Hiding Behind the American Shadow

By Elizabeth Morales

Throughout these past few years, there has been an increasing demand for the U.S. to grant citizenship to undocumented individuals. . A growing community of eligible Dreamers and supportive ally communities have mobilized to demand that Congress or the President establish citizenship for undocumented individuals, making many  major headlines over the  past few years. Many undocumented activists have developed  a powerful voice to defend themselves and to set an example of civic engagement in their community.
But what happens when undocumented individuals choose to hide their Latina/o identities behind the American Shadows in order  to defend themselves from the world around them. Here are two stories from undocumented Mexican youth who hide their Latinidad in order to shield their undocumented status. Because of an inability to claim all the rights of American citizenship, they deny  a racial/ ethnic identity that is inextricably linked to their citizenship status.
Chris is a 22 year old male who is a college student that works in a restaurant. He is able to to avoid being stereotyped as a phentotypical Latino and has developed a coping mechanism to distance himself from his Mexican identity.

“I was born in Leon Mexico and moved to the United States when I was about 3-4 years old, I don’t know the exact age because I have never really bothered asking my family. I attended elementary in Utah until I was in fourth grade and that is when my family and I moved to Colorado for family reasons. I guess that is where a lot of things changed for me and I became aware of my legal status at a young age without even knowing it. Colorado wasn’t very diverse I was among the few Mexican kids in my elementary.. Kids were so rude and would tease the shit out of the Mexican kids and would say stuff like “Go back to Mexico, you spike.” Or “This is America, speak English wetback.” I know I was young and honestly had no idea what it really meant to be undocumented until I grew older but seeing how the kids were getting treated made me scared and I didn’t want to be the kid getting teased so needless to say I joined in and became a bully, I guess it was almost a defense mechanism and a way to cover up what I was. I thought if I joined in then no one would ever think I was. I soon started to white wash myself and try to be as white as I could, dressing in white name brand clothing, listen to the music my white friends were listening to, and just try to avoid being Mexican overall, so that no one would ever find out I was undocumented. My family and I moved back to Utah after a couple of years but my judgments and attitude didn’t change. I still stayed a bully and the reason why I think was to protect myself from being found out, even though I wasn’t in that environment anymore. All throughout Jr. High, High School, and even now in college I do not relate very well with my culture, I do not Latin dance, Spanish comes hard, I don’t have any Hispanic friends. And because I do not look Hispanic I usually just say I am white when people aren’t sure of what my race is. It’s sucks having to fill out my Deferral Action and HB144 documents and being constantly reminded that I am undocumented and that a big part of society does not label me as a citizen, but yet America is all I know.. It sucks.. I know that my actions are wrong and that I should embrace who I am, but who I am now is all I know. I like being different and not labeled in a certain way. I feel that if I keep this attitude up I will never be discovered and it has been working so far.”

Law professor Margaret Montoya explained that many Latinas/os often carry the burden of having to play two roles– one conforming to dominant society and the other knowing and expressing their Latino culture.  Latinos who decide not to show their culture often use “racelessness” a coping mechanism that de-emphasizes and characteristics that signal they are not dominant group members. For Reynaldo this has been his reason for not wanting to identify as Mexican/American and just as American.

“For many students the limitations on being undocumented come into play after graduating high school. The reality hit Steven a 18 year old boy trying to enter college after not being able to apply for FAFSA. The hard truth hit him after understanding what the real restrictions were here in the U.S. for an undocumented student.

I always knew I was undocumented, I knew both my parents were undocumented but I didn’t understand what that really meant and what my limitations were. It wasn’t until I was in high school when I told my mom about wanting to apply for a job and her telling me I wasn’t able to because I was undocumented. I remember at that point being furious for who I was and ashamed for being “illegal”.

I had never hit the norm of a Mexican. I was always the odd ball out in my family. I was very much the skater, long haired, tattoo loving guy that was told to be the troubled child growing up. I don’t think I necessarily tried to be white that was just the identity that fit me best. Even with both my parents being Mexican I don’t celebrate or feel pride for being Mexican. My culture and legal status has only brought me discrimination here in America and I don’t see the need to celebrate that.
I do not plan on teaching my kids Spanish or having them too involved with their Latin roots, I do not want them to feel the way I felt when growing up. I want to be the parent that is able to talk in English to them and have them not feel embarrassed in parent teacher conferences because I don’t speak English. I don’t want to put my kids through hard times, and to do that I feel that I have to cut my ties with the culture that I never even wanted to be involved in. I just feel like the last step to making this happen is for me being granted citizenship.
It wasn’t until the moment that my mom told me about not only not being able to apply to any job but also not being granted FAFSA, Loans, restricted on scholarships, and many other small things that I became scared of people seeing me as different, I am embarrassed to say that I am undocumented or that I even have to take extra steps to be eligible for small things that normal citizens don’t ever have to worry about. I don’t know what I would do if I were ever to be deported. Mexico is not my home, I don’t know that country. I am American despite my legal status. I am American.
It’s important to remember that there isn’t just one way to hold the Latino identity, and there are particular challenges to being a Latino in U.S. society that holds both negative ideas about Latinos and has policies that directly affect their identity.