I'm White And Latina, Is That A Problem For You?

Tess Garcia

My mom is white. My dad is white. I am white, and I am Latina…I think.

Argentina is largely populated by the descendants of white colonists, who came surging in during the late 19th century. According to a 2009 study, the country’s population is approximately 78.5 percent European. That explains how my dad, who was born in the Argentine city of Tunuyán, melds perfectly into the largely Caucasian community he’s spent most of his life in, the one where he raised my siblings and I.

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Add a red-haired American mother to the equation, and you’ve got some very, very white kids.

It’s hard to embrace a culture that doesn’t seem to “match” your appearance. As a child, I refused to test-drive my broken Spanish on my perfectly fluent relatives. At family dinners, I’d pick at my abuela’s homemade empanadas, puzzled by a food so different from the plain noodles I adored. When I visited Argentina in seventh grade, I spent my evenings messaging friends on Facebook, telling them how strange I found life in South America. I never once stopped to think that, maybe, it didn’t have to be this way, that in spite of my skin tone, this heritage that was actually mine to embrace. 

Then I went to college. Friends began touting their cultures like beautiful badges of honor, surrounding themselves with others like them. I started filling out school-wide surveys asking me to identify my ethnic background; Caucasian and Hispanic were two separate options. It was one morning during Spanish class that I first began to wonder: What was I allowed to be?

I have no desire to feign oppression or throw a pity party for my tangly ethnic background. I only hope to pose a question common to white Latinx far and wide: What are we allowed to lay claim to, as those who reap the benefits of our heritage, without costs like racial profiling? This confusion is an elephant in the room for a huge demographic, as 43 percent of interracial marriages in the U.S. today are between whites and Latin Americans. In other words, there are a whole lot of light-skinned, Latinx-identifying kids out there.

I have never faced discrimination on a racial basis. My Latina background is often viewed as charming, even sexy. I've had boys ask me to speak Spanish to them, leaving me feeling like my heritage is nothing but a party trick to be brought out or put away in particular situations. Through all my confusion toward my background, one truth never seems to fade: If I had blacker hair and browner skin, the Latina-ness I’m lauded for would be perceived negatively. I’d be viewed as strange, a “ghetto” girl with a big, bilingual mouth, out of touch with the white way of life.

The white Latinx experience is a privileged one, but a complex one nonetheless. Whenever I hear someone chatting in a polished native Spanish, I feel a pang of jealousy that makes me question my relationship with my ethnicity. When I try to talk to my friends about my identity crises, they brush them off as simple insecurities.

“Don’t worry,” one once assured me. “I can’t even speak any other languages.”

But it’s not about being able to say that I’m bilingual, or that I’m a “mixed baddie” (I’m white, through and through). It’s about feeling uncomfortable in my own heritage, like I don’t deserve the title of Latina, as a pale girl who perfected her Spanish at an elite university.

I can’t speak for anyone else, but there’s no concrete solution to my ethnic identity dilemma. There are days when I feel perfectly comfortable calling myself Argentine American. There are also days when I feel wrong enjoying Argentine culture, a fraud taking ownership of something that doesn’t belong to her. Some days, abuela’s empanadas are my favorite food, but others, I just can’t stomach them.

PLUS: Study: U.S. Afro-Latinos More Likely to Identify as White Than Black

Yet the more I question my identity, the luckier I feel to have grown up in a home of mixed traditions. I love watching the World Cup with my Argentine family, just as I cherish all-American Thanksgiving dinners at my grandpa’s house. Some of my relatives look just like me, while others have the black hair and golden skin I once associated with every Latin American. With my newfound insecurity has come an emerging sense of gratitude.

My mom is from the United States, and my dad is from Argentina. Sometimes, I can’t figure it out, but right now, the equation seems simple: I am Latina-American.