I’m a “Chino-Chicano.” I was born in East Los Angeles and raised in the small town of Hacienda Heights. My dad is an immigrant from Chihuahua, Mexico and my mom an immigrant from Hubei in central China. The Romeros lost their family fortune during the Mexican Revolution by siding with Pancho Villa, and eventually immigrated to El Paso, Texas. They moved to East Los Angeles in the 1950’s and we’ve been here in Southern California ever since. My mom’s family immigrated to Los Angeles from China via Hong Kong and Singapore in the 1950’s. My maternal grandfather, Calvin Chao, was a famous pastor in China who launched the first Chinese branch of Intervarsity Christian Fellowship. The Chaos fled their native land because my grandfather was on a communist “hit list.” As an interesting side note, my Mom’s family traces directly back to the founding emperor of the Song Dynasty!
Growing up “mixed,” I had a lot of struggles with racial identity. I was very proud of my Mexican heritage, but at a young age got sent the message that being Chinese was a bad thing. On the first day of first grade a kid walked up to me, pretended to hold an imaginary refrigerator in his hands, and said, “Here’s a refrigerator, open it up. Here’s a coke, drink it. Me Chinese, me play joke, me do pee-pee in your Coke.” Kids are so mean. I was so scarred by that event that I denied my Chinese heritage for the next 18 years. Once I even remember telling a friend that my mom was our housekeeper because I was embarrassed that she came to pick me up from school.
To make matters worse, Hacienda Heights, or at least the school I attended for elementary school during the 1970’s and early 80’s, was mostly white. (Ironically, today Hacienda Heights is basically half-Mexican and half-Chinese. If I grew up there today I would fit in perfectly). As a result, I also wrestled with other types of self-hatred and a deep desire to fit in with my blond peers. Not only did I not want to be Chinese, but I did not want to be Mexican as well. I can remember being called a “beaner” and feeling like I did not fit in because I was not white. In fact, I can distinctly recall two blond kids playing with one another (while I stood alone) and saying to myself, “She’s playing with him because they both have yellow hair and I don’t.”
These racial identity struggles followed me into my adulthood, and they are, in part, what have driven me so close to God over the years. I’ve often asked myself: Am I Mexican? Am I Chinese? Am I American? Where do I fit in? I love spending time with my Mexican family and friends, but yet I feel incomplete if I do not also spend meaningful time with my Chinese family and immersing myself in Chinese culture. When I’m with Latinos I’m usually accepted as one of them because I “look Mexican” and can usually “pass.” Many people have walked up to me on the street and started speaking Spanish because I am tall with dark wavy hair and tan skin and can grow a pretty good beard.
Although I look Mexican to many people, I definitely get categorized in other ways as well: Are you “Filipino”? Are you Hawaiian? Are you Middle Eastern? Are you “Chinese with a tan”? Although I don’t usually mind being categorized in these ways, as any mixed race person will tell you, it’s sometimes painful to be labeled something that you’re not.
I can really identify with the following poem, called “Clueless,” by Chicana/o Studies professor Rudy Guevarra. Guevarra is a fellow “Asian-Latino,” and his poem captures the frustrations that we as mixed race individuals often feel as a result of being misunderstood and mislabeled. He is a “Mexipino” (Mexican-Filipino) from San Diego, California.
“What's it like to be me you ask?
what are you?
so many times
I hear this phrase
from those who don't know
what I am…
I am your illusion, your reality,
Mestizo you call me,
but what the hell is that?
does that include all of me?
my Asian, Indian, African, and Spanish roots?
can you see my multidimensional character?
the complexity of my being,
which thrives on the ignorance of the masses
I am the Filipino you once despised
the one you hated,
the Mexican you abhorred, ignore,
and continue to attack
what if I was both?
could you deal with the double reality
of my presence…
I may be foreign to you,
but so many times
I can be invisible too
my illusion masks my inner thoughts
but not what I see
and it sure as hell won't cloud my sanity
I know who I am
see my genetic, cultural, social,
and political identity
is often in question
but it's all the same to me…”
Thanks for reading. More to come. Please spread the word about this series to one of the other 9 million mixed-race individuals living in the U.S. today!
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