I often find myself immersed in situations and conversations that throw me into a bit of a quandary. They make me think about race, and racial relations in the U.S., but especially here in Los Angeles, as well as my place within all this. This post is not meant to be politically correct, there is no agenda here, other than philosophy, so to speak. Here are just a handful of examples, since this type of stuff happens to me all the time:
A few weeks back, my brother baptized his son. It was a traditional Catholic event and many of our cousins attended a reception at our house afterwards. During the reception, it was interesting to see many aunts and cousins, and to talk about our collective history. We talked about the “Gutierrez” last name, for example. My aunts always like to tout the fact that we have French and Spanish heritage. This got me thinking about how resilient tradition and religion are, although I personally, don’t always take part in all the rituals. More importantly, though, it got me thinking about my cultural heritage.
I definitely appreciate my cultural heritage, and am glad to know I have an interesting, mixed background, like many Mexicans, Mexican-Americans, and South Americans do. But, I don’t think I am “Eurocentric”. I enjoy the mix that many post-colonial societies and culture offer. Personally, I try not to romanticize my indigenous or European heritage. I only wish that more people could understand this about Latino heritage. And I notice that many Latinos themselves romanticize or tout either their European or indigenous heritage.
Recently, during a night out, my friend and I discussed race and race relations. She, being of Irish-Italian descent admitted that though she is certainly not racist, she finds some people from certain cultures to be ill-mannered and rude, some lower class Mexicans and Koreans, namely. She went on to give me details and even firsthand accounts. (I heard a similar comment from a Russian-American guy I met a few weekends back, about the Chinese in China, after his visit there.) Later that same night, I ended up in front of the a bar in West Hollywood just after closing, talking to a (very cute) Chinese-American, a Turkish-German and white German, as well as with a couple of French journalists. Welcome to L.A.! At one point the Chinese-American guy said something to me about Hispanics and Chinese being the new majority here, and how we have to stick together.
I couldn’t help but think about it. Do we have to stick together? Is this even possible? And is everything really this political? And does it have to be that way? Also, I never used to think of myself as a “woman of color”, but lately I’ve come to recognize that others certainly perceive me this way. I am slowly embracing this term for myself, but I am also keenly aware of how labels like this change and evolve over time. I’ll also never forget about the time when I was living in France, and someone actually referred to me as “noire”, which means black. Just goes to show you, everything is relative.
At a party not too long ago, a couple I know was commenting on the seemingly random adoption of colloquialisms by some of their Mexican-American friends. Another person also commented on a visit to a family’s home, where all of the children had tradition African names, though they were obviously, modern African-Americans. This is so intriguing because the U.S. is overflowing with different cultural Diasporas, and such a mishmash of conscientious and passive acceptance of old and new customs alike.
All this got me thinking about the role that names and language have, culturally speaking. It’s amazing, and also a bit of a shame really, to see how many Spanish-speaking immigrants lose their ability to converse in Spanish, just one or two generations in. This has happened in my family, where I am constantly corrected by Mexican cousins, uncles and aunts, and grandparents. In any case, I struggle to articulate myself in both English and Spanish. But, this is especially true in Spanish. Ideally, I could learn, know and speak both languages perfectly well.
Then I thought about whether or not I should change my name to Erica Gutierry or something like that to fit in? Wait, or should I change it to Xochitl Gutierrez to rid myself of my Spanish colonial heritage. It turns out names do matter, and not just in Hollywood or for the stars like Rita Hayworth, or Rita Moreno! I’ve seen cases of this all over the world from Japan to Spain to France. Rest assured, I won’t be changing my name any time soon.
Last week, I attended a Hammer Museum lecture on “suburbanization” and poverty. Though, it was certainly intriguing to hear about the changing face of Los Angeles suburbs such as South Gate, Cudahy, and Bell Gardens, I felt the speaker was propagating the stereotype of the poor, working class Latino and of, in contrast, middle class whites. I’m not saying it’s not true, especially in neighborhoods such as these, but I have also lived a different reality, and was surrounded by generations of middle and even upper class Latinos, Asians and Whites, growing up, all of whom experienced privilege firsthand.
Did I grow up in an especially integrated and middle class region of L.A.? And why doesn’t anyone talk about cases such as these? I suppose it will take history books and academics another 50 years to catch up with these narratives that completely break out of old stereotypes, propagated in part by truth, given continued working class immigration and social stagnation, but also in part and perhaps even more so, by a focus on these types of polarized narratives by academics themselves. It’s as if it is easier to hold the magnifying glass of sociological critique through pre-ordained filters of race and status focusing on the ethnic other, and the poor. Yet all the interesting stories, films and media, have very little to say about certain diverse groups.
Personally, I think it is about time we focused on stories of Chinese suburbanization and Mexican-American social mobility, instead? Or at the very least, as well? On a positive note, I see this as a burgeoning literary trend, with so much room for growth and improvement.
The other night, I went to the W Hotel in Hollywood for a Latino Professionals Networking event. The theme was Argentine nights or something of that sort. I went after work and met my sister, who had driven in to meet me from the San Gabriel Valley. As expected, the scene was vibrant. Who doesn’t like a rooftop pool after all? It was great to see so many young Latinos (and other races) mixing and mingling. I have to admit, I often project my own stereotypes at events like this (or in any club) bored by the abundance of superficial and meaningless conversations. I also like to attend events with lots of diversity, generally speaking, not necessarily catering or representative of any racial heritage, so to speak.
I ended up talking to this Brazilian guy at the end of the night who happened to have Italian roots. His family had moved from Italy to Brazil and now he is living in Alhambra, California. I use his story to illustrate how amazing it is to think about how generations change from one to another, and how each family and individual can carry these many identities within them. It was also funny to hear his pronunciation of Alhambra. It was more like “Alaa-haambra”. He talked about his mostly positive exposure to Asian culture there, about his inability to dance salsa, and about his many visits to Sonoma and Napa.
I concurred on all points. Most Mexicans (or Mexican-Americans) don’t really dance salsa, not well anyway. And if we do, we work at it. We usually grow up dancing cumbias or rancheras. 🙂 And this also ties into class. Rancheras are sort of the equivalent of country music in the U.S. And, each part of Latin America has its own type of music and dance, though I suppose these styles overlap, come together, and change in the U.S., and over time. I would love to improve my salsa skills. And, I also appreciate the Latin and Asian influences in the San Gabriel Valley where I’m originally from. And, why have I still not been to Napa… or to Brazil?!
So, these are just a few examples of the types of situations and conversations I find myself in all the time, that make me think about race and ethnicity, among other things, forcing me to question my own beliefs, and also often leading to frustration.
Though I have a strong urge to assimilate to mainstream American culture, I also don’t really know what that means, and I am sure this is changing. I often cling to my Mexican-American heritage even more strongly when I am home in L.A., where I am constantly surrounded by it. I don’t want to lose my unique cultural identity, but I also know this is fluid. Regardless of complex race relations and changing demographics, the fact remains that L.A. offers space enough for everyone from Asian, to African to Latin to White.
And as I write those words or generic, oversimplified labels, I already begin to decompress them. What is Asian? What is African? What is Latin? And what is White? I don’t think anybody truly likes to be pigeonholed. Those racial categories seem to exclude more than they include. They certainly confuse me.
I believe this particular post is more of a giant question mark born out of a myriad of experiences here in L.A., as well as those from my time abroad. It’s also an attempt to critique how others discuss and perceive issues such as these. As demographics in Los Angeles continue to change, it will be interesting to see how culture and race relations also evolve. I look forward to seeing how mainstream media outlets adapt to these changes, hopefully reflecting the changing reality of our times and geography. I am also especially eager to see the continued self-expression and writing of individuals like myself, in books, blogs, on Youtube, and via social media, in general. I can’t help but feel that these new forms media outlets, hold the most promise for us all to actually communicate.