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Bits & Pieces: The Mexican label

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I imagine it’s what a French chef would feel like if someone laid a slab of Velveeta cheese on top of his or her culinary creation.

That’s the feeling I get when I hear people labeling any Latino they see as Mexican. I definitely don’t want to whip out the racism card on this one, especially because I think it gets way overused these days, but I do think it’s off-putting to say the least.  And may I go as far as saying that it makes the person doing the labeling look completely ignorant? Many times it is a well-intentioned person who, for example, wants to elaborate on the Mexican kids on our boys’ soccer team, or complain to me about the Mexicans who don’t speak English.

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As a Mexican, I can’t even begin to listen to the rest of their commentary because I’m just itching to ask the big obvious question. “How do you know they are Mexican?” And most of the time when I do ask this question the sheepish answer is, “Oh, well, you know what I mean.” Hmph- actually um, no I don’t.

What is obvious is that this person is purely guessing, and it shows me clearly that since they are not from a Latin culture then it doesn’t really matter what they call us. But, I’m here in the most gentle but real of ways to say that it does matter to us.  In truth, when I hear “all those Mexicans” my spicy Latina side wants to thwack this person upside the head with a rolled up map of the thirty-three countries in Latin America. Thirty-three awesome, diverse countries that have people and cultures as distinct as say, well… Yankees, Aussies and Brits.

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I get the large majority of immigrants in this valley have come from Mexico.  But, our other Latin American amigos from El Salvador, Puerto Rico, Cuba and Honduras deserve to be noted and respected. It can be confusing with such a potpourri of people and, yes, maybe sometimes it is no easy task telling us apart. (Trust me if I’m looking at an Aussie, an Irish man and Anglo-American side by side I have the same struggle!)  But, I’m still not going to let anyone off the hook here. Instead why don’t I arm the readers who may be a tad confused with a rule of thumb that will work 99 percent of the time?

Just swap the word Mexican for Latino or Latin American. You’re safe using this classification because most of the immigrants in our valley hail from Latin America. This label would include anyone from Mexico, Central and South America, yes, even Brazilias who do not speak Spanish, are also in this camp. In general you have your basis covered and I promise now you won’t sound like Bobby-Joe Bumpkin from the sticks the next time you see a face that may look Mexican but you’re not too sure. And I won’t have to thump you on the head. Win win.

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Okay, so what about the rare 1 percent?  In very few cases the word Hispanic is more appropriate. Say, for example, you happen to encounter a Spaniard, as in a person from Spain. You know, the country tucked neatly over by France? Sorry, I’m getting a bit uppity here, but I’ve heard one too many individuals refer to a group of Latinos as “The Spanish.” By no means am I disrespecting Spaniards, who are hands down some my favorite fun-loving folks, but what I’m getting at is that in all my years of living in the Roaring Fork Valley I may have met three whole Spaniards. The safer bet in this area is to use the word Latino.

Indeed, the topic of cultural identity is often a puzzling one. If we look closer we see that there are Latinos that classify themselves as Hispanic as well. The Webster Dictionary defines Hispanics as “relating to Spain or a Spanish-speaking country.” So, technically that does include many Latin American countries.

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Then there are other Latinos, myself included, who primarily just see ourselves as American. Even though there are still so many little moments in my life when I think, “Yup- I’m totally Mexican.” But, that notion becomes instantly murky when I head south of the border and hang out with my familia who loves to point out that I’m about as gringa as gringa gets.  I suppose this waltzing between identities just comes with the territory of belonging to different cultures. It’s okay. I’m used to it and I wouldn’t want it any other way.

And, by the way, Latinos are no exception — many make the mistake of referring to all Asians as Chinese. At the end of the day, we are all liable of saying ignorant things from time to time, but there is big difference between being ignorant and being an idiot. An idiot is when someone has the information and still chooses to rudely melt that slice of Velveeta cheese on top of the French onion soup. But, I’m sure all of you would have much better judgement than that, especially now that we’ve had this little heart-to-heart.

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