Other people’s lives

When I tell people I’m descended of Mexican-born parents, they give me an astonished look of disbelief

Marvin Gonzalez thinks that as multiculturalism becomes the norm, the issue of “otherness” and identity will become more important.

Marvin Gonzalez thinks that as multiculturalism becomes the norm, the issue of “otherness” and identity will become more important.

Photo By Amy Beck

People constantly ask me about my ethnic background. When I tell them I’m descended from Mexican-born parents, they give me this astonished look of disbelief like I’ve just stuck a finger in their sandwich or they caught me in bed with their mother. Their eyes wait for me to tell them that I’m joking, but when that conciliatory moment never arrives, they politely mutter, “I would have never guessed that in a million years.”

I’ve learned not to begrudge these people. Here in the States we like things to fit neatly into a pattern. I’ll be the first to admit that I do not represent the typical model of what a Mexican-American is thought to look like. What’s fascinating, though, is how easily these same people will quickly tell me that they assumed that I was Middle Eastern or Jewish. I guess my large protruding proboscis, narrow angular features and unusually thick black beard all demonstrate “otherness.” However, they are demonstrative of an “otherness” that does not apply to me. The reason for this has been a source of great curiosity and bemusement for me.

Juggling act

I’ve been exploring this idea of the “other” for some time. Partly because of my personal history—the juggling act of embracing my Americanism while simultaneously never straying too far from my roots. But it’s also because this issue of identity and “otherness” is going to become increasingly important as we transition into a world where multiculturalism will become the norm. Evidence of this transition can be seen in the pockets of this country where our biracial president was viewed with such skepticism that he had to go out of his way to prove he was one of us, releasing his long-form birth certificate in response to a move to de-legitimize his “otherness”.

Of course, this fear of the “other” is nothing new. Earlier, the fear and skepticism was directed at ethnic groups like the Irish and the Italians, who were denigrated for being Catholic. As new groups of peoples have immigrated into our country, they have faced periods of marginalization but eventually have been accepted by the greater culture, which ultimately enriched our culture. Our current situation is perhaps a bit trickier because it involves issues of race and culture that are decidedly non-European. And it appears the big fear most Americans have is driven more by the idea of American culture being supplanted or usurped by the “other,” rather than what might happen to us if we let them assimilate.

Antonio Quintana eats tacos with his friend Marvin Gonzalez.

Photo By amy beck

This idea that the traditional American culture is in jeopardy of being lost is absurd. Ours is a living culture that would benefit from broadening it to include other cultures as it expands and evolves. But this fear of the “other” slows down that process. I think this is especially true for the Hispanic community, because ours is a culture that is different not only racially but linguistically.

The fact is, though, the Latino population is a marginalized population, and it seems to be a community that is being more and more marginalized. If you take a drive around Reno, you can see how the Latino community is literally corralled into corners of the city where they can be shepherded and then forgotten. All you have to do is avoid those neighborhoods to avoid any feelings of white guilt. There’s also an economic marginalization. In Reno, a city of 220,598, one in five people is of Hispanic origin. One in five Hispanics in Reno is also unemployed. But an even scarier statistic is that at the University of Nevada, Reno, a university with a student body of 17,679 students, only 5 percent of them are Hispanic. That’s 884 students, or one in 20.

This discrepancy between the actual population of Hispanics in Reno and how many are pursuing a higher education is frightening. It’s scary because it shows that there is simply not enough being done to prepare this community to be competitive in the future. It’s also one of those institutions in which citizens are indoctrinated, or where one might expect to become a well-rounded U.S citizen. Now, we can speculate as to why there are so few Hispanics in higher education. There may be institutional, economic or cultural reasons, but it’s safe to say that, like all complex matters, the reasons are nuanced. What’s important to consider is how this continues to keep the community marginalized. It’s a deficit not only of income and equality, but also of character and intellectualism. Life doesn’t start and stop with university-life, but it’s undeniably a good jumping stone into adulthood, and a factor that will keep the community so stubbornly categorized as the “other.”

Flying home

I was flying back to Reno from Salt Lake City one recent Thanksgiving, and I almost missed my flight because I was “randomly” selected for a search at security. I attributed this to the large beard I had just grown, how it might be adding to my “otherness.” After the embarrassing ordeal, I barely made it onboard a plane full of business-types flying to Reno. I noticed there was another passenger who barely made it, a dark-skinned Hispanic man I had seen receiving scrutiny similar to my own. I wanted to say something to him, but in the end I remained silent as he cast an indifferent glance at me. I wanted to reach out to him so that I could somehow say that our situations were the same, but I knew they weren’t. I could easily shave off my beard, use my fancy college vocabulary and speak in my very status-quo variation of American English. In short, I could blend in with the crowd. I knew that these weren’t options for this gentleman, who was forced to constantly wear “otherness” in his appearance and linguistic patterns.

The more you hear the narrative that you don’t belong somewhere, the more you come to believe that it is true. It’s a vicious cycle of being labeled and self-labeling; a disease that feeds on itself. What we need to realize here in the States is that the make-up of our population is changing, and eventually the problems that surround a single community will begin to affect everyone. We need to be inclusive and open to this change, not afraid and slanderous of it. For this fear breeds a distrust; a distrust that will ultimately be harmful for us all.

But, I remain optimistic. In the future, I hope to see our American journey going much the same as that flight. No first class. No hierarchies at our core. I see us as a country where we can all be functionally different but the same, ultimately just a bunch of jokers flying coach, strapped to our seats, praying for as little turbulence as possible before we touchdown back home.