Floods and friendships

Cal in Color

Photo of Marina Román Cantú

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Being white-passing, “but you don’t look Mexican” has probably been one of the most common phrases I’ve heard since arriving at UC Berkeley. I had never heard that phrase before, perhaps because this is the first time I’m living outside of Mexico for an extended period of time.

No one has ever questioned whether I’m Mexican in Mexico, which is ironic when I’m asked about my Mexicanidad here, as if there’s some assessment of how “Mexican” I am based on what I look like. I never know how I’m supposed to respond — should I just laugh? My usual response goes something along the lines of, “Well, we come in all shapes and sizes,” then resuming the conversation, trying to disguise my discomfort.

The first person I met at UC Berkeley started a conversation with me during a campus tour. We were the only ones who didn’t come in a group, so it made sense for us to break the ice. Out of what seemed like a 2004 “Mean Girls” scene, he asked me, “But if you’re Mexican, why are you white?” He then proceeded with this follow-up question: “I get that you’re Mexican now, but why is your English so fluid?”

Since arriving in the United States, I’ve stumbled upon the concept of racial identity. In Mexico, we don’t talk about race. Even though there are Afro-Mexican women activists who speak up about race and racism in Mexico, the widespread conversation regarding race is still nonexistent.

That doesn’t mean we don’t have racial disparities; we simply don’t acknowledge them. Here, I’m a white-passing Latina, and I know there’s a privilege in that.

Being Latinx is tricky. It complicates one’s notion of identity because that single word, “Latinx,” defines (confusingly enough) both your ethnicity and your race. There’s an implicit but collective notion of being Latinx. You know whether you’re Mexican, Chilean or Venezuelan that if you ever come across another Latinx, they are tu gente, or “your people.”

However, how does this six-letter word Latinx encompass us all? Are there any inherent differences that should be acknowledged? And if we try to acknowledge our differences, to what extent are we fracturing our collective identity?

I still don’t have answers to these questions, but I do know that attempting to combine the intersections of ethnicities within Latinx culture is impossible.

We are not a one-size-fits-all kind of people, and it seems silly to even have to state that explicitly in writing.

Not all of my experiences here have been as insightful as my own racial identity diagnosis. As I’m writing this in my ceilingless kitchen, I realize that my first weeks here have been messy, to say the least. One would assume the hardest adjustment process as an exchange student arriving at UC Berkeley would be the academic one. Instead, living in this dorm has been the biggest adjustment of them all.

About a month ago, someone left the washing machine’s door open while they were doing their laundry. Our laundry room is on the fourth floor, so as water leaked throughout the night, all of the dorms below were flooded. The next day, a good portion of the kitchen’s walls and ceilings were torn out, and three industrial fans were installed and needed to be on at all times for a whole week.

As it turns out, the same guy who couldn’t fathom my English-speaking abilities lives in my building — and couldn’t comprehend the laundry machine’s instructions.

It has not all been as messy (and laughably ironic) as this. In fact, most of my time here has been pretty good so far.

In the last four weeks, I’ve grown closer to people I’ve just met than people I’ve known for years. I’m not sure if that’s because of the distance away from our hometowns, the foreignness of it all or the fact that we have spent most of our time together. Last week, in an attempt to find a good sushi restaurant in San Francisco, we ended up wandering along Mission Street, San Francisco’s predominantly Mexican neighborhood, late at night. From people singing and dancing to Selena Quintanilla’s songs in the street to the murals and papercut Mexican banners, I felt a sense of home.

Right there, it made sense to me. My race — being Latinx — is both an essence and an illusion.

It is an illusion in the way that we use race as a culturally constructed mechanism to make sense of our lives and our experiences; to find our place in how history has changed its future course. However, for me, race is also an essence.

It is the overwhelming feeling and connection I felt toward those strangers on Mission Street, with whom I probably have just a few things in common. Race as an essence is the sense of familiarity I feel with my newfound Mexican friends here, that even without knowing each other just a month ago, our shared identities make me feel right at home.

Marina Román Cantú writes the Friday column on being a person of color at UC Berkeley. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected], or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.