My husband came home the other night after sleeping through a rather austere production of La Boheme (don't ask) and said his opera friend asked a very good question. Which was "Why do you call yourself a Latina?"
To which I answered, "Go to sleep, you dumb ass."
Notice I didn't say "you white dumb ass" or worse yet, "you honky dumb ass." He is white and, at times, a dumb ass, but this is beside the point. The point was I don't have to prove my Latinaness by pointing out his whiteness.
"No, I mean really. It's a valid question. Why do you consider your self a Latina?"
I flipped on the light and then flipped out on him. "Are you serious?"
I mean, isn't it pretty obvious? After all these years shouldn't he, of all people, know why? And, if he was curious, maybe shouldn't it have occurred to him to have asked a long time ago? It's not like I was hiding it.
"Why not Hispanic? Or Chicana?" he persisted. "Do you even know what the hell a Chicana is? If I was a Chicana I wouldn't be here. So be glad I call myself a Latina."
Which is what I do think of myself when I bother to think of myself at all in that way. The word is ambiguous enough to include all women (and men when it ends in an 'o') who hail from all parts of Caribbean, Central and South America or have parents, grandparents, great-grandparents who came from those regions and were born here, but consider themselves to be part of something less specific than their nationality.
I was born and raised here and my parents weren't. I grew up speaking both Spanish and English. I am American with the added charm of my parents' Mexican heritage which I've adapted to my life, including seamlessly blending both languages when I'm talking to my family, adapting traditional recipes so they're more healthy and taking the first tentative steps outside the comfortable bubble we've constructed for ourselves to see what else life has to offer me. I'm Mexican-American, but I call myself a Latina because I like to think I'm part of something bigger.
Plus, Latina is gender specific and, as we should all know, gender is important. The whole Spanish language is built on separating people, places and things into either an "A" or and "O". As for the term Hispanic, as I remember from somewhere, it's what Nixon called us. Enough said about that. Not that I'm offended when someone uses it, but I do notice and wonder why they choose that particular word.
I'd have to earn the right to call myself a Chicana. To me a Chicana is political and active in her community, usually a largely Latino community. To me a Chicana is a hard core Latina. She's usually of Mexican-American descent and doesn't take crap from anybody or she makes funky art or has a job that makes a difference, like a teacher or social worker. Usually the words Chicana and activist go together.
Not that calling myself a Latina is not my lame version of Chicana-lite. I actively support the causes I feel strongly about. I have preserved those traditions from my parents' Mexican culture that are important to me. (A party is not a party unless there is a pi?ata.) And I've welcomed new ways of thinking, thanks to my exposure to the world beyond the neighborhood where I grew up. And that's the beauty of knowing I'm a Latina-I can have it anyway I want and never lose sight of the real me.
But it was late and I was tired. So all I said was "Good night, dumb ass."
(A version of this essay was originally published April 3, 2006 on www.margocandela.com)
Margo Candela's debut novel, UNDERNEATH IT ALL, will be published January 2007 by Kensington Books. Candela lives in Los Angeles where she was born and is currently at work on her third novel. For more information visit www.margocandela.com