I’m Not Mexican. I’m American.

Before you call me disrespectful, try to understand that I’m not living in some disillusioned state of reality.


Before you call me disrespectful, try to understand that I’m not living in some disillusioned state of reality.

Lately, I have found my sense of individuality being repeatedly tested. The pressure to think and act like “my own people” suppresses any desire I might have to speak openly. I’ve noticed that this happens when I am around larger groups groups of people, like at the barbershop, the meat market, or even the local courthouses. I receive strange stares from others when I don’t speak Spanish and am dressed differently than they might expect. I have found that it is rare for me to find an environment conducive to people understanding the self-concept I hold.

The thing is, I am an American. I was born and raised in the same American suburb that my family has called home for almost a century. I love America. But my skin is tan, and while my family may have been in this country for over 90 years, the tanned skin, brown hair, and dark eyes that resemble those of our ethnic background, have lingered. This is what people see, this is what makes me “Mexican” in the eyes of others, despite my allegiance to this country. And the pressure to be “Mexican” has been on for as long as I can remember.

Which leaves me constantly questioning my own beliefs. Am I just making this all up? Is there no real pressure from people of similar descent to act appropriately? Am I just fighting a losing battle; one which I should just give up and just accept the fact that I cannot seem to distinguish myself from my genetic heritage?

I believe in what I am, yet it is becoming clearer that others do not. For whatever reason, my skin color has designated who I can and cannot be, as well as how I should or should not behave. Oddly, even those who share my ethnic background view me as a traitor, calling me “white-washed.”

Maybe I am white-washed, but it doesn’t change the fact that I am not Mexican.
I am an American.

Yet for years, I was not. For years, I was fooled into believing that I was Mexican. I was told that Mexico was the land of “my people” and that Mexico was the country where my allegiance lay.

I still don’t know where it came from, mostly from societal influences is my guess. I had always felt like certain characteristics were expected of me because my ancestors originated from a short drive south on the 15 freeway, across the border.

I was supposed to be a hard worker, proud of any job I accomplished. I was supposed to speak Spanish and pronounce the words of my “native” tongue correctly. I even felt as though I had to dress in the uniform of “my people,” choosing to where plaid button-ups and listen to Mariachi music.

From the food I would eat to the flat-top haircut with a double-zero blade on the sides and back, I was proud to let everyone know.

This little brown kid from a suburb south of Los Angeles was a real Mexican.

Growing up, I was never the type of child to question anything. My mom always filled my sister and I with every ounce of her love, and the sincerity of her emotion allowed me to believe every word she said.

My trust in her carried over to the rest of my world, and I never questioned authority figures around me because I had the confidence instilled in me to believe in what people said. I trusted my family. I trusted my teachers, my classmates, and the people I saw on my television. I believed that the social norms that were constantly being thrown my way by the heavily Mexican populated county of Los Angeles were the truth.

There is one particular day that comes to mind when I look back on how my ideals of race and ethnicity became so strangely convoluted. My dad was watching the Little League World Series at his friend’s house. At the time, I was playing around in the front yard with my own friend. The United States’ team was playing Mexico, and out of the corner of my eye, I caught the team’s players racing back and forth across the field; in that moment I remember thinking, I want the USA to win.

Before I could run out the front door, and onto the sidewalk to continue playing however, I heard someone say: “Of course I want Mexico to win. That’s where we’re from.” Suddenly I found myself slowing down, and I remember thinking, ‘You know, he’s right. We aren’t from America. We’re from Mexico.’ And just like that, I had changed my mind. Suddenly, I wanted Mexico to win. Mexico was where I was from. Not America. In just a few seconds, my mind and nationality had been changed.

I don’t remember who won that game, but I do remember that that day was the first time I really started to believe that I was Mexican before I was American.

And so I committed to being who I thought I was. I liked what I thought a Mexican would value: big family parties, Catholicism, and mariachis.

I also loved when we would vacation to my great aunt’s beach house in Rosarito in the state of Baja California, Mexico. Sure, I felt like a tourist, but I loved it all because I felt like I was in touch with my ethnic background.

We walked down the cracked sidewalks, across the death-traps — I mean streets — and into the concrete-lined street market. I was dying to get myself pair of huaraches, or chanclas or whatever else they’re called. All I know is that I wanted those hand-woven, tan-colored sandals. When I finally got them, I half-jokingly told everyone: “I’m a real Mexican now.”

Apparently I wasn’t.

I was never taught to speak Spanish growing up. I remember resenting that while I was trying to be Mexican because I felt that my inability to communicate with “my people” hindered my aspiration of proving myself as a “real Mexican.” I heard it in my head a few times:

“Do you speak Spanish?”


“Well then you aren’t a real Mexican.”

But I was a real Mexican, or at least I thought so. My great grandparents were from Mexico and I loved chorizo. I despised avocado, but at least I knew how to make tamales in November, which is a huge Mexican tradition. I was brown enough to blend in with Mexican people. I liked sombreros and multicolored ponchos. I might not have been able to speak Spanish but I embodied everything else I thought might make me more Mexican. I even went so far as to tell everyone that the Raiders were my second-favorite football team — a typical assumption of Southern California-born Mexicans.

That was the problem though. I didn’t like the Raiders. Not at all.

I was always asked what my favorite NFL team was, and I would respond: “I like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but I’m Mexican, so I also like the Raiders.”

As silly as it sounds, my genuine dislike for the Raiders and the disdain I began to feel for the stereotypes associated with being Mexican were some of the things that got me to realize that I shouldn’t have to like something just because I was Mexican.

Phillip Castillo, a 26-year-old, has a similar outlook as to the way he self-identifies regarding his ethnic identity. Castillo was born and raised in Pomona, a suburb of Los Angeles with deep Mexican roots. He identifies himself as “American with Hispanic and Native American bloodlines.”

“I am an American — I was born on American soil and have been raised on American soil,” said Castillo.

He is fourth generation American, and has bloodlines to approximately six or seven cultures around the world, all of which he acknowledges, but he chooses to identify with where he physically comes from. Mexico, or being Mexican is just one part of his ethnic background.

“I have only crossed into Mexico once — to vacation there. I was just an American visiting Mexico. To me, saying I am Mexican-American would imply that I somehow have Mexican citizenship and at the same time American citizenship. I do not, therefore I identify myself as American.”

For me, this is what I had struggled with. I grew up feeling like I should be something because of where my ancestors had come from, but as I matured, I started to recognize that it made more sense to identify with something based on where I, and those that I loved, had come from.

I have lived in Southern California my entire life. My family has lived in the United States for four generations! Yet, somehow, I was Mexican. How long is it appropriate to wait before considering yourself a part of the nation you call home? How long would I have to pretend to belong to a country, and a culture, that I didn’t understand or even truly share, simply because I had tan skin?

Looking back, I found the answers to these questions of self-identity had been answered a long time ago, I just hadn’t paid them any attention. Both came from words of wisdom spoken by two proud, American men who happened to be the most important influences in my life. My grandfathers.

Growing up, my Grandpa David was my idol. He was a high school football star, World War II veteran, and father of four girls. I’ve known my whole life that he wanted nothing more than to have his own boy, and I became the heir to his throne. I was his first boy.

And he is my hero. He is is everything I want to be and everything I hope to become.

My grandpa was born on April 30, 1921, in La Verne, Calif. He graduated from Bonita High School — located within the city — as well as achieved a college degree from the University of La Verne. He was a first-generation American who served in World War II as part of the Army, receiving the Purple Heart after getting bombarded in Germany.

It would make our day as kids to listen to his stories. We were all so impressed as we gathered around him as he sat on his chair in the living room, lifting his leg, swinging his foot back and forth, and telling us to touch his knee so we could feel the WWII bullet still inside.

He said a lot of important things, but there is one thing in particular that helped me understand where I come from — though I don’t remember what led up to it.\

It happened when I was around 20. I was standing in the living room when either my aunt or grandma said something I can’t recall, to which my grandpa responded loudly: “I’m not a Mexican! I’m an American!”

Before that moment, I had never thought about how my grandpa felt about ethnicity, race, or nationality, but his response hit me like a ton of bricks. He was born, and had lived in America his entire life. He had fought for this country. His country. I know he died a proud American, as it was reiterated when I helped cover him with the American flag after he died three years ago.

My other grandfather, Grandpa Rico, had been a carpenter. He had strong, rough hands that were missing the tip of an index finger because of a sawing incident. He too was born in La Verne, on August 24, 1932, in the living room of his parents’ home.

My grandfather was a paratrooper in the Korean War. He loved this country and all that it stood for. I would sit on his couch and talk to him for hours. We discussed the Army, cars, work. and all of the many things that he cherished, and had fought for.

He didn’t end up telling me the story that would change my mind and influence my sudden self-realization, but my dad had recited the story to me several times growing up.

One day on a construction site he was working on, my grandpa was talking to a co-worker. I always pictured them working under the hot sun on the roof of a house’s still bare, wooden frame. His co-worker was going on-and-on, raving about how much he loved Mexico, and all the wonderful things about his home country. After continuing to praise Mexico for several straight minutes, my grandpa finally interjected.

“If you love Mexico so much,” he said, “Why don’t you go back?”

Again, I had never thought about the words my grandfather had spoken in this story. If people really loved Mexico, why were they living in America?
I always liked Mexico when I visited, but would I really want to live there? This is when I realized that California is my home, not Mexico. I realized then that there had to be a reason why people leave and go through such extreme measures to live here in the United States.

My family has lived in the beautiful Los Angeles suburb of La Verne for 90-plus years. I’ve asked myself: Am I really from Mexico? How can I be? I have no connection to anything down there. My entire family spanning over four generations was born, has lived, and died, in the United States. No part of my family even lives in Mexico, and even the house we used to vacation in, was sold years ago.

I can go back to where my family began in Valle de Santiago or Guanajuato, but I’d be going back to nothing. None of my family is there now.

My hatred for the fact that I couldn’t speak Spanish subsided when I finally understood that I never really needed it. Everyone I know and love speaks English. I have chosen to appreciate what I have in front of me over a place with people living in what is truly a foreign land about 250 miles away.

As an individual, Mexico has done nothing for me, nor has it done anything for my parents, or my parents’ parents.

I love the country I am from; the country I pay my taxes to, and the country that allows me the freedom to believe in and say what I want.

I am a proud citizen of the United States, and while I now know this, I realize that others may not be able grasp this concept as easily. A fact that I have also come to terms with. I’ll just have to continue to remind them.

I have a friend at work named James. He likes to tease me because I don’t speak Spanish, and he says that I don’t act like a “Mexican.”

“You’re not a real Mexican, Ernest. You’re a white-washed Mexican,” he has said. I used to make smart remarks. Commenting that he was just jealous because I was classy, and more intelligent than he was. Now, I just tell him the truth. “I’m not Mexican. I’m American.”

Graphic by Albert Serna Jr