Estimated reading time: 9 minutes
It’s September and that means it is time to celebrate Hispanic heritage and Latino cultural identity month. Or the month the U.S. has decided to celebrate the Spaniards’ colonization of Central and South American indigenous people. High five! If you’re Latino, you know how we all feel about colonization. It’s the fiesta we didn’t sign up for. It’s the gentrification of our bloodlines that none of us wanted or asked for but we’ve turned the story around into something beautiful. Hispanic and Latino people are some of the most loyal, loving and warm people you will ever meet and I am not just saying that because I am one. So let’s start by celebrating our diverse roots and vibrant tapestry of our varied cultures. Viva la Raza! 🇲🇽 ❤️
It’s time to reflect on the rich heritage that makes each of us who we are. As many of you may know already, I am the product of a biracial love story; my dad is from Mexico and I’ve got a whole lot of indigenous Tarascan/ Purepecha roots to prove it and my mom is from Tennessee via Ireland and the U.K. My bloodline is a beautiful amalgamation of Indigenous, Spaniard, Portuguese and Italian with a smattering of a variety of other European countries, as well as some Congolese and Filipino blood just to keep me spicy. At the end of the day, I’m almost equal parts European and Indigenous. But, as any person of color knows, we all live categorized and marginalized by the one drop rule (assigning the minority status of their lower-status parent group to mixed-race individuals). For me, these people, esta Raza, are my people.
This is my journey from assimilation to empowerment.
Growing up, I was the fair-skinned child with freckles ( similar to my daughters), dark brown hair with a slight auburn undertone and amber eyes. In the summer, my skin got golden and my hair got lighter. This was confusing to some, myself included. Like many biracial kids I’ve ridden the identity rollercoaster. Societal stereotypes don’t help. Year after year, I’d change how I identified racially on my enrollment cards out of guilt and a sense of loyalty to each parent. Often, I felt ( and was made to feel by the society I was growing up in) as though I never fit in; not white enough to be white and not brown enough to be brown. I think that’s a fairly common situation for a lot of biracial children. Don’t get me wrong, I love my biracial heritage and culture, it just got a little confusing for me as a child. I felt like a chameleon but also like a liar because I could so easily blend in. In the end, feeling like a girl with no country; an immigrant daughter in hiding. In the end, it made me stronger and prouder of my culture and where I came from and I know, better than most, that Latinos come in all skin shades, hair and eye colors ( just like every other race).
I was raised 100% in Mexican culture but I lived in the white world. I felt like an outsider but I easily blended in because of the color of my skin. At home, I’d hear stories of how my father would be mistreated and underestimated because of his accent and racially profiled because of the color of his skin. I couldn’t relate to any of it. At one point, my proud father even encouraged all of his children to identify ourselves to the world using our mom’s Anglo surname just to be marked safe from racism. This proud Latina daughter was absolutely horrified at the thought. I had no idea of the pain he had suffered or the pride he put aside to even suggest this, until I was a mother myself.
Just because you’re “kidding” when you say it, racial micro-aggressions are still racism.
I remember as a young teenager hearing my dad’s stories of blatant and micro-aggressive racism that he’d endured in the world outside of our home and not being able to relate to any of it in the slightest. If I’m being completely honest, I probably gaslit him from my own ignorance. But we don’t know what we don’t know, and when we finally do, we’re supposed to do better and make better choices. I couldn’t conceive of the atrocities he endured by simply existing in a world that hated him because of the color of his skin, until I experienced it myself.
You see, I’d spent the entirety of my childhood assimilating into Caucasian culture. In case you didn’t already know this, that is what many Latino parents had to do back in the 70s, to protect their children and give them the best chance to succeed in white America. Like I said, I was a fair skinned freckled Mexican who blended in… until I didn’t and then I couldn’t be unseen.
When I was 18, I met and started hanging out with a group of Latino kids from a neighboring area, who all originated from the same region as my dad back in Mexico. Finally, people who got me and my cultural experience. We all met when my brother started playing soccer with them in East Chicago. Immediately, I felt seen, understood , not judged by stereotypes and, finally, I felt like I’d found my community. Yep, it was a group of teenage soccer playing boys who saved me from my racial identity crisis. This group of guys affectionately referred to themselves as La Raza and while at 18, I had no true idea of the impact this community of young men would have on my life, to me La Raza meant family.
For me, La Raza taught me what Hispanic heritage and the Latino idenity experience was beyond just my traditional family.
The more I grew to know these guys, the more I grew to love my la Raza brothers … the more I grew to know and love myself and my Hispanic heritage. And that’s when the veil between who I was and who I’d become was removed and that’s the moment that changed who I am today. I finally saw the unseen racial micro-aggressions and blatant racism that surrounded me and could no longer unsee it. Assimilating and cultural blending were no longer an option for me.
That moment happened on a simple ride home on a warm summer’s night. We’d spent the day together, probably at the beach or a cookout and had been having a great time, laughing, talking, listening to Mexican music and just enjoying each other’s friendship. But my dad is very traditional and I had a curfew until I moved out of my parents house at 22. Needless to say at 18, the rule was that I needed to be home before 11pm. The guy I was talking to drove me home along with 2 of our friends. Mind you, we’re all Mexican but I’m the only white-passing person in the car that night. Keep in mind, these were not thugs or gang bangers. They were young Mexican men who just graduated from high school and were headed to college but happened to be a beautiful shade of golden brown that summer’s night.
In a hurry to get me home before curfew, at my urging, the driver cut through the parking lot of the gas station and that was the choice that changed my entire perspective on who I was in the world. That was the night that a cop’s racial “micro-aggression” cut me deep and opened my eyes wide making assimilation no longer an option.
White skin privilege isn’t really a privilege but a burden.
The cut through the parking lot was a traffic violation at the officer’s discretion, but what came next had everything to do with 3 brown boys in a car with a “white girl”. The cops pulled us over. Up until this point in my life, I’d unknowingly and obliviously benefited from my white skin privilege.
In my desperation to make my curfew, I repeatedly asked the driver to “ask them why they pulled us over” which was met with them screaming at us all to get out of the car, for the boys to put their hands on the car and for all of us to identify ourselves.
Each one respectfully and calmly gave his name ( as all brown moms teach their little brown boys to do in order to avoid danger) and then, it was my turn. “Debi Cruz, ” to which the officer asked, “ How do you spell that? Cruise? Kruse? Crews?” When I responded, “Cruz”, I suddenly went from being treated like a kidnap victim to an assailant. In his next breath, he told me to place my hands on the car. I realized the only thing that had changed was that the officer realized I too was Mexican.
After that, they cuffed the driver and threw him into the back of the patrol car because the driver, at my urging, had asked why we’d been pulled over. The two other young men asked if they could take the vehicle to drive me home because of where I lived and my impending curfew. None of us were drinking. We were approximately a 10 minute drive from home but it was a dangerous neighborhood and definitely not one that a teenage girl should be walking in at midnight. The officer looked directly into my face, sized me up and down, and said, “Nah, she can walk.” Then, they drove away with my boyfriend and his car keys, leaving me and the other two guys abandoned in the gas station parking lot. I can’t help feeling like if I’d said my name was spelled, “ Crews “, they’d have given me a ride home because the officer’s entire demeanor changed towards me with the correct spelling. It may seem like a micro-aggression to you but to anybody who’s experienced this kind of racism, it’s just as hurtful, demeaning and demoralizing as any blatant racism ever could be.
That night, those two gentlemen ( my guardian angels) walked me home through a ghetto they didn’t belong to, making it more dangerous for them than it was for me. They did it because that’s what family does; you lookout for one another. When I got home, I explained to my parents what happened and the guys and I spent the next 2 hours calling the rest of the Raza to raise bail and we did.
After over the last 30+ years of friendship, la Raza has celebrated, cried with, lived, laughed and loved together. We’ve weathered college, attended weddings, funerals, birthdays, quinceaneras, and now, our children’s milestones together. We’ve grown from children to parents and grandparents together. The bond is unbreakable. Each one reaches back to help the other one up. This is the true beauty of la Raza, it is pure, unconditional love and family. Over the years, there have been times when I’ve gotten so caught up in my own life that I’ve taken this group for granted but there’s never been a moment when I wouldn’t stand up and protect each and everyone of them. Mi Raza has made me who I am today; eyes wide open, scared but brave enough to face all the ugly in the world because I know they’ve always got my back. Those young Mexican men made me into a warrior princess unafraid to face the world’s challenges big or small.
So this Hispanic heritage month, as we celebrate Mexican Independence Day this weekend, I’d like to shout out to my la Raza boys ( and girls, there were a few of us) , “Viva la Raza.” Let’s cherish our heritage and the family we choose along the way.