What Is ‘Mexican’? Understanding Cultural Identity

Apr 7, 2021
11:11 AM

I have struggled with how to describe or define my identity since moving to the United States from Mexico at age 10—a struggle that was internalized and personal for years.

After migrating to the U.S. with my family in 1995, I identified myself as a Latina, Mexican girl, daughter, sister, granddaughter, niece, and cousin of a large Mexican family. That identity came into question more and more year after year in both Mexico and the United States.

I was not Mexican enough for my family in Mexico. I had become too “Americanized.”

The opposite was true in the U.S., as my friends and peers recognized me as “the Mexican girl” who had not assimilated enough to be recognized as “American.” For years I did not know where I fit in and I had trouble understanding where and how my culture, heritage, race, gender, and upbringing defined my identity.

People would ask, “What are you?” I chose to answer “I’m a woman”—and not get into any specifics. My internal turmoil made it difficult to explain anything further and that response made it easier for me to attach myself to a simpler sense of identity.

This comes when identity is often conflated with immigration issues. According to an ABC News poll, 57% percent of Americans disapprove of President Joe Biden’s approach to immigration. According to media reports, at least 4,200 unaccompanied children are in U.S. custody care at the border (with another 15,000 in the care of Health and Human Services). The crisis surrounding their treatment and living conditions and the delay in response and unification of children with their families continues to be of public concern.

There are more than 60.6 million Hispanics in the United States, with Mexicans accounting for 62% of that number. I am among millions of those children, men and women who have migrated to the United States over the years, and yet our identity and worth continue to come into question.

For me, it was not until years later in 2007 that I realized the importance and impact that my cultural heritage and race have on my sense of identity and how others see me.

As a young professional, I volunteered at a local school in Dallas with a group of elementary school students and was paired with two young Latina girls for their field trip. During the bus ride, the girls were speaking in Spanish when I overheard them speaking negatively about the field trip and using inappropriate language.

I came up to the girls and told them in Spanish to stop speaking that way and give the experience a chance. The girls were surprised to hear me speak Spanish and began to question me.

“Miss, you speak Spanish? How do you know Spanish? Miss, where you from?” 

When I explained to them that I was Mexican and fluent in Spanish, they asked more questions.

“But Miss, you don’t dress like a Mexican. How come you dress like that? How come you speak like that? How come you don’t have kids? You are getting too old not to have them. My mom had me when I was 19. That’s what I’m going to do too.”

I was shocked by their questions. I was dressed professionally, but not in a suit and jacket. I had taught myself over the years to speak mostly without an accent and avoid words I struggled with in English, but I never really thought much of it.

The conversation forced me to realize that many of these girls had let others define their path, that they did not know that they could be more than what they had seen or what they assumed their community expected them to be. They had let society, history, and Hollywood tell them what being “Mexican” meant or what was expected of a “Latina woman” to be.

In the 14 years since this encounter, perhaps that is changing. According to a 2019 NBC report on U.S. Latinas, “Millennial Latinas with an associate, bachelor’s, or graduate degree grew 70% over the past two decades—from 17% of Latinas in 2000 to 30% in 2017. This growth rate outpaced both Latino males (56%) and non-Latina females at 35%.”

But the struggles for Latina women are prevalent as they are only earning 54 cents for every dollar earned by non-Hispanic men. While Equal Pay Day for all women in this country was acknowledged recently, Equal Pay Day for Latina women is months down the road.

Latinas are pursuing associates, bachelors and doctorate degrees and entering the workforce, unfortunately, many of these women are not reaching executive-level positions.

Hispanics make up 17% of the labor force, yet only 4.3% of executive positions, the widest gap amongst any group, according to a 2019 analysis by Fast Company. Cities with lower populations of color show more equity in labor level positions and executive positions, yet in states with large Hispanic populations, they continue to primarily make up the laborer and service work positions.

In order for Latina girls in this country to change the way they see themselves, they need access to professional women and for these women to have opportunities to not only rise in their careers, but also create platforms and narratives that showcase their stories.

Before I met those young girls as a volunteer, I had never had to prove my “Mexicanness” to anyone before—I had always been identified in some way as Mexican.

But I had to prove to them that I was more Mexican than either of them, as I was born in Mexico. I told them that being Mexican did not mean that they had to have a baby, that being Mexican meant more, and that they could do and be anything they wanted to be.

It was then that I decided to go back to school for my master’s so I could help impact girls like them, as I knew that change started in the classroom.

Pursuing a higher education degree, advancing in my career into an Executive Director role was not just about my success, but about creating opportunities for other women and girls to see themselves reflected in me.

I hope I have made a difference. I invite more of my Latina sisters in leadership roles to extend a hand, create an opportunity and start the conversation that can elevate Latina identities in this country.


Karla Loya-Stack is executive director of Catch Up & Read and a Public Voices Fellow through The OpEd Project. Twitter: @KDL0430