At my high school, we were required to have regular meetings with the college counselor starting in junior year. They would get more intense as the clock ticked toward senior year college application season, but the first meeting was a get-to-know-you. Couselors would get a sense of your goals, and start to get the ground ready by making a connection between our current academic performance and the options that might be open to us next year.
My meeting was with a woman I’ll call Ms. Troy. Ms. Troy was a lovely, warm person. She was mixed race and Chicana, and an anchoring presence for many students of color. She had a funny—sometimes infuriating—ability to slip out of any social friction, unpleasantness, or conflict by giving a little laugh like you had said something funny.
I was meeting with her and sharing some of my goals for college. I have no idea where this came from, but at some point I mentioned something about exploring my Latino identity. Ms. Troy gave her little laugh and said, “Oh don’t worry about that right now. That’s what college is for!”
I understand now what she meant. The campus we were conversing in had a lot of pressure to socially conform, and there was only so much room to express an identity counter to the dominant culture. Colleges have resources that our school didn’t: access to international communities, academic circles, student activity funds. In just over a year, she was saying, you’re going to have so much more room to explore.
That’s not how I understood it at the time. What I took from her words was that there was going to be some mysical process of identity formation coming my way in college. I was asking some huge questions: Am I Latino enough? Enough for what? Why Latino, why not Chicano or Mexican-American? How important is it that I don’t speak Spanish very well? What stories am I at the center of? What stories am I on the periphery of? What is my relation to whiteness? How has whiteness advantaged me in my life?
These are questions I deeply wanted to know the answer to, and I really took to heart this short conversation. Those questions were unsettling. Exploring them led to places I didn’t enjoy thinking about. It was a nice thought, that they would resolve themselves in college all by themselves.
I am still living those questions. I no longer believe that there is someone out there that can give me the answers. I don’t believe my individual construction of identity has much of an impact one way or another.
One person who explores this territory, and specifically as a gay Latino (with bad Spanish!) is JP Brammer. I loved this recent piece of his on the funny position that Dia de los Muertos occupies in US culture right now. It’s both a unifying example of Mexican identity, and also filled with iconography that are surprisingly new:
It might surprise some to hear that the Día de Muertos parade [in Mexico City] stemmed from a single scene in a James Bond movie in 2015. Día de Muertos is, after all, a beloved tradition that many people hold close to their hearts. Indeed, the fact that it is a tradition, an heirloom of sorts, makes people protective, at times precious about it.
That it centers on the ancestors, a word that commands reverence, only adds to the idea that this holiday is an old, brittle thing that must be handled with great care. It’s understandable that some might view the parade through a cynical lens, as a tourist trap or as an inauthentic take on an ancient custom. “Fake,” others might say.
But I’m not one of those people. In fact, in the James-Bond-inspired Día de Muertos parade, I see something else entirely: a cypher for how culture is generated and, frankly, for how absurd it can be. I mean that in a good, fun way.