How I a Chicano Latino know that I am not a Mexican


"He spoke very good English and he asked me what I was."

How I know that I am not a Mexican 


For some reason in my eighteenth summer, my mother decided to send me to Mexico City for three weeks.  


It came out of nowhere. 


I had never been to Mexico or ever thought about going there but my Mom had her ways. 


She may have been looking for an antidote to the debauched life I had adopted my freshman year in college after I joined the fraternity.  At that point I was moving psychologically farther away from my past in San Fernando out of the control of my mother and father into what she called the “Anglo” world.   


That is what my mother called white people, “Anglos”, but my first year in college turned out to be a positive adventure in what she called "the Anglo world". That shows you just how deep the separation went into her thinking, and she wasn't wrong. 

Still, even though there was only a handful of Chicanos at Valley College when I went there, I had joined a Fraternity with a bunch of great “Anglo” brothers. They took me under their wing and showed me the way just like Los Bravos had done when I turned Cholo in Junior High School. The Cholos showed me how to be a real Cholo and now my fraternity brothers were showing me how to be a real college student and boy were they showing me the way. 

They were a hell of a group of kids.

The church that I grew up in was a part of the American Baptist Church’s Convention. Their association was big and spread over half the country and that summer a group of kids from a large Anglo Baptist church in Dallas were going to be missionaries for three weeks in Mexico City. The American Baptist Convention invited my mom to ask me if I wanted to join them and since I had never been outside of the US before I went for it. 

My mother signed me up and paid my way and even though leaving that summer unfortunately cost me a very cool girlfriend, it was still worth it.

When we got to Mexico City, they put us up in a Baptist seminary in a nice part of town with a wall around with barbed wire and broken glass on the top of it. 

The Baptist seminary was not far from the campus of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México where the seminary students also attended classes and what an incredible place that is. 

Once we were minimally trained, they sent us out to do our missionary work on the streets of Mexico City and they used the “Buddy System” to make sure that we would not get lost. My “Buddy” was a very funny and somewhat corruptible seminary student named Rogelio. 

He was a descent looking kid with a winning personality and we became good friends.

Rogelio taught me how to get a pickup truck and a few guitars and go serenading the Mexican and American girls at night and I taught him enough English to sweet-talk them down from their balconies. 

One of our best adventures proselytizing was when we went into a beauty school in Mexico City where we met many beautiful Mexico City girls. That beauty school was full of them and we kept going back there to save their souls until the owner of the beauty school got wise and kicked us out of there forever. 

So, we went back to work proselytizing on the streets of Mexico City meeting many interesting and sincerely religious people and some who were not so religious. 

Proselytizing is kind of like being a door-to-door salesperson. 

I think Rogelio brought comfort to some of those people who prayed with us. He prayed in Spanish so I had no idea what they were saying but I could still feel it. The shiver down my back when a connection was truly made. Seeing the comfort that Rogelio could bring to someone if he really tried. That made coming to Mexico City worthwhile, but there was more. 

Perhaps, it was the real reason that I came to Mexico City. 

One day we ran into a good-humored atheistic barbershop owner. He spoke very good English and he asked me what I was. 

Today, people ask that question far less frequently because there is now some cultural cool around that kind of a question. 

To me that the question itself is insulting. 

However, in the Fifties and early Sixties, if you spoke English and had brown skin like I do they wondered what you were. 

To be clear, not what country are you from? No, the question is what are you? 

That’s a different question isn’t it.

What was I? 

What could you possibly answer if someone asked you that question? 

What a strange question I thought, even back then before the Chicano Movement and we had our consciousness raised. 

I had a million answers to that question, but not just one. 

Everybody who ever asked me what I was only wanted one answer and I didn’t have one answer and that made me wonder. 

Everybody else seemed to have one answer, but I didn’t.

Even at this early stage in my development I realized that question for what it was. How it was itself full to the brim with so many assumptions about identity that it was incredible. 

It was a trap. 

That’s what it was, a trap.

That was the question you would ask someone who had just landed from outer space and stepped out of a flying saucer. 

What are you? 

Then that question might have made sense, maybe but I didn’t just step out of a spaceship. 

I was here all along in plain sight.

The point was what were they trying to get me to say with such an inquiry?

What are you? 

They wanted me to respond with some form of a lie that made them feel comfortable no matter how misleading it might be.

I knew one thing they don’t draft Mexicans into the US American army last time I checked and, in my wallet, from the time I was eighteen was my draft card. 

That is evidence. 

However, it was the early Sixties and I could still be forced to answer that question purely because I hadn’t figured it out yet, and anyway I was still young and too inexperienced and under educated to successfully win that argument. 

I just knew that I didn’t like that question. Never liked that question.

As the Sixties progressed I became highly educated, rhetorically skillful, ready for Freddy and militant and military fit. In the army I became politically astute and proactive. 

Then, tougher and smarter. I became prepared for demeaning references and loaded questions. 

I had sharp answers of my own and I was not alone.

When I came out of the army in sixty-nine there were many young Chicanos and Chicanas who weren’t going to take what white America was dishing out anymore. We had no patience for these kinds of stupid question anymore. But, this was many years before that, in my eighteenth year, I was a good-natured well intentioned teenager not quick to find fault and looking for the answers anywhere I could find them. 

One place that I did find some answers was in Mexico City.

I found that some answers I needed were in the possession of a good-humored atheistic barber we met in Mexico City proselytizing the gospel and his name was Ricardo. 

Ricardo helped me to find the answers to the question, “what are you”, and it didn’t take him too long to do it either. 

Ricardo had a sparkle in his eye and something to say, something to tell me. Maybe, he had something to tell the world if he only had the chance. 

Perhaps, in a strange way maybe meeting Ricardo was the reason I had come to Mexico City. 

Of course, Ricardo also asked me what I was, and I answered what I had been taught to answer even if it felt false on some level to me “a Mexican”, I answered. 

When Ricardo heard my answer, his eyes enlarged and almost bugged out. 

He couldn’t believe what I had answered. 

He acted like it was the last thing in the world that he thought that he would hear. 

When he heard my answer, Ricardo burst into uncontrollable laughter. Utterly surprised, he looked at me now with renewed interest. Now, this was fun to him. 

To have even more fun Ricardo the atheistic barber took me out on the street and stopped several people walking by and he coaxed them into asking me what I was. 

Each time I would give them the same answer. 

I would say that I was a Mexican, and then they would laugh too or look at me as if I was crazy. They spoke to me in Spanish, but I could not reply because I did not speak Spanish and that made them laugh even harder. 

That atheistic barber set me straight on my identity right there on the street in Mexico City. 

“You are not a Mexican my friend, why do you say that you are?” 

He mused and laughed to himself. “For some reason, you are mistaken about what you are, why is that my friend because you are obviously not a Mexican.” 

“Then, what am I?” 

“You are a Norte Americano that is what you are. I am a Mexican, but you cannot say that you are Mexican if you do not live in Mexico and you were not born in Mexico how could you think that? How can a person be so confused about what they are? Do you want to move here? Do you want to become a Mexican?” he inquired. 

“No, I am just visiting. I’m from California and I can’t wait to get back to Zuma beach.” 

“You see,” he said laughing and he had a funny way about him that made me think that I was funny too. 

“You do not know anything about Mexico or Mexicans. You cannot even speak Spanish. That is the language of Mexico. What ever made you think that you were a Mexican?” he wondered aloud. 

“That is what they call us in California.” I replied. 

“Then, they are wrong, aren’t they? We are Mexicans, not you. See him, him, and her they are Mexican, we are Mexicans, but not you. You should go back to California, and tell them you are not a Mexican”, and he shook his head laughing so hard. 

I felt like a fool for having ever called myself a Mexican. 

“But, I look like a Mexican, don’t I?” I protested. “I look like you.”

“Because, you look like me you think that you are a Mexican? We have Mexicans that look many ways my friend, they do not always look alike or look like me, they are blonde or very dark or Indian or Spanish or French looking or Chinese, but their country is Mexico. That is what is in their hearts and that is what makes them a real Mexican. Their loyalty is to Mexico. Your loyalty is not to Mexico, is it?” 


“What is in your heart my friend?” he asked me sincerely.

I thought of the land of my birth, I felt it and I said, “America”. 

“Then, that is your answer my friend. You are plainly a Norte Americano. Look, you walk like a Norte Americano you talk like a Norte Americano and more than anything else you act like a Norte Americano”, he exclaimed. 

“I walk like a Norte Americano?” I asked him taken aback, “What does a Norte Americano walk like?” 

I was curious and he showed me. 

He strutted around with his arms bowed out to the side taking more space than he needed, and I thought, I guess he is right, I do walk like a Norte Americano. 

That good-natured wise and generous atheistic barbershop owner in Mexico City straightened me out right there in the streets of Mexico City about my identity. 

I could never escape his simple logic, can you?