I’m a son of a Mexican-American, so I’m 50% Mexican blood. 50% French-Canadian and English. When I was in high school, I was struggling to understand what it meant to be Mexican-American. The other Mexican kids in my school … well, the ones I was most aware of … were not the best influences. They drove low riders, they didn’t care about school, they clowned and acted like idiots. One guy in particular stuck in my mind. I thought to myself, “I don’t want to be like him. He’s like the worst stereotype of a Mexican, and I don’t want to be like him.”
I don’t even remember the conversation, but I remember who I was talking to. I won’t share his name, but he was a red-faced, blonde-haired kid. Good athlete, did well in school, seemed to be doing okay socially. And we were just talking about the kids in school, I guess, and then he said that.
Matter of fact, what I think he actually said was, “But I get along with you. You’re not like other Mexicans.”
What did that mean? That I didn’t have an accent? That I didn’t wear baggy pants and slicked-back hair? That I worked hard in school? (I’m going to note here that several Mexican-American students in my school were doing well, including several in my own class. But I fixated on the slackers, the bad examples. Those guys were the Mexicans to be wary of. They were the examples of who not to be.)
At the time, I took it as a compliment. It was working! People didn’t think of me as one of “those people.” I wanted to be distinguished for myself – just Tom, not “that Mexican kid Tom.” I saw it as a choice.
Now, almost thirty years later, I still play that conversation over in my head. What should I have said? Should I have told him that all Mexicans don’t act alike? At age 15, I was still learning that lesson myself.