Awakened by the subtle hum of the engine and rattling of keys outside, I stand in complete darkness as I unlock the door careful not to wake the five other people sleeping. The door opens and the moonlight illuminates a face covered in black powder, a shirt drenched in sweat, and hands gnarled by labor. This is my father. Moving forward, he hugs me gingerly and says, “Estoy sucio, vete a dormir” (I am dirty, go back to sleep). Overcome by slumber, I whisper, “Okay, buenas noches” (goodnight). Returning to bed, I am reassured that my father too will rest. Seeing this dirty man walk in every morning evokes a visceral feeling of belonging, love, and solidarity. I feel that I will never be as hardworking, determined, and brave as my father, yet I see myself in the endeavor to fit his mold. We share our rich Mexican culture, pride in ancestry and persistence. These connections have shaped my identity as a first generation Mexican-American.
Entering a high school that is 99% Latino in Boyle Heights, I met people for the first time who did not understand who I was because of my last name. “Prieto,” which means dark in Spanish, did not sit well with others and challenged a range of expectations due to my light complexion. To me Prieto is just my name, one that I carry happily knowing that generations of people in Mexico share it. Despite my connection, I could not seem to avoid the constant resurgence of different versions of the same question: “Why is your last name Prieto if you`re white?” I consistently answered, “I am not white, I am Mexican”, to no avail. For the first time, the light color of my skin seemed to raise a barrier between me and everyone around me, and it seemed to blur various facets of my identity.
What began as off-hand comments developed into something much heavier. My peers began to draw unwarranted connections between my academics and my appearance. They concluded that I am at the top of my class because I am “White” and that I am lucky. The work I put in was somehow not relevant. There were constant assumptions that my parents made more money than theirs, when in reality almost all of us have household incomes low enough to receive free or reduced lunch. My “whiteness” somehow diminished similarities I had with others in my community, despite the fact that my parents lived a common Mexican immigrant life in Boyle Heights: undocumented, uneducated, and underprivileged.
At times, my identity has felt like a bean bag, tossed and stretched by hands not my own, worn out and pulled at the seams. In those moments, I look back at my father and I realize that the “me” who crafted my initial identity is neither naive nor incorrect. The true essence of my Mexican-American identity is not grounded on skin color; it is grounded on struggle, grit, genuine pride, and, as my father would say, “ganas” (colloquialism for motivation). The basis of my identity transcends skin tone and has been fostered by the principles and values my parents exemplify through hard work. I will forever carry this paradoxical privilege even outside the place I call home. I am aware that looking “white” might bring new experiences and challenges in college. Just as I have resolved the challenges with my high school peers, I am ready to engage what may come in college because I know my identity`s true value. Although other people may not see who I am on my skin, pigmented and obvious, I know that it is there like the blood that nourishes me internally, the real roots of what composes me. My identity, and its redefinition, has made me closer to my ancestors, father, and given me a unique understanding on how to navigate a world of division and boundaries.