SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch         Fall 2007        Personal Memory Ethnographies

Monica Van Winkle

Aren’t you Mexican?

Having moved to Arizona from California during my Junior year of high school, I felt as though I was a stranger in a foreign country.  Not knowing anyone, being the new kid at school, and not knowing my way around town made me feel as if I was a migrant starting a new life all over again.  It was around this period of re-adjusting to a new environment when my incident occurred.  I can recall feeling as if I was the only Latina girl on the entire campus when I walked into my school on my first day of class to find a predominantly white group.  That feeling was not entirely justified, however, because there was a small number of Hispanic students attending the school, one of which was involved in my incident.  

I vividly remember that my incident occurred in (or around) January, as it was a particularly chilly morning.  I was all bundled up in my winter clothes as I had been advised by my mother of the cool weather.  My ears and nose stung from the cold morning air. I can remember my schoolmates standing outside of the classroom, talking about what a cold morning it was and how they could not wait to get inside.  Finally, the time came when the door was unlocked, and we could enter the warm classroom.

As I was sitting in my desk, I can recall the aroma of freshly baked cookies.  My first class room that semester was near the cafeteria, and every morning around 7:45 a.m. (just after the class started), the cafeteria staff started baking delicious chocolate chip cookies in preparation for that day’s lunch.  My mind was already anticipating the lunch hour as that meant going to the cafeteria and buying some of those wonderful cookies.

I can also recall the soft chatter of the other students speaking to each other before class got started.  This soft chatter served as a backdrop for my incident, which was about to occur.  I was engaged in a conversation with two other schoolmates (Melissa & Jessica) about different cultures and their foods.  Diana was talking about craving Mexican food and asking me how to make a particular Mexican dish; she made an assumption that, since I am Hispanic, I must know how to make Mexican food.  When I responded that I did not know how to make that certain food, she looked at me with a very confused look on her face.  I politely explained to her that I was not Mexican and therefore did not know how to make Mexican food.  I told her that I was from El Salvador and that I was born in a country where the food and the customs are very much different than that of the Mexican culture.  I felt it my responsibility to explain this to her, as I was not going to pretend to be something that I am not.  Unfortunately, she did not want to hear my explanation, which was very disappointing to me, as I am very proud of my culture.  As I recall, her response to my explanation was, “It’s all the same.”

Although her response did not offend me, I was shocked to hear this level of ignorance from someone who was, herself, Latina; I would have thought that she would have had an easier time understanding these differences.  From that moment on, I began noticing that people would assume that I was Mexican when they found out that I spoke Spanish.  It also became repetitive, explaining to people that I was not Mexican.  In fact, there were times when I just felt like telling people I was Mexican, as no matter what I would say most people would resort to that same assumption. 

As I was sitting in my chair, I could not help but to ask myself why she was having such a hard time accepting my explanation.  In an effort to understand, I looked at the situation from her perspective.  Maybe because I was fairly new to the school, and she did not know me, there was a lack of trust.  Since she was so shocked by my response, she may have wanted to get a second opinion from a source she trusted.  I know that since her parents were from Sonora, Mexico, they would have been better at explaining the differences to her.  It is possible that I helped to educate her about cultural diversity by responding the way I did.  This information would have been very useful to her, as Arizona is really becoming a cultural melting pot thanks to all of the different nationalities that immigrate here. 

Most likely Jessica’s assumption that I was Mexican was largely influenced by the large Mexican population in Arizona, was a result of the fact that our state shares a border with Mexico.  The Mexican culture is so rich in Arizona that more and more people are even starting to celebrate Mexican holidays.  Cinco de Mayo, for example, has become so widely celebrated that the media frequently commercializes it.  Celebrations statewide even include many of the local Mexican food restaurants, which open their doors for this event.  Another occurrence in the 1990’s took place in 1999, when the immigration law enforcement project coordinated nationwide activities on “Dia de los Muertos,” a Mexican holiday celebrating the deceased.  Crosses were displayed showing those who had died crossing the border.  Even the United States honors the culture of one of the largest Latino groups in the nation.

According to most people with whom I have discussed this subject, Arizona did not truly begin to become culturally diverse until the late 1980’s.  Prior to that time, Arizona’s population consisted primarily of Anglos and Mexicans, or people of Mexican descent.  Jessica, a Latin female raised in a predominantly Anglo community in the Phoenix area during a time of limited cultural diversity, was not very well educated on different cultures.  Therefore, I can understand how a young person, raised in a place and time when most people were either Mexican or White, could mistake another Latin group for being Mexican.  However, I do cherish the changes that Arizona has undergone, because this diversity brings many exciting people, cultures, traditions, foods and so much more to our community.

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