Not Latino Enough

Karina Rodriguez, Guest Writer

“To identify oneself with the issues that Latinos confront in U.S. society today is also a conscious choice to acknowledge one’s history and sociocultural background, as well as the need to struggle for social justice.” — Suzanne Oboler


I moved to Evanston my sophomore year, leaving a small, predominantly white town in Connecticut after five years. Though Evanston is far from perfect, the difference between there and here is staggering. While I lived in Connecticut I felt alienated, othered, and internalized a lot of subtle racism, leading to attempts to assimilate into whiteness and erase my identities as a mixed Asian-Latina. It was coming here, though, that started a long process of healing, one that’s still in the works and might always be.

Getting to organize workshops for the Latinx Summit the past few years, an opportunity I never would have gotten in Connecticut, was integral in this healing. Especially the workshop I led at this year’s summit, Not Latino Enough, where I addressed this drift from identity and the journey of reconnecting through understanding what it means to be Latino. I was afraid, entering my workshop, that my worries of not being enough were unique to me. But when I asked that room of fifty, sixty Latinos if they had ever felt like they weren’t Latino enough, almost every person in that room, including teachers, raised their hands. And though there’s comfort in realizing that we weren’t alone, the realization that so many of us felt like we weren’t enough was heartbreaking.  

There are so many different influences in our lives that affect how we see ourselves and process our identities. How we’ve talked about race in the past and how we tend to internalize it can be traced to the way white people, mostly, talk about it, which hinges on physical appearance. I know I’ve internalized that. Because as messed up as it is, even though I still don’t feel Asian enough, I often feel so much more secure and validated as Vietnamese because physically, I’m so much more easily identifiable as Asian than as Latina. But it is through the process of dissecting Latinidad that I’ve also been able to dissect how I view my other identities.

Not that any race is, but Latinidad isn’t so simple as physical appearance. Being Latino is an ethnicity, not a race, so despite our portrayal in American media, we are not joined by overarching shared features and experiences, but by overarching cultural and historical similarities. There are Afro-Latinos, white Latinos, and indigenous peoples, just to name the ways we vary racially. Not to mention the religious differences, cultural variances, and socioeconomic differences from country to country that make the experiences shown in media look like a drop in the bucket and expose the term Latino, which is rarely used outside of the States, as an umbrella term for a group too large and too mixed to ever accurately cover every aspect of it.

Being Latino in the States is also incredibly different than being Latino anywhere else, especially for those who are predominantly raised in America. Suzanne Oboler, in her book, Ethnic labels, Latino lives: identity and the politics of (re)presentation in the United States, specifically the chapter “Imagined Communities Revisited,” addresses what she coined as these two ‘myths’ of Latinidad. The first myth is that of homeland. This includes the stories we inherit from our families, either of their immigrations or their histories that cement them, in our minds, as “real” Latinos, because they have that connection to the homeland or to Latinidad. They vary from person to person, and may not align with what is normally portrayed as the Latino experience, but to us they are Latino experiences nonetheless. The second myth is that of media, and the one that affects us the most. Because Latinos get so little coverage in the media, and because that portrayal is so often limited to one idea of what Latinidad is, this is what tends to stick with people, especially young Latinos. And for those of us who don’t fit within this representation of Latinos, it begins to plant the seed in our mind that we are not Latino enough.

Not only that, but this singular portrayal erases all of our individual histories. What do I know about Costa Rica, my home country, from curriculum or from the media? Why don’t we talk more about how destructive American intervention was in Chile? Or the effects of the Panama Canal on Panama? Instead of knowing our true history, we have a new one crafted for us by the media, homogenized and blending all of our experiences as Latinos into one. Unless we seek actively seek out our own histories and those of others, this stripping of history is how we lose the ability to understand how the legacies and cultures of Latina America still affect how we see ourselves and how others see us as Latinos.

There is also the issue of authenticity. In chapter 5 of Gloria Anzaldua’s How to Tame a Wild Tongue, she admits to being embarrassed at speaking Spanish in front of other Latinas because of her use of a Chicano dialect of Spanish, and being afraid of disapproval at her not using “proper” Spanish. But she realizes that her identity as Mexicana is for herself to define. She knows she is enough, so she is enough. The want to be authentic, to represent our countries and our histories accurately, is understandable, but at the same time, it requires an understanding that this is an impossible undertaking.Take Costa Rica. The experiences of Latinos there are incredibly diverse, from the lives of the white Latinos who’ve built vacation homes, to the indigenous people fighting for their land, to my own family toiling away on their farms. There is no way for me to authentically represent all of them. No way except for authentically representing myself, a show that in my country alone that we are more than a single experience, a single expectation.

It is confronting this problem of authenticity that plagues those of us who haven’t felt Latino enough. When we unite under the banner of Latinidad, it shouldn’t be based on representing a homogenized version of the varying experiences of ourselves or our parents, but uniting under movements to have the backs of Latinos from all backgrounds. Realizing that we are enough on our own when the world around us has refused to acknowledge us will never be easy, but it is necessary. We need to stop feeling guilty for not being Latino enough and not fitting the mold that others expectations have made for us. Just by existing and being ourselves, we are Latino enough, and we always will be.