I recently met with a fellow writer who was visiting town from California. As we gabbed over happy hour-priced prosecco and bar snacks, we discovered that we’re both Filipina. In my case, I’m half. My other half is Mexican.
“You’re a Mexipina!” my friend exclaimed. I cracked a smile. I hadn’t heard that phrase in a long time. It’s one that my half-brother, who’s full Mexican-American, used to describe me when I was a kid. I always thought he’d made it up, both because he liked how it sounded and because he often teased me for being part Asian.
The teasing was pretty typical sibling banter and, for the most part, ineffective. He called me “Mulan,” which I took as a compliment because, well, Mulan is a badass. He joked that I was adopted, which, let’s be honest, is not even an original thing to tease your sibling about.
While I never questioned whether my parents were my indeed my biological parents, I did question what my multicultural heritage meant for my sense of identity. I still do.
CREDIT: Photo credit: Kent B. Campbell
Sure, I’m equal parts Filipina and Mexican, I am a Filipino Mexican, instances of ethnicity, do two halves really make a whole? For most of my life, especially during my childhood and adolescence, I struggled with this idea of occupying these two categories simultaneously. I never felt like I was Filipina or Mexican enough.
When you’re both, it’s hard to feel like either. Further complicating my identity issues is the fact that I don’t speak Spanish well, and I don’t speak Tagalog at all. I was born and raised in Nebraska, a place that isn’t exactly known for its wealth of racial and ethnic diversity. I didn’t have many Asian or Latinx friends.
More often than not, I was the only person of color in an entire room. I rarely visited my family in Mexico, and I have yet to visit and meet my family in the Philippines. For all intents and purposes, I’m as American as they come. And it’s downright exhausting.
CREDIT: Credit: Q-Productions / Warner Bros. / Giphy
I wanted to know if other mixed people like me — who are part Asian and part Latinx — have experienced similar frustrations and insecurities regarding their unique ethnic makeup. This is what I found out.
“I do not look mixed, and that has been a source of contention all my life,” says Tabitha, a 29-year-old writer who’s half Chinese and half Colombian. “In American communities, I pass as a variety of ethnicities ranging from Native American to Hawaiian to Mexican to Greek to Eastern European.”
Tabitha makes an important point: How mixed individuals are perceived is largely dependent upon the community in which they exist. Like her, in predominantly American groups, I’ve passed as virtually everything under the sun, including Chinese, Cuban, Dominican, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Native American, Russian, Thai and many, many others.
But around other Mexicans, and especially once I’ve revealed my accented Spanish, I’m viewed as some type of other.
Credit: The CW / Giphy
On the flip side, other Filipinas can usually pick up on our shared heritage, although they’re just as likely to sniff out that I’m mixed with something else.
Tabitha says she can relate.
“In Chinese communities, some think I am Southeast Asian or Filipina, and others believe I am just white,” she says. “However, I am light-skinned, and in Spanish communities, it can go either way. Either people think I am only white or they know that I must be some kind of Latinx. Often, it means that I am in a space where I feel like I must know more about both cultures.”
That’s a conundrum unique to mixed folks, especially those of us who are American-born.
There’s near-constant pressure to know all there is to know about multiple cultures at any given time, because you never know what you’ll be asked and by whom. And the pressure to fully embody all your cultures isn’t just doled out by white folks.
Credit: ABC / Giphy
“When I was younger, I was much darker than I am now, and in my Chinese communities, I was always treated as less-than unless I was with my father or spoke Chinese,” Tabitha shares. “I have never felt like I fully belonged in the Chinese community.”
For Paulette, a 32-year-old government contract specialist who identifies as “Filirican” (half Filipina and half Puerto Rican), trying to fit in within a predominantly white community often meant struggling with her multiculturalism.
“I was really self-conscious when I was younger,” Paulette says. “I was uber aware that my family spoke different languages, ate different food and acted a little different. I remember arguing with my parents about attending sleepovers or the extent of my responsibilities as the oldest child, and cringing when a family member spoke their native language because everyone else was speaking English.”
That sleepover anecdote could not ring more true. My parents never, and I mean never, allowed me to sleep over at a friend’s house. It didn’t matter if they were my BFF and I had provided them with every last bit of information they asked for. It wasn’t going to happen.
While the sleepovers were a no-go and I totally resented it at the time, I can look back on it now and understand that it was one of the ways they reinforced their cultures within our household — and that’s worth something. Paulette agrees.
“I credit my parents for standing strong to their cultural identities,” she says. “They were always educating me. They raised me to understand that I don’t always have to belong. It’s OK to be different.”
But when your differences are always being singled out, how do you begin to view them as an asset and benefit, as opposed to a crutch and source of confusion?
Credit: DreamWorks Pictures
Based on my experiences, there’s no straightforward formula for making this shift happen. The key ingredient, as is so often the case, is time.
“A lot is to be said of maturing and becoming an adult,” Paulette says. “As I got older and understood everyone has a different story and background, I became more comfortable in mine. I have two different cultural communities who embrace me and to which I can relate.”
Tabitha has undergone a similar trajectory of growth.
“As an adult, I feel more secure in who I am and what I represent,” she says. “I also realize how much more I want to feel connected to both sides equally.”
I, too, have had that realization. While the incessant questions can still be burdensome, over time I’ve become more comfortable in my skin as a Mexipina. The insecurities of not speaking a language or not looking a certain way come and go, but I’ve learned that there’s no such thing as a singular way of being part Filipina and part Mexican, just as there’s no singular way of being American, white, black, or any other one-word descriptor.
What’s more, I’ve come to understand that I don’t have to choose between feeling more Filipina than Mexican or vice versa. Regardless of the classifications society has imposed on me, I am both — and my two halves do, indeed, make a whole.