A white mother, a brown father plus three daughters with varying skin tones, hair types and ethnic identities. That is my family.
As the oldest daughter, I knew my paternal grandparents for a few years longer than my siblings. They were beautiful and strong.
Rito and Sara Mendoza, mis abuelos, raised 14 children in Texas and Colorado. My father being one of the youngest. They worked the fields – the sugar beet industry of Colorado, in particular – and they struggled to give a good life to their family. They lived in small communities as poor, monolingual, migrant workers and all the while, they sought to be generous and serve God.
I am proud of this history, these roots of mine – their flavor and significance to who I am today. Yet, I am confused. As a racially and culturally ambiguous person, I feel lost in a world that is categorized by dualistic thinking and single-track ways of living.
In my mid-twenties, I am embarking on an intentional journey of understanding myself – particularly, as a mixed-race woman who desires to bridge divides and bring wholeness in a fractured society.
So, here’s step one: sharing my story and my unique mixed-ness. I hope it encourages more stories to be shared and I hope it invites us each to hold the tension of a life both wrought with pain and full of resilient, creative love.
Being raised in Loveland, Colorado and attending college in Eugene, Oregon molded me as a mainly white human being. From age 6 to age 21 the overwhelming majority of my community was white: my closest friends have always been white, my boyfriends, teachers, counselors and coaches, predominantly white.
My sweet parents, a Mexican-American father and my white mother of Scandinavian and Irish descent, believed it best to raise me in the “safest” way, with the most opportunities and comfort – which essentially meant the white American, white picket fenced, white Christian way. While I am thankful for the various gifts and opportunities that this afforded me, it is apparent that my other half was largely lost.
I remember the early moments when I began to realize “one of these things is not like the others.” (Thanks, Sesame Street). A little boy on the bus pointing at the dark hair on my body and laughing. Middle school girls joked about “Mexicans” in front of me without realizing I was also Mexican. A high school friend asking if my dad was black because he was a tall, dark-skinned guy – for which my friend had no racial category. The racist comments and slurs that thoughtlessly flowed from various friends and their families.
Even on the other side, my brown side, I didn’t quite belong. My cousins joked about who was “more Mexican” – comparing skin tones, spice tolerance, dance moves and language abilities (I never won in any of those categories). I wished I had straight black hair, an indigenous look, wondering if maybe then people would know how to place me ethnically. Quinceañeras and tamale making only grazed my personal life. The “authentic” cultural lifestyle of my ancestors never became my own. Even momentary experiences of being Mexican-American I experienced as an outsider – one foot in, one foot out.
Embedded in this “neither here nor there” experience is the realization that there is no natural place of comfort for me, being in between worlds means regular experiences of exclusion and confusion: white girls told me that they wish they could tan like me while darker skinned girls said they wished they could be lighter like me. My acquaintances laughed at Mexican mariachi music while it remained my late grandfather’s genre of choice. I didn’t learn Spanish as a kid and fought to learn it in school, I had a more natural aptitude with pronunciation but still I wrestled with a feeling of cultural inferiority, I felt destined to be an imposter.
Recently I was shocked to discover that my experience isn’t due to something I did wrong. It isn’t my fault. Clearly, I wasn’t making a series of conscious choices about my culture as a child, but somehow, I have felt guilty about this for much of my life. I have felt bad about being not Latina enough, about being too white or being unsure of my family history. The truth is that my upbringing was a storm of social pressures, ladder-climbing and my parents doing the best they could in uncharted territory.
My parents’ divorce in my preteen years began to shed light on the immense difficulty of two people from two very different worlds attempting to live a “regular life.” It allowed me to differentiate between where they came from, their values and their dreams. While it was ugly, it was formative. It let me see myself and my family in more complicated ways, the white picket fences came down, the scholarships had to be fought for and any façade of being just like my peers started to unravel.
I hope this doesn’t sound like a long list of complaints, it’s not that I feel sorry for myself, this is just what life is like for me. It’s my normal, my story. While there are moments that are particularly disorienting or isolating, I am accustomed to being caught in the middle.
I so badly want this mixed-up story to be a beautiful, bridge-building gift, but often it feels like a burden.
It’s painful to listen to the news, knowing that the two sides of my family tree, the two sides within me, are warring about how to interpret the racial tensions, the injustices spun in a million directions by different communities. I sense a cultural tug of war over the grand prize of being right and being in control. But right now, I don’t want to be right or in control. I want to be honest and, what’s more, I need to be out of balance. It’s a spiritual practice for me. This disoriented upbringing has taught me to be open to my own pain and my own confusion as a white flag of vulnerability… I want my story, my sadness, my authentic experience to be a witness and an invitation. I am made weary by the grave social injustices of our country, they pierce me so deeply. And yet, I am surprisingly made more whole by sitting with, and hearing stories of those who are afflicted, oppressed and marginalized.
My name is Rebecca Mendoza Nunziato and I am Mexican-Spanish, Scandinavian-Irish. I don’t have answers, but I seek to join hand with millions of other “mixed up” people to build a more beautiful future. Life after all is in the questions, the off-balance journey and the creation of something new.
Thanks for listening.
Here are some of the resources that allowed me to press into my mixed-ness lately, I hope you enjoy them too!