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Hispanic Heritage Month

By Eric Dorsa

I recently listened to a Podcast a fellow Hispanic coworker sent me called "Anything for Selena." She had recommended it, knowing I was obsessed with Selena Quintanilla and because the podcast's creator spoke to an authentic Latinx experience that both my coworker and I shared as second and third-generation Latinx. The podcast unpacked the assimilation of the American way of life and the distance we both experienced from our Mexican heritage. Although Mexico is only a few hundred miles from where we were raised in the U.S., our connection felt lightyears away. Bridging this distance over time has provided insightful context for my upbringing and helped me find clarity in my identity.

Growing up in a Mexican family in South Texas was an eventful experience, to say the least. Every birthday and celebration had a traditional pinata. The whole family meant all cousins, second cousins, third cousins, aunts and uncles, and family friends deemed your "Tias y Tios." There was always food, laughter, music, drinking, and joy. The Texas heat baking the Earth under our feet, the sound of the cicadas in the pecan trees, the smell of the fajitas cooking, the boiling sound of the beans cooking in clay pots are all distinctive details in the memories I hold from my childhood.

While my white friends got to enjoy their time off every winter break, we were all busy making tamales for the church orders with our "tiny hands," perfect for spreading masa. Yet, in this mosaic of Texas and Mexican culture that is my identity, a darker side loomed in the shadows that was never discussed. It wasn't because the words didn't exist in Spanish or English; rather, we suppressed the shame and the fear we had of being Mexican in the United States. This shame wasn't something I would uncover and address until years into my healing from an eating disorder and addiction.

I remember being raised to be unlike my family that was still very much connected to Mexico, its vibrant beauty, and rich heritage. I didn't contextualize until young adulthood that my grandparents were raised in the Jim Crow south. Because of her dark skin and indigenous features, my great-grandmother rarely left the house because she would have to use segregated accommodations and face discrimination. Even as recent as my high school years, students could be suspended for speaking Spanish outside the classroom. This feeling created a war within me. How much of me is too Mexican, and what parts should I hide? I was not raised with pride for my heritage but instead with fear and apathy.

When my extended family members spoke Spanish in our home, it was custom to respond in English. When I asked why we couldn't speak Spanish, I was told, "you don't need to know Spanish." What they were really saying is Spanish is not as valuable as English. This message led me to believe it was acceptable to be Mexican in private, but I had to be American in public.

I recently went on a trip to the Equal Justice Institutes Museum in Montgomery, Alabama. There, on full display, was the cruel and honest reality of our nation's past. One ruled by the separation of races. In one section of the museum, there was a wall showing all the signs from Texas’s past. In one of the pictures, I noticed figures that resembled my grandmother, drinking from a segregated fountain with a sign overhead that read "No Mexicans Allowed." At that moment, I wept. For the first time, I had a glimpse into why my grandparents, family, and friends felt so distant from one of the most significant parts of our identities.

In the pictures, I was looking at my grandparents' reality, a reality that was never discussed. When I called my grandmother, who is 93, to talk to her about my experience, I could feel the pain through the telephone. She said, "that is just how it was." I didn't push her any further, but felt a piece of my childhood come back to me at that moment. It was one filled with sounds the summer with my family, the food, the music, the laughter, and of course, the joy.

This Hispanic Heritage Month, I want to focus on the future for myself and so many Latinx living here in the United States. Our stories are not of a separate America but part of the mosaic of America. As I continue to connect with my heritage, language, and culture, I am finding healing and reconciliation with this unspoken pain in my childhood—my grandparents' and parents' untold story. Today, I am a proud Latinx. I feel less shame for not knowing how to be Mexican enough, or for once being ashamed of my heritage. Today I feel I am one the of many Latinx in the United States relearning who I am and learning to live between the past and a more hopeful and inclusive future.

Written by

Eric Dorsa

Eric Dorsa is an LGBTQ advocate, actor, comedian, and drag queen currently living in Chicago, Illinois. As an advocate for the LGBTQ community, Eric travels around the country sharing the...