Being "Mexican" wasn't really a thing until I left my latino neighborhood in California.
The moment I decided to receive an education several hundreds of miles North was bittersweet and surprisingly a big deal. At the time, it would be the furthest away anyone in my family would ever be. I was laden with anxiety about not knowing what lay behind each corner and not being seen as immediately belonging, but I was thrilled at the prospect of discovering something new. Of learning how to thrive in the unknown.
There were a lot of conversations about why leaving was not directly insulting my family. Confirming 'no,' I did not hate my grandparents, want to abandon my mother or was secretly pregnant at the ripe age of seventeen.
And there was a strange pressure to somehow know everything. What I wanted to do, who I was trying to be, what job I would get, how much money I was going to make. Growing up Mexican meant not getting much space or time to figure out any of those things separately from what my family wanted, expected and pushed onto me. Monday through Sunday was family time and if I wasn't there, I either though I was better than everyone (studying or exercising falls into this category) or was up to no good (any activity away from the eyes of my mom fell into this category).
The benefits of all of this attention and love? Knowing I had unconditional love and support, and this outweighs anything.
But--much to my family's dismay--I did leave. All of a sudden, I was thrust into a highly competitive environment with little encouragement, support and zero sense of belonging. It. Was. Hard. Getting educated and being surrounded by different cultures while doing so was equal parts terrifying and thrilling. You suddenly find out that you have an accent? Slang doesn't immediately cross over and it takes a little longer for things to click between you and someone else. And another thing? I was a girl.
Being a young woman and bearing the characteristic beauty marks of Mexican heritage put me in foreign positions with men of all ages. Sometimes, I was an exotic bird. Other times, I wasn't exotic enough. "You don't speak Spanish all the time? Oh..." And since I hadn't yet figured out who I was, it was too easy to be pulled in different directions by basically anyone I interacted with. And I hadn't even decided how much I cared about the many directions and the people doing the pulling.
Visiting home was a sweet relief from always being a little on edge, a little unsure of how to look, act, be. My intention was to create my own small feeling of home in the uncertain new world that was college. But the process to getting there wasn't smooth at all. Growing pains made themselves felt as soon as I returned home to realize I wasn't who I used to be...and that this was a good thing. I'd entered a weird twilight zone of transition.
The ground beneath my feet looked familiar when I glanced backward but new types of flowers and soil were now being thrown into the mix with each step forward. It was exciting to be sure but, without many people to look to for advice, it was easy to be overwhelmed with doubt.
Writing and self-care became absolutely essential. All of the questions in my head quieted only when I put them to paper. Sometimes, my tears would blur the many question marks before me. All of them reminding me that I didn't know, I didn't know, I just didn't know anything. Not seeing enough of my own kind around me left me feeling constantly like I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Unfortunately, there isn't enough self-care in the world to help ebb the effects of that feeling.
I realized over time that even with all of this being true and weighing heavily on me-- I was Mexican American and I was also an academic. Adulting as a mix of two cultures is an ongoing work of art in a fluid landscape of expectation and pressure. It meant accepting that I could never be understood in one glance or after a single conversation. I saw how so many people worked tirelessly to be understood immediately and I decided to be the strong Latina who stands apart. Knowing that when she does, she also stands with her culture. Far from alone and okay with doubt. A past and a future compressed and represented by pride, knowledge and an attitude to make the world a better place in her own way. In the only way that she can. In that moment, it was like I had become the embodied hope and dream of generations past. Each step forward became laden with both essence and potential.
And only acceptance made it easier.
Doubts eventually faded away as I kept proving myself to, well, myself. And the pressures of the outside world bounced off my brown skin. I learned that I can be the only one to decide: will I burn as a candle or wild blaze?
And regardless of my answer, everything around me has to light up.