begs the question of what race really means. So, what is my race? When I come across that question, I answer in one of two ways; decline to state or other: Human. 

My 10th grade painting teacher told my classmates and I that we are all one race – human, and that we are all just different shades of brown.

Under the Biden Administration, the United States Census is proposing to allow people to choose Latino or Hispanic as a race. While it is a step forward for us, it still does not make it clear to me what race means.

Not every Hispanic person considers themselves Latino, and vice versa. Some consider themselves to be both, like me. Others, such as those who belong to indigenous groups in Latin America wouldn’t consider themselves either. It just brings me more confusion, and I don’t think it’s fair to group us in this way. 

Being Latino is much more than just a classification. We are a clash of cultures from all over the world. It is seen in our art, our music, our cooking, our drinks, our language and felt in our hearts. 

I look forward to a future in which race does not define us, rather we appreciate each other’s cultural backgrounds. Until then, I will continue to identify as a Latina. 

Read more stories about Latinos here.

Catherine Lima was born and raised in South Central Los Angeles. She is her mother's first-born daughter and will be the first in her family to graduate from a university. Her mother migrated to the United...