WoC and Me

Various artifacts on a green-grey background

As the story was handed down to me, the Ortiz family came to Texas in 1910 as part of an unprecedented surge of Mexican immigrants caused by The Mexican Revolution and growing opportunities for U.S. agricultural jobs. Shortly after settling in San Antonio, Angelina was born. I never knew her, but she was my grandmother. The youngest of four children, her family called her “Baby” all her life. At 17 years old, she was on track to be the first in her family to graduate from high school when she dropped out and left home to attend nursing school, a decision which upset her father so much so that he disowned her. To pay for her school, her brother, Ninfo, earned cash with his fists. After a hard shift at the warehouse where he earned a dollar a day, he would wrap rags around his knuckles and “prize fight” his coworkers. In 1929, their father died of lead poisoning from radiator-brewed moonshine. My grandmother was on a training shift in the San Antonio emergency room where he was brought for treatment. Even on his deathbed, her father refused to speak to her. Nevertheless, Angelina Ortiz went on to finish nursing school and become the first Spanish-speaking registered nurse in Dallas during a time when Mexicans, like Black and Jewish people, were not allowed to be treated in white hospitals.

The Lopez family also immigrated to Texas in 1910, settling in Dallas where John Lopez worked unloading trains. John’s son, who is my grandfather, Tony Lopez, was born in 1916. When he was still a boy, they became sharecroppers. Because the family needed him to work, he only attended school in the winters. He fought constantly with his white classmates. Because they would gang up on him, he learned to carry a wagon wheel spoke and stash piles of rocks. He quit school altogether in eighth grade, after his father abandoned him with his mother and two sisters at the onset of the Great Depression. In the mid ’30s, he went to work for the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which took him to Colorado to cut down trees and later to Arizona to drill holes for dynamite crews mining granite. Of the roughly eight dollars he earned each week, he sent seven home. He was so light skinned that when he met my grandmother in a Dallas beer garden, she called him weto and refused to dance with him. He must have been either a smooth talker or incredibly persistent because in 1940 she married him. In 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor (where my grandmother had worked before getting married). The day after the infamous attack, Tony Lopez enlisted in the army, where he finally learned to read. Thanks to his experience in the CCC, he quickly climbed the ranks to drill instructor, then to tank commander. He drove his tank from the beaches of Normandy to Czechoslovakia. He earned a Bronze Star for rescuing five soldiers from their disabled tank, running them back to his functional tank one at a time while taking fire from a .50 caliber machine gun. He left the war injured after a landmine destroyed his tank, blowing him out of the top hatch and killing the four other men inside.

Tony and Angelina Lopez. These are my people. This is my heritage. 

Why is it then that the first time I heard the term “writer of color” (WoC), I didn’t automatically apply this category to myself? Is it because my mother’s side of the family, while possessing their own treasure trove of stories, are as white as Wonder Bread? Or because the un poquito Spanish I can stammer my way through is what I remember from college rather than my childhood home? Or because I’ve never set foot across the Mexican border?

Years ago, I met a from-Mexico Mexican who, upon hearing the above evidence, told me, “So you’re not Mexican. You lost it.” I was taken aback. How can one lose their blood, their history? I stifled an urge to explain to her that although my nationality and ethnicity might indeed be very American, my race is not a matter of debate. I am half-Mexican. Period.

Then again, according to my own government, “Mexican” is not considered a race. After the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted my post-MFA employment plans, I spent this past August and September working as an enumerator for the 2020 census. This job required me to ask strangers two questions regarding their race and ethnicity, the first being, “Are you of Hispanic, Latinx, or Spanish origin?” Since I live in central Texas, many respondents said, “Yes, I’m Mexican.” For the follow-up question, I had to read a list of options for their race which did not include any variant of Mexican or Chicanx. Those same respondents often chuckled or shrugged their shoulders, as if to say, “I just told you I was Mexican, didn’t I?”

The Census Bureau claims their reason for not listing Hispanic or Latino as a race is because multiple races can identify as Hispanic or Latino. This may be true, but it wasn’t always the bureau’s stance. “Mexican” was once listed as a race on the official questionnaire, but was removed after the 1930 census thanks to lobbying by the League of the United Latin American Citizens to have Mexicans categorized as racially white. They hoped white status would help increase their acceptance and ensure their treatment as full citizens.

Today, the Census treats “Hispanic” as an ethnicity, not a race—an approach which raises numerous issues. For one, despite a plethora of existing ethnicities, the census questionnaire only allows for two: Hispanic or non-Hispanic. Meanwhile, other government questionnaires list “White (non-Hispanic)” as a racial option, which is confusing and contradictory if Hispanic is not its own race, leading many Hispanics (at times, myself included) to select “Some other race.”

Regardless of the bubbles on a survey, I have always considered my race to be half-white and half-Mexican. But whether I can claim Mexican ethnicity is more complicated. 

When I walk into the local supermercado, my language barrier prevents me from accomplishing much beyond ordering a couple of lengua tacos. I grew up eating cow tongue as a delicacy, but not the conchas and chile-coated candies that garnish the grocery aisles. The employees behind the counters smile at my broken Spanish, but it’s clear they don’t recognize me as one of their own. Perhaps with time, I could improve my language skills and learn to like mole, but at what point would such behavior change my ethnicity? At what point would the Mexican girl who told me I’d lost my Mexican-ness say I’d reclaimed it?

Ethnicity, much more than nationality or race, works on a sliding scale. Since ethnicity can be influenced by multiple factors, including race, religion, language, history, and homeland, an individual can more comfortably identify with multiple ethnicities. One can also shift more seamlessly between ethnicities, especially in cases where factors like skin tone and language happen to make one’s differences less conspicuous.

Perhaps ethnicity’s most interesting contributing factor is the social (mis)treatment of that group within a given culture or region. One’s ethnicity can be an identity chosen by the individual, as well as enforced and reinforced by their broader society. When foreign accents, melanin levels, or other traits make it impossible for one to pass as the majority, then that same majority typically assigns that individual to a minority ethnic or racial group. According to political scientist Wendy Brown, social identity is closely linked to social injury. When the majority assigns an individual to a minority social group, they are likely subjected to the same prejudices and persecutions as other individuals belonging to the group, forming a stronger and more lasting identification with the group than one who technically qualifies but has been spared similar injustices. In other words, nothing unites like a common enemy.

Perhaps this is why, for me, identifying with the term “writer of color” feels a bit like wearing a coat tailored to fit someone else: being half-Mexican has never hurt me.

In high school, when some of my closest friends would call me “wetback” or “beaner,” I was never offended. It was a joke. And I laughed along without a second thought. For me, there was no perceived threat in these words and, therefore, no trauma. Sadly, countless other Americans of color cannot say the same. By the time I was mature enough to consider how my grandparents might feel about my ambivalence toward such slurs, they were no longer alive for me to ask. My father, however, vividly remembers my grandmother’s advice to him on his first day of first grade. Kneeling before him on the front lawn, she told him, “If someone calls you a Mexican, don’t do anything. But if someone calls you a dirty Mexican, hit them in the eye.”

When my great-grandparents came to Texas, they were fleeing a revolution. I can only speculate, but I doubt they intended for their descendants to “lose” their ethnicity, to gradually drift away from their language, traditions, and culture. But it happened.

By the time I was born, my family had no close relatives living in Mexico. We had no apparent reason to go there, so we didn’t. We also never spoke Spanish in my home because my dad never learned it well. In the late 1950’s, it wasn’t allowed in his grade school classroom. If other kids heard him speaking “that Mexican,” they would kick his ass. The Pleasant Grove, Texas, of my father’s boyhood was a far cry from today’s. Whereas the student population of Pleasant Grove Elementary is currently as much as 80% Hispanic, my father was the only Mexican of his age until the fifth grade. For him, like so many others, assimilation was a necessity of survival.

Unfortunately, the thoughtful preservation of one’s heritage is a luxury denied to most of the immigrants of the past, as well as many of the present, often taking a backseat to providing a better future for oneself and one’s family. My great-grandparents achieved such betterment for my grandparents by distancing themselves from the violence of war. My grandparents did so for my father by working themselves out of poverty and fighting a war to defend the freedoms of their adopted nation. My father never earned a college degree, but he worked 32 years as an elevator maintenance man, a stressful and physically demanding position that provided well beyond the needs of his wife and four sons. When my grandfather was a boy, he worked the cotton fields. When my father was a teenager, he dug ditches for $1.60/hr. When I was a teenager, I devoted myself to reading, doing homework, and practicing piano—pursuits which earned me enough scholarships to cover every cent of my undergraduate education. Today, my father and mother are enjoying a comfortable retirement and I recently completed a master’s degree. Generational progress. Isn’t that the American Dream?

I am privileged. There’s no denying that. And I won’t deny that being half-white has immensely contributed to that privilege. But neither will I deny that my success and comfort are the direct result of decades of my ancestors busting their asses, facing hardship head on, and doing without for the sake of their families.

Frankly, I don’t firmly identify as a person of color; I don’t firmly identify as white. The truth is, I’m a third-generation American-born half-Mexican who’s never spent a day in Mexico, nor mastered the Spanish language, but who is humbled by and grateful for his heritage, hopes to somehow preserve that heritage for his own children, and seeks to honor the sacrifice of his forebears. Their failures and victories, their courage and stubbornness, their love and pride—these are my inheritance. The truth is their blood is my blood; their stories are my story. The truth is the story. Mere facts, such as DNA percentages, citizenships, and language proficiency may inform the story, but they are not the story.

Still, the question remains as to how exactly the truth of my story should inform the stories I write. I’m burdened by an increasing desire to recreate in my fiction some of the incredible stories of my family. For instance, during the war my grandfather found an abandoned baby boy and kept him alive in his tank for months as he blasted his way across Europe. Now that’s one hell of a story! But how could I ever do it justice? Is it even “mine” to tell?

More and more, the current literary climate is being characterized by calls for those who have historically held power, privilege, and prominence to relinquish their control over the stories of the historically marginalized and oppressed. Our moment is one of fighting to create space and amplification for those voices too-long muted or ignored. One of demanding that these voices don’t need a white voice to speak for, translate, censor, or save them. And if they’re going to try, they sure as hell shouldn’t receive all the accolades and signing bonuses while more authentic voices have spent decades doing a better job telling their own stories in obscurity.

The 95 theses of this literary reformation are right, good, and long-overdue. 

For a young writer who represents both the majority and the marginalized, however, they raise a long list of surprisingly complicated questions: Do I qualify as a writer of color? Is it more a question of race or ethnicity, or lived experience? Is it a colored person who writes? Or a person who writes about being colored? Is my skin too light? Have I been wounded enough? Should I identify as Mexican in my cover letter? Should I submit to opportunities specifically held for “traditionally underrepresented authors”? If accepted, will readers think the spot should have gone to someone more obviously “ethnic”? Should I write more about social justice? Should I attempt to write about the experiences of immigrants like my great-grandparents? What if I don’t get it “right”? What does that even mean? Who decides? Should I play it safe and stick to the perspective of the straight white Christian American male that we’re all so sick of listening to? Is “writer of half-color” a thing? Is there some kind of mail-in test I can take?

The more I reflect on these questions, the more I recognize a common root: Fear. I’m afraid of failure. I’m afraid of being the next name burned in social media effigy. I’m afraid of doing real harm to real people through careless misrepresentation. Yet, I’m also afraid of doing nothing—of misusing my privilege and platform by avoiding difficult subject matter. In a culture that condemns both cowardice and carelessness, speaking up and remaining silent can seem equally daunting.

I’m in good company at least. Many published authors, including those who have been praised for their handling of “the other,” have expressed similar fears. After all, no one wants to write the next American Dirt. The irony is that Jeanine Cummins publicly expressed her own hesitancy to write about race for being terrified of getting it wrong, a fact which has since been used against her by some who claim she knew she wasn’t qualified to write the story but wrote it anyway—and reaped the benefits. Cummins claims to have spent five years researching her controversial novel, yet her more merciless critiques make it sound as if she’d never even heard of Google. Reading such harsh critiques only legitimizes my own fears, warning me that caution doesn’t guarantee accuracy and good intentions don’t merit approval.

In literary circles, a dead horse that’s been beaten from both sides for decades now is the debate over who has the right to tell what story. It’s an important question for writers to confront when embarking on a new project, a question that deserves serious contemplation, not flippant dismissal. However, it’s also a question that defies definitive or reductionist answers. (I’m not even convinced I have “the right” to write this essay.) 

But even if I can confidently declare, “Yes, I have a right to tell this story,” there’s another question I should ask myself: “Am I ready to tell this story?” There’s a difference between having the freedom and ability to do something and being qualified to do it. There’s a further difference between being qualified and being prepared. Just because we have a right to write something doesn’t mean we’re equipped to write it well.

Anytime writers attempt to create a character who inhabits a world unlike our own, even when it’s the world of our forebears or country of origin, we must consider not only whether we’ve done adequate research, but whether we’ve acquired the necessary personal experience and professional skills. Regarding experience: have we traveled in that country? Studied that language? Stood in that place of worship? Attended those holiday celebrations? Shared a meal around that dinner table? Invited that person to dine at our own table? Regarding skill: have we written characters with whom we don’t identify before? Practiced describing physical traits in accurate but non-offensive ways? Learned to identify and avoid writing for the white gaze? Familiarized ourselves with common pitfalls? Analyzed the successes and failures of other writers? 

If the answer to any of the above questions is “no” or “not enough,” we should form an action plan to start filling in the gaps. This process can’t afford to be rushed. The stakes are real.

Another threadbare debate asks whether writers should “write what they know” or, as Toni Morrison argued, take the focus off of themselves and “imagine something wholly outside their existence.” Instead of taking a side in this stalemate, allow me to suggest we start with what we know, then never stop expanding the boundaries of our archival knowledge. Imagination is essential to creation, but it is also dependent on experience. The problem with some writers trying to imagine an existence outside of their own is that their own existence has always been safe and limited. None of this means we won’t be ready and able to tell that challenging story one day, but we should be humble enough to admit today might not be that day. In the meantime, we can commit to actively expanding the scope of what we know, as well as who we know, which I suspect will make us not only better writers, but better humans.

 When writing, knowing people is paramount because stories are most compelling and most convincing when they accurately reflect real people and real experiences. No matter whose story we’re telling, we should endeavor to write characters who are complex, nuanced, and unique. After all, it’s their complexity, nuance, and uniqueness that makes their stories worth telling.

Take my grandfather. He was born to Mexican immigrants. He was a war hero. He adopted the eldest of his three sons. Despite the rest of his family being Catholic, he was a Baptist. He served as a deacon for years. He was also a drunk. He left his wife and children for over three years before moving back in. One day, Grandpa showed my father a beer and said, “This is going to be the last beer I ever drink.” And it was. He became a different man after that. When my father was a boy, Grandpa beat him for letting the screen door slam behind him one too many times. When I was a boy, Grandpa would pull up in our driveway unannounced, burst out of his old pickup carrying bags full of discount tennis shoes for my brothers and me, and hug us so hard it hurt. I saw him the morning he died. The last words he said to me were “Go with God.”

There’s so much more I could say about my grandfather, but the point is how one understands him as a person depends on where they are dropped into or plucked out of his story, as well as what background information has been revealed or withheld. As it is with the characters who populate our minds and our pages. All characters, fictional or otherwise, are mixtures, not monoliths. They are each the product of mixed families. Mixed races. Mixed ethnicities. Mixed faiths. Mixed politics. Mixed languages. Mixed experiences. And mixed stories. Therefore, I’ll strive to write complex, nuanced, and unique characters while cultivating a healthy dose of caution and a hope that whatever readers might find to criticize, they will ultimately remember that I, too, am a character. I, too, am a mixture.

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