What Makes a Latina?

"Who are your parents? They should be ashamed of themselves," the short Mexican man scolded me as he adjusted his cowboy hat and stomped away from the cancer fundraising booth where I sat with my best friend, Jeremy.

Having just been asked, in Spanish, how much the white dove Christmas ornaments were, the 12-year-old version of me replied, in English, that they were a $1 donation. You'd think by the look on the man's face that I spit at him. No, instead I committed another sin; I was a brown girl who spoke to him in English.

My face turning red, I felt beyond embarrassed. I was a third generation American -- part Delgado and part Canales. Right then and there, I began to question so many things about myself. Was I supposed to fluently speak Spanish? Was I less of a Latina because I didn't? Should my parents really be ashamed of me? I hung my head and I cried.

Though that was the first experience of me wondering "what makes a Latina?" it definitely wouldn't be my last. This seemed to come up time and time again as the years began to pass.

Sitting in American History class with my pal, Tina, I began to get a hard time from her for working up a piece for the high school newspaper on Tori Amos' new album Under the Pink. "That's so jive, girl," she said to me. "What kind of music is that anyway and what do you think you are? A white girl? Or wait, I guess you're a cornflake girl -- whatever that is," she laughed. Mexican-American like me, Tina really made me question the people I was hanging out with -- and that meant her.

I wasn't the only one who had problems with friends as while many of his worked at the local factory, my father was told that he thought he was better than they were because his kids were going to college and he worked in an office.

And it was while I was in said college that the movie Selena came out and Edward James Olmos, who played Selena's dad, Abraham Quintanilla, had a monologue that hit the nail on the head for exactly how I was feeling:

"And we gotta prove to the Mexicans how Mexican we are, and we gotta prove to the Americans how American we are. We gotta be more Mexican than the Mexicans and more American than the Americans, both at the same time. It's exhausting. Damn. Nobody knows how tough it is to be Mexican-American."

It truly did come from both sides. One of my best friends, who happens to be caucasian, told me years ago she considered me white. Most likely she probably doesn't even remember saying that to me, it's stuck with me for all these years as I've never quite known what to make of the feelings that surfaced around that statement. Though meant to be a compliment, I didn't want to be considered white as I'm perfectly happy being the brown girl that I am.

In graduate school I proudly wore the Greek letters Alpha Psi Lamba, the nation's only co-ed Latino-interest fraternity. While making resident hall rounds one day, an undergrad stopped me to ask why I was wearing the letters and I told her because I was a founding member of Ohio University's Eta Chapter of A Psi. She began to argue with me about my heritage. "You aren't Mexican. There's no way. You don't dress like a Mexican and you sure don't act or talk like one." Taken aback, I didn't even know what to say. Of course I dress like a Mexican and act and talk like one because, well, I AM one, so no one can dispute this.

Is it because I don't have long hair all the way down my back? Blame cancer for me wearing it short. Is it because I don't speak with an accent? I'm from Ohio, we have the plainest soundest accents in the entire world. Is it because I listen to Death Cab for Cutie and Over the Rhine? I love me some alternative rock and folk music, yo.

I've always been proud of who I am and am saddened by the fact that so many people think I should act or be a certain way because of my maiden name or skin color. Wearing my mint green Girl Scout skirt, a white shirt, and a red neckerchief, I proudly sat on top of my dad's silver Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight and waved as he played David Lee Garza y Los Musicales during the Hispanic Heritage Pride parade in our hometown of Defiance, Ohio. Eating my rice y carnitas with homemade tortillas every Sunday at my grandma's house was just part of the normal routine. And I didn't know that a washcloth wasn't called a toallita until I was in college. Being Mexican-American is just who I am.

Growing up I only dated Mexican guys. I was in love with their dark hair and dark skin. In college, you know the years when one begins to experiment, I began to date a boy who, being half Mexican and half white, loved both his tacos and his Rage Against the Machine. Daniel Miguel Ochoa Smith was my gateway drug and it's been nothing but sandy blonde boys since. That doesn't mean I'm any less attracted to Latino men.

I can be educated and be Latina. I can be in love with a white man and be Latina. I can drink Malbec and be Latina. I can also dance a mean cumbia, bake up a capirotada, and call my son "mijo" as a term of love and endearment and be me, too.

Who are my parents? Anything but ashamed of me.