Latina, Chicana, mestizo: The labels that define us

Alhambra Source and real estate developers Sam and Jackie Wong organized a scholarship in May that asked college and high school students from Alhambra to answer questions about their name, heritage, and growing up a child of immigrants in the San Gabriel Valley. The selected essays will be published once a week. The piece below is written by Mt. San Antonio College student Vanessa Solis. The 22 year old won third place for her essay about sifting through ethnic labels to find her identity as a Latina born in the San Gabriel Valley. Read Solis's essay below and check out the other winning essays we've published so far.

I am American, born and raised in the San Gabriel Valley. I am also Latina, Chicana, mestizo; my last name, Solis, evokes sol, the sun. I grew up in a city of diverse ethnic identities with deep roots, and found that my own ethnic heritage had a profound impact on the person I am today. My ethnicity has affected the way I lead my daily life, from the food I eat to the languages I speak. But it has also had an impact on the values I hold dear, the way the world sees me, and the decisions I make for the future.

I am Hispanic/Latino, one of the fastest growing ethnic groups in the nation. My father is from Mexico and my mother is from El Salvador, but on official forms I usually must select that I am ethnically white, which is troubling. Whenever possible I use the term "mestizo," which is the racial term for peoples from Latin America who have Spanish and American Indian ancestry. I also identify as Chicana, a term for Mexican American women. A label can be a powerful thing.

Solis (left) reads from her essay at the Sam & Jackie Wong-Alhambra Source scholarship ceremony. | Photo by Alfred Dicioco

As a child, people often asked me, what are you? I didn’t know how to reply. “Mexican,” I would say, or later,  “Hispanic.” But vague nationalities lack the specificity of a true ethnic identity. It took independent research for me to find a label I felt comfortable with. Now, when asked what I am, I tell them I am Latina, mestizo, and Chicana.

I look at race or equality issues with those labels in mind. I ask myself, “How can I work to help people who share my ethnic identity?” I am considered an ethnic minority with troubling statistics working against me: poor matriculation rates, high unemployment numbers, and even certain illnesses that impact the Hispanic/Latino population disproportionately because of a number of factors, including poverty and the fear of deportation. The issues I face — from workplace discrimination to the educational achievement gap — are those that impact people whose  labels I share.

Solis (right) with her father after his naturalization ceremony in April 2000. Her mother became a citizen in 1999.

My ethnicity also makes me a target for racism and stereotypes. As a member of an ethnic minority who faced attacks because of it, I have grown to demand tolerance and acceptance not just for myself but also for other members of my community. When I met racism in school, my parents told me that no one should be treated that way. Today when I see any discrimination I strongly and vocally oppose it, whether it is correcting a casual stereotype in conversation or writing about the issue.

My ethnic identity comes from my parents, physically and figuratively: my genetics gave me mestizo blood and my parents gave me an identity in the form of values and culture. My mother grew up in war-torn El Salvador and she escaped to this country at 14, living in poverty and seeing unthinkable acts. My father grew up on ranches in Mexico until he immigrated to California as a fourth grader, smuggled across the border disguised as one of his legal cousins. In both cases, my parents and their parents risked everything to escape to the land of opportunity. Against the odds, my parents each graduated from American high schools and became naturalized citizens. They instilled in my sister and me values stemming from our ethnic identities: family, hard work, and appreciation for the opportunities living in this country has granted us. These are the values my ethnic heritage helped me learn, and they are core values for moving forward.

Solis (second from right) and her family at her graduation from Alhambra High School in 2008.

My parents taught me the value of hard work and dedication, lessons they learned from their own parents. My grandparents on my father’s side immigrated to the United States and worked to raise seven children and own their home. On my mother’s side, my grandmother raised six. My parents now work to put my sister and me through school. They instilled in us a deep appreciation for the opportunity we have been given to grow up and learn in the United States, and I have excelled in school because of their influence.

Traditionally, those who share my ethnic heritage know the value of strong familial support. My family, both immediate and extended, has seen me through my own struggles, financially and emotionally. When I had health problems and was forced to drop out of school temporarily, my family rallied around me. We gather and raise our children together. We bond over food and holidays. And of course we weather tough times, from war to illness, together.

The Solis family holds up a "We [heart] Vanessa" sign at Vanessa Solis's high school graduation.

In Alhambra, I am lucky to live among a rich mix of Asian and Latin American communities, where I can interact with people like me, people whose families can reach into the recent past and find immigrants seeking a new life here. We share similar stories of difficult immigration journey, strong families, and the search for opportunity. Here, I was able to make close friendships with people whose culture I was lucky to learn about. I found that though we are different ethnically, we have similar values and the same goal: striving for the American Dream.

Growing up, I learned to see the world through the prism of my ethnic heritage, and this has enriched my perspective. I have the strength of the sol, the sun, and I move forward knowing that I work not just as a smart, independent person, but as a person with a strong ethnic identity; a person who values hard work and strength in dire times, and one who recognizes the opportunity to pursue higher education as a humbling privilege.

Essay was edited and condensed. 

Read the other winning essays: 

"Stages of shame: A young Chinese American's story" by Shannon Ho

"From rebellion to respect" by Yvonne Lee

Leave a Reply