I want to talk about my experience of being what I have now realized is really, tri-racial.
First, I want to preface this by saying that I grew up, for the most part, “white-passing” and that in most settings I rarely experienced bias towards me based on my ethnic appearance or felt placed at a disadvantage due to my ancestral background (except in some particularly close-minded places). I’m not claiming to have experience of what black, Hispanic and indigenous people have gone through in this country, and I stand in active support and solidarity of the blatant need for cultural, economic and political progress. I am also not placing my experience above the experience of anyone who has experienced racism firsthand and/or adversely affected by outdated colonial power structures.
Some people would say that if you are white-passing and white-proximate you are still benefiting from the racist structures and institutions in this country meant to keep people of color out of positions of power. I don’t disagree with that statement and I feel simultaneously victimized by the cultural dominance of white capitalism in which I grew up for I grew up, like many others of mixed or foreign ethnicities, striving for whiteness.
I’m half-Irish and half -Guatemalan which is a mix of Spanish and Indigenous, hence the term, “Tri-Racial.” Irish, Spanish and Mayan, although Ireland and Spain are linked in ancient times and are both Western European so the case could be made for bi-racial, but that’s not really the point here…and I won’t get into the details of how my great grandmother on my Irish side was actually from southern Spain.
This identity confusion and euro-centric outlook doesn’t begin or end with me. Generations of mixed settler/colonial Central Americans strove to present as European and assert their Spanish blood over the indigenous.
The result of this was that I was disconnected from my Hispanic side, despite having exposure as child to Guatemalan/American culture and language, by about the age 10 it had been mostly phased out and I entered an almost entirely white school. I never really thought about what I was losing, I was always focused on fitting in and making friends, normal for that age. But as I became a teen and started dating, I became more aware of my racial difference, especially as my skin would darken in the summer months. But, most people who didn’t know me thought I was Italian or Irish-Italian, super common for Long Island, where I grew up. In fact, my boss at a restaurant where I worked as a waitress once told me that if someone asked if I was Italian, to just say yes. I also had people approach me occasionally and ask if I spoke English.
For most of my life, I felt somewhat confused about who I was and the answer always seemed to be to just go along with the status quo. There was always an inner tug of war about this, a guilt. I was curious about the very small hispanic population at my school. I think it was like 5 people in the whole school but they stuck together. Could I be one of them? It seemed like no, I was not completely fluent in Spanish and naturally shy so I never tried. I feel like now, with cultural awareness more opened up than it was in the late 90’s early 2000’s that could be more possible, I would feel more emboldened, but at the time.. it just wasn’t.
Sometimes I wanted to make my life or myself look a certain way, wear certain brands, cook certain foods, etc and sometimes I would have a deep rebel… a need to self express, but who was there, under this cultural assimilation, to do the expressing?
Being Bi-racial or Tri-racial doesn’t mean you are half of one thing and half of the other, its more like you are wholly both, squeezed into one person and that can be a lot to process. Sometimes in one setting, one dominates and sometimes, the other. I did not have a defined Guatemalan side aside from my ability to cook Guatemalan foods and speak Spanish, and some family trips there over the years. I didn’t have any Guatemalan friends and so this side really didn’t get developed much, but I did inherit the intergenerational trauma carried over through the lineage. I was a fully developed little egg in my mother’s infant womb, when my grandmother was pregnant with her. And the traumas she felt, were traumas my mother felt, and even I felt there, in a vibrational way. I inherited a fear of speaking up, a tendency towards depression, a desire to hide, a fear of rejection.
And what I wasn’t there for, my mother was, when she was an egg in her mother’s womb, who was an infant in her mother’s womb when my great grandmother was just 17 and became pregnant. We know very little about my great grandfather as he was passing through with his ranching family moving cattle through Guatemala. He stayed long enough to develop a relationship with my great grandmother and find out she was pregnant. When she traveled with him and his family to the border, she was turned away for lack of papers. He went on, North through Mexico and she and had to return to her village, pregnant and alone. In this time and place this was an especially devastating thing for a woman to go through.
This sorrow isn’t more special than the sorrows in another family, we all have our sorrows and I touch upon it because a) I want to point out how you don’t need to be connected to a culture of your heritage to inherit trauma from it, because it travels energetically through the lineage epigenetically as well as psychologically and shows up as anxieties, parenting techniques and coping mechanisms, and b) to remind us that we are (almost?) all dealing with some form of intergenerational trauma of one kind or another and it is worth acknowledging that, for knowledge brings power and acknowledgment sets the stage for healing.
Motherhood both helped and exacerbated the challenge of identity because in one sense, I drew upon ancestral wisdom, nourishment and ways to grow myself as a human and mother and to grow my child. Yet, in another I was influenced by the consumerist culture of motherhood, the perfectionist drama, the need to look and parent a certain way… a need to prove a sort of whiteness, which is sad to say…. and wasn’t even my need, it was an intergenerational need.
This same great-grandmother that I mentioned, Luz on my mother’s side lost many children as babies due to unsafe conditions. My grandmother grew up paranoid about cleanliness and had deep internalization of the patriarchy, as many women of her generation had to endure as the cultural norm. I was like a mechanism to survive. Don’t speak up, look presentable, clean up, go to school, become a doctor and space this unsafe place. Most white people, and I include myself in this as I realized this only recently, don’t realize what a privilege it has been just to feel safe because of the color of your skin. Or to feel safe because of your social status.
I had a big sort of bohemian, hippy, gypsy phase in my 20s (it’s a bit of a lifelong theme, I’ll admit) and it drove my mother crazy because she needed me, because of her upbringing, to look clean, buttoned up, hair brushed and dignified to create a sense of safety in her eyes, and for her to feel as though I’d be awarded the opportunities she wanted for me. But, I was a wild child, still am, and I know she loves me nonetheless.
But this doesn’t change the fact that I had the privilege, which she didn’t have, to be that way and in a different culture, that might have affected my life in a way more noticeable way. White people have the freedom to experiment and explore in a way that people of color would likely be judged for.
Only now is it becoming more socially acceptable, and yes, even trendy to wear indigenous styles and have long hair (save the 70s, I still love you 70s). The difference is that now those styles are being commodified in a way that is not fair to the indigenous roots from which they come. Sometimes, I hesitate to wear a Guatemalan blouse because, as someone who looks mostly white, I don’t want to reinforce that I think thats ok or spread the trend, even though it does belong to my heritage. I think that in some cases it can be worn with integrity, if you have a connection to the culture, perhaps it was purchased during travels, vintage or gifted. But sometimes its merely fast fashion and that is something I’m not sure that I’m at peace with. Sometimes we are borrowing aesthetics without any respect for the native culture which has suffered from the western capitalization of the world. That is a form cultural appropriation.
I am still finding myself, even at this point in may life and realizing how much fervor for the plight of indigenous, Hispanic and all marginalized people I do have within me. As I continue into the world of plant study and rewilding I feel more and more connected to my Mayan heritage and more and more passionate about advocating for the protection of indigenous culture, land and people in a way that is not just for Instagram commodification and trendy cultural capital but in a way that pays homage to the civilizations, or lack thereof if they’ve been destroyed by colonialism, from which they’ve originated.
So, what is lost when we assert the Colonial European influence over the Indigenous experience? To me, what we get feels like blind consumerism, fetishizing of trends without awareness of environmental impact, over extraction of resources, hierarchical power structures, fast fashion, fast food, overwork/grind culture and unsustainability in all its forms. What we could potentially resurrect is a restored relationship to the land, regenerative agriculture and ranching, slow fashion, slow food, conscious consumerism, ancestral wisdom, cyclical production methods, ancestral skills and all things regenerative. The future is here, and I realize ancestral methods aren’t for everyone, but we can at least give up the blind consumerism that is driving us towards climate change and habitat decimation. We can at least stop investing in what will ultimately kill the planet, we can stop divorcing ourselves from our heritage for monetary gain and remember to care and feel, and heal ancestrally for ourselves, the past and the future.
It may seem like this is a big ask, and it may seem like, how could one possibly begin this journey, perhaps the personal or inherited ancestral trauma already feels like too much. But I want to suggest, that perhaps, by traveling into personal ancestry, and looking at those methods, there might be something, a little seed, which you could water and you might find that the precise and unique method that pertains to you and your family, could be the way towards healing. When we heal ourselves we heal our family and the planet. When we care for ourselves we are caring for the planet. We are inextricably linked. See what the seed wants to reveal to you.