February 23rd, 2011
Call Me Anything But Mexican

“You don’t look Mexican” is something I hear a lot. I hear it from whites, African-Americans, Asians, Mexican nationals, Latinos from Latin America, just about everyone. Of course, in polite company, what I usually respond is, “Oh, yeah, I get that a lot.”

In my head, however, I usually think, “What, exactly does is a Mexican ‘supposed’ to look like?” This is, in turn, followed by some expletives. I find it uncanny that, in 2011 with a country and a world that is increasingly multiracial, that educated people still assume that certain people are “supposed” to look one way or another. Boggles my mind.

So, since I don’t “look” Mexican, I get assigned a variety of other nationalities, ethnicities and races, depending on the particular situation and circumstance. I’ve had people on the phone ask me if I was French. People from Argentina want me to be from there. Some who have travelled through Latin American assume automatically that I’m Chilean or Colombian.

Because my surname has a similar equivalent in Italian, I often get assigned that ethnicity by people on the East Coast. Some people, remarkably considering my obvious border Spanish, even try to make me into a Cuban or a Puerto Rican. Whatever.

It’s not that I’m personally offended by being assigned all these other ethnicities or nationalities, that’s not it at all. I’m just perplexed that people feel the need to play “Let’s Guess The Race” with me so often. I don’t go around doing this with other people; quite frankly if I don’t know where people are from, in most day-to-day activities, it doesn’t really affect my interactions with them. If people want to share a little about their cultural background with me, I’m always eager to learn, but I don’t screen my conversations this way.

And, I guess what bothers me the most is that there’s a very apparent stereotyping (if not prejudice) playing in the background of these conversations. If Mexicans aren’t light-skinned with green eyes, then they’re….what? Dark brown with black hair, a burro and a saguaro cactus? What’s implied in that statement “You don’t look like a Mexican”? Whatever it is, I don’t like it.

I don’t think it’s hatred or racism necessarily that prompts people to engage in these conversations. It could be discomfort, curiosity, interest or a great many other things. But, the probability that it’s happened to me enough times that it prompts me to write this column is an indication that there’s a bigger theme there, too. Maybe people think they’re being sensitive by quizzing me until they “figure out” what my deal is? I don’t know, though, because I’ve never asked.

Follow Sara Inés Calderón on Twitter @SaraChicaD

82 thoughts on “Call Me Anything But Mexican

  1. My mother and father are both from Mexico. I along with my other siblings were born here. I have red hair and green eyes, people are dumbfounded when I speak Spanish or tell them where my parents are from. People used to think my mom was our “nanny” why because she was darker and we were lighter. Its amazing how people are still so ignorant. And yes people always tell me I don’t look Mexican.

  2. It’s counterproductive to completely dismiss the marker “Mexican”; when we do so, we are working within this paradigm that maintains the negative implications of “Mexican,” rather than subverting it. This is not resistance. If someone said that you weren’t acting “like a woman” because you exhibited strength and leadership, you wouldn’t dismiss the label “woman.” By rejecting this label, you are disempowering a mass of people who feel immense pride in their national/ethnic identity, many of whom don’t “look” Mexican. We should be using these moments to educate, not to perpetuate misinformed ideas.

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  5. well, sorry that i can’t relate, im one of those Mexicans with a Nopal en la cara, but becuase of the surprisingly immpecable and obviously- educated command (I have) of the English language, i have received the, “you’re not one of those Mexicans….” ; my response, “you should’ve seen me an hour ago…my back and bottom of my pants were wet then…”

  6. Nice, Sara! I get tired of that too! I even get it from gente tambien. We are mestizas/os, so we come in all different shades and phenotypes. What it comes down to is the default Euro/Anglocentric gaze that continuously scans for and defines “otherness” as a way of securing the borders of whiteness. Also, this comes from conflating “race” (social construct/biological fiction) with ethnicity.  Statements like: “You don’t look…”; “What are you?”; or “You aren’t like other…” reveal the internalized ideology of white supremacy, not in the skinhead sense, but in the way bell hooks talks about where a white standpoint or “whiteness” is the unquestioned dominant norm.

    Otherness is defined from this standpoint and reinforced through statements like these. They basically translate to: “You aren’t white?”;  “You don’t fit the way whiteness constructs otherness”; or “I didn’t know you were an “other”. They derive from a racial/racist logic that establishes rigid definitions of what people from certain ethnicities (in our case Latinas/os) look and act like, and if they are white or not. When we don’t fit those definitions, it disrupts that logic and destabilizes the norm of whiteness. That is one of the reasons that there were anti-miscegenation laws in the history of the U.S. It was a strategy of containing otherness and securing whiteness as a socio-political construct by limiting disruptions to racist logics which resulted from “race” mixing. Those statements serve a similar function as these laws did, only through everyday casual discourse.

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  8. I read an article in USA Today where the premise was being Mexican American and feeling more Mexican in the US than in Mexico.  It’s interesting where stereotypes and reality meet.  There are many cultural comfort zones we all have and identifying with one another is a vehicle for socialization.  Just live in Texas for a few years and see if you don’t soon add “y’all” to your vocabulary; socialization and a desire to be accepted.  What is sad is the fact as an American of Mexican heritage, I feel less wanted in Mexico than I do in the US.  I am fluent in Spanish, although English is my first language and I have brown eyes and  brown hair.  I say Viva Mexico and Viva Los Morenos, now we must confront the obvious prejudices that we talk so much about hear in the US and that get, for the most part, shoved under the rug in Mexico.

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  10. My favorite “What are you, anyway?” comment came from a friend of my ex-girlfriend, while I was living in Denmark:

    Her: So, you’re Ecuadorian?
    Me: Um, yeah, half.
    Her: Wow. When I heard you were Ecuadorian, I thought you might be black or Indian or something – but you’re white, so it’s cool!

  11. What’s next are all the gueros going to bitch about “reverse discrimination” ?  Yeah I don’t think La Migra is going you first, don’t act like you have it so hard.

  12. I have to agree, this may not be as racist as you think, I know I ask people of all colors where they are from if they have an accent because I’m curious about places I’ve never been to and love to hear about things new and different. Once I get to know someone I may even ask them if they don’t have an accent, again because I like to know what’s going on outside my American box. Not saying there have never been racist motives (even unconcious ones) when you’ve been asked…..

  13. I’m 42, and people have been discussing this issue since I was in my teens. I imagine that this discussion was around before then, too. I’m sure it’s frustrating, but really, who cares? You know the fantastic person that you are. Keep calm and carry on.

  14. True, “Mexican” is a nationality, not a race. I tutor students in New York and one of them wanted to go study to Colombia but he was afraid because of what he “looked like” (in other words, he thought he looked “American” –whatever that is– and that he could get kidnapped). I told him “as long as you don’t open your mouth no one will know you are American”. He was dumbfounded and surprised to find that many races –of African, Asian, European and yes, Middle Eastern descent– coexist together in Latin America as latin americans and they don’t have to point out these differences every time they talked. The beauty of Latin America. 

  15. I would encourage you to ask people that question.  Ask them in the same genuinely curious way that they seem to ask about you.  Its long been documented that people like to put things in categories.  Its deep in our nature to try & organize things & people.  You don’t go around asking people if the sky is blue & water is wet because you know it is.  We all ask questions about things we are unsure about so the fact that they are asking you is by implication an admittance that they know they are wrong in their initial assumption.  
    I am a Native American Indian and apparently I “look mexican”.  Which is funny because growing up in Oklahoma I grew up with the “indian look”.  Moving to California was a culture shock in many ways.  Since high school I have had at least one conversation per day (the frequency is not an exaggeration) about what I am.  Strangers walk up & begin speaking spanish.  I explain that I don’t speak Spanish & then this look sort of falls on their face.  The wheels are turning & I just wait for the question…what are you?   We play the same game you described in your article and I like to think that I educate them.  One person at a time they discover that “we aren’t dead”, “yes we are real”, “no I don’t live in a tipi”, “yes thats why I have super long black hair” “no I don’t live on a reservation”, “no I don’t ‘get a check for that’ “, and on and on and on.  
    Its funny to me that the “do you get a check for that” question is more deeply offensive than the “what are you” question.  But alas thats another article.  Thanks for sharing this I enjoyed reading it.  Our country is long overdue for an honest conversation about race.

  16. I understand what you are trying to say here but in all honesty I believe that it is a lot more innocent then you make it out to be. While I recently dyed my hair brown, it is naturally blonde. I have extremely fair skin with blonde hair and green eyes and I am 50% southern Italian and 50% Portuguese. People often guess that I am Irish, Scottish, Scandinavian, or German but never what my actual ethnicity is. And more times than not when I tell them they are always very surprised. It happens to white people too…and some on here have commented that it is “white pride” or prejudice against the Latino/a community, when in reality it happens to everyone…just throwing that out there as my innocent, nonbiased, opinion.

  17. I don’t think the comments are based in hatred, at least 90% of them aren’t.  I believe it’s just people’s unintentional way of putting their  complete ignorance on display.  My mom is classic at doing this.  She’s midwestern white lady who goes to church and gossips with a bunch of other old midwestern white ladies. 

  18.  what’s so bad about being MEXICAN!!! MEXICAN’S have a beautiful culture similar to the italians. Im MEXICAN/ITALIAN and it’s a beautiful thing to have MEXICAN in me. To tell you the truth argentinians stink like ass!! muahahahaaaaa!!! they are wannabe ITALIANS if you ask me. Be proud of what you are and don’t let people define who you are! peace

  19.  Hi Ms. Calderon,
    I am just now reading your first  article ”  Call Me Anything But Mexican and I feel compelled to comment on one particular sentenc, the offensive title. What is so wrong with being referred
    to as Mexican? You obviously have not learned the many good things about being Mexican.
    Your name implies a root of Mexican heritage . I understand your fustration at being asked. When I
    am asked with a smile I feel proud to respond yes, I am Mexican and I usually get some positive comments about Mexico. I also comment on it’s ashame the turn of events for Mexico.It’s
    so sad we as Mexicans cannot count on your vote of defense for our race. Yours and mine.

    • Tere, I would encourage you to re-read the article.  Nowhere do I say I’m ashamed of my heritage, on the contrary, what I’m saying is that I’m proud of it and don’t feel like I should have to justify who I am to people who have stereotypical views of what people of Mexican heritage “should” look like. Again, please re-read the story.  Thanks. 

      • Well, then change the title! Please! It irks me, too. It does give the impression that you feel you’re too good to be called Mexican. Unless you’re keeping it up because it’s popular? 

        • If you would read the article it would make send, but I guess you are too lazy for that.  The title is fit for the article, and not offensive if you understand what she is saying.

  20. Pingback: Mexican & Mexican American Are Not The Same Thing | NewsTaco

  21. I get the opposite a lot, I seem to look like the Mexicans those people talk about although I’m Salvadoran. Even in Mexico I have passed for a native. It must be my Toltec nose. In any case, people ignore the vast diversity within our countries. De todo un poco.

  22. oye no te azotes tanto wey! bien mexicanita ke te miras. la verdad eres werita pero yo te veo bien etnica. definitivamente eres lo ke en mi rancho le decimos “india blanca”

    Recuerdate ke mexicanos los hay de todos colores, incluyendo chinos y negros como tambien los weros del norte. La gente te dira eso talvez porke segun ellos te “halagan” pero la verdad yo te veo bien chola.

  23. Well said – on a subject I’ve been dealing with since oh about 1963. Seems to be a specific American trait. And as Winston Churchill once quipped – “We can always rely upon the Americans to do the right thing, after they have tried everything else.”

  24. what they are saying is , you dont look as bad as i think mexicans look to me. stereotypical racist type comments , a dead giveaway, i have white friends and bosses who made jokes out of blacks, and if they do blacks then they do mexicans too. and if they like you , its because all their friends or family is not there to pressure them to fire you… first one to get fired or layed off and not on skills or merit , but that will be the excuse . i heard them all.

  25. I get that a lot, too! What I also get after that is “you look from here!” I don’t get it! Is there a typical Mexican from here as well? I feel somewhat complimented, especially when they mention I lack the “typical” thick accent of someone that just learned the language. I guess it makes me feel smart! The only thing is I don’t look white nor “brown.”

    On a different note, when I read your title the first thing that came to mind was “call me anything but Latin!” It is a different story, but I don’t like the term simply because for me Latin is a language, not a race nor an ethnicity. Thanks for sharing your story.

  26. You know what is really annoying? People who lack any type of historical consciousness and light skinned Mexicans acting as though they are so oppressed. First of all, the reason why some of us don’t “look” Mexican (i.e. Indigenous) is because some of our families try to marry LIGHT SKINNED people because they did not want to be BROWN and be subject to the racist Spanish and Mexican National CASTA SYSTEM that was legally abolished in 1810 but has never really been abolished. So maybe we should contextualize this historically a little more and stop being offended when you are not really being oppressed.

  27. I live in Monterrey, Mexico where many Mexicans are light skinned with blue/green eyes and blond or light hair. Many of my friends have reported the same stereotyping that you’re describing, but not only from the States, also from Mexico. It’s not just Americans who do the stereotyping, Mexicans do too…of their fellow countrypeople. In the south of Mexico especially, people assume you are from another country (usually Germany) if you are blond haired. Mexicans always ask where you’re from and they are always surprised when you say Monterrey (Soy una Regia). Even though they know that in the north, people look a little different than the south, they are still shocked.
    I think in most cases in both countries, people want to identify with a heritage. In the states people are always asking each other what their ‘backgrounds’ are. People who are 3rd or 4th or more generation Irish, African, Italian, Greek etc. will proudly tell you that they are ‘from’ those countries. In other words, I know it’s super annoying to get that question, but it’s mainly out of curiosity or because they want to tell you where their family is ‘from’. I’ve always found it weird, but hey, that’s North America…a smorgasbord of cultures from all over the world.

    • Whatever – yeah poor little gueros – who runs the country? who murdered and continues to murder the indigenous?  Don’t play that reverse discrimination card here guero.

      • Juan 2X you are ignorant. There is no such thing as reverse discrimination. Discrimination is discrimination period. Racism, including against whites, is disgusting, ignorant, and stupid period. Whites are not the only racists. So are african Americans, dark-skinned Mexicans, etc. I call anyone, no matter their skin color, racist period whether they like it or not.

      • Juan 2X you are ignorant. There is no such thing as reverse discrimination. Discrimination is discrimination period. Racism, including against whites, is disgusting, ignorant, and stupid period. Whites are not the only racists. So are african Americans, dark-skinned Mexicans, etc. I call anyone, no matter their skin color, racist period whether they like it or not.

      • Juan 2X you are ignorant. There is no such thing as reverse discrimination. Discrimination is discrimination period. Racism, including against whites, is disgusting, ignorant, and stupid period. Whites are not the only racists. So are african Americans, dark-skinned Mexicans, etc. I call anyone, no matter their skin color, racist period whether they like it or not.

  28. I am a fiction writer, and I have created a Mexican character who has long, red hair past her waist, a freckled nose, and green eyes. I also made her 5’11 3/4″ tall: maybe she couldn’t “stretch” the extra 1/4 inch because she used to walk hunched over to make herself look shorter. On top of that, I have given her a husband who took it upon himself to learn Spanish and made him even taller: 6’7.” So when they’re out together, people ask, “Who’s the skinny redhead with the tall drink of water?” – “Oh, she’s Mexican, you know.” -“If she’s Mexican, then he must be Japanese.” You get the idea. People have a fixed idea in their head about what a certain race or nationality should look like. I like to play with these ideas.

  29. I can relate to your post. I experience something similar, but reversed. I am assumed to be Mexican, or even American Indian sometimes. I have found that people have different expectations when they think I am Mexican compared to when they realize (if they do by asking if I am or not) I am of Irish and French (Canadian) decent. I am not amazed anymore and I expect often to be welcomed and feel a kinship to the Latino/a community and also expect the strangest and oddest behavior from white people. They are amazed sometimes how well I speak English. : / (If they could only understand my Spanish…it’s childlike at best, a work in progress.)

  30. I can relate to your post. I experience something similar, but reversed. I am assumed to be Mexican, or even American Indian sometimes. I have found that people have different expectations when they think I am Mexican compared to when they realize (if they do by asking if I am or not) I am of Irish and French (Canadian) decent. I am not amazed anymore and I expect often to be welcomed and feel a kinship to the Latino/a community and also expect the strangest and oddest behavior from white people. They are amazed sometimes how well I speak English. : / (If they could only understand my Spanish…it’s childlike at best, a work in progress.)

  31. wow! sounds familiar! I get all the time the same.. I do sales, interact with lots of cultures/races you name it. As buen Chilango (D.F.) like to dress well and people often think I’m either Italian, Argentino or other than Mexican. I no longer afraid to ‘joke’ by answering why they ask me that, I usually answer by saying I dont’ look Mexican because I am not Chaparrito, con sombrero and mustache? Love to see their face, people then realized they are saying the wrong thing, you can spin it by answering like that, joke sort-of and they get the picture… total ignorance!! Salud!

  32. What really boils my blood is the element of white pride that is comunicated and shared through these “comments”. The real message is “wow you’re really not like those Other ugly brown mexicans, you’re one of us”.

    • Exactly! Agree completely! It’s like “oh, you are an ‘obedient’ minority to whom we could relate to! You are the cool Mexican”. It’s racist. My little sister (who is Colombian) often gets the “Oh, you are hispanic? Wow, you look ‘white'” (her skin is tanned tough, so they are not referring to the color of her skin, but rather the things she enjoys doing and being a good student, etc). People are racist and don’t even notice. 

    • Dude, what an ignorant comment in itself. Ignorance as to the diversity of a nation is one thing, to lump these people into the category of white pride is overboard. I’m sure you can find more important issues to boil your blood.

  33. That’s interesting. I’m not of any Hispanic/Latino descent that I’m aware of, but a lot of people think I’m Puerto Rican, Dominican, or Mexican. I even heard “you look Mexican” from a Mexican guy.

  34. I have green eyes that also turn blue I am light skinned and have light brown hair. I was born in
    Missouri and my grandparents are from Jalisco. I will never ever be ashamed of being called a Mexican. I thank God and the Virgen de Guadalupe, a fellow Mexican, everyday! I get what your trying to say but I hate the title of your essay.

  35. Most Mexicans that come to America are mostly mixed native/european, mostly native.

    Therefore, it is perfectly rational for Americans to wonder why you don’t look like the rest of them.

    That you can’t grasp that is probably an indicator of why you couldn’t get a job at WallMart.

    • james, you obviously don’t know anything about the history of mexico, but that’s fine. my second last name is actually german, but you probably wouldn’t know anything about the history of south texas, either. and i’m not going to explain it to you. please go take your insults and your hate elsewhere, oh, and try spellcheck next time because you misspelled walmart. thanks.

    • First of all, James, you obviously didn’t learn history or geography, otherwise you would know that the term AMERICA refers to all the land between the southernmost tip of South America to the northernmost tip of Canada/Alaska…if you’re speaking of the US of A, then you should refer to it as USA….that being said, your ignorance is showing, and that has nothing to do with whatever ethnicity you belong to… oh, and it’s WAL MART, not WALLMART…

  36. Thanks for posting this.

    I am a first generation American, who grew up on the border, but have lived in the several cities in the NE and NW for the past 15 years.

    I HATE receiving that comment, because most of the time it comes across as a compliment.

    A former friend was shocked that I claimed myself to be a minority…”you don’t look like a minority and now you have your husband’s Anglo last name, so you don’t need to check that box anymore”. I have received countless similar ignorant comments, mostly from college “educated” people, who hold management positions. This country has a long way to go!

  37. Thanks for this story. it’s important for me to remember that just because I don’t “look” Mexican doesn’t mean I am just as much as any other American born of Mexican parents.

  38. es por la influencia que existe en todos los medios de comunicacion, you have to be something. You have to be something that we can define, so in case you do something good or bad, we already have a pre-made idea about what we can expect from you… .

  39. Quite frankly I don’t care I don’t look like the typical Mexican stereotype, and in fact I like it because I appear to most people who don’t know me, as someone I am not, and it just suits me.

    I like to eavesdrop on conversations when racists don’t expect a Mexican to hear them. I usually know more about their own country than they do, which is not that hard because most pinches gringos, of ALL races are pretty ignorant. So I surprise them some times by calling their bluff and overwhelm them with information they don’t have.

    This country is going down, and when it hits the ground, it’s gonna get ugly. They hate each other big time, especially the most conservative, tea party bullshit type, and we latinos will be their punching bag, blaming us for their acne, to their loss of jobs.

    • You’re right about that. Everyone is indigenous when you look at it. I think it is education that can get people to look at each other. More schools for the young.

  40. Well Hey Woman, you never told us what you were?
    But I can tell you for sure…You Are Only What your
    Birth-Cetificates says you are …the rest are just loose
    labels…..Are you Mexican?

  41. Sara,

    I honestly think you need to find a polite way to educate them if they are coachable if not try to stay clear of those people. People don’t understand the great diversity we have in our Latin American Countries which makes us so unique and helps us include so much beauty.

  42. I get this a lot too. It gets annoying after awhile, but then again I rationalize they make comments like these out of ignorance. The education system only focuses on so much (the white history). I tend to correct them as to what “Mexican” really is. I tell them that being Mexican is not a race but a nationality. I tell them that there are over 40 ethnicities in Mexico including Amish, Jews, etc.

    • Israel-you are correct that it is out of ignorance. Mexican is a nationality and I guess the answer is hispanic. I have describe the whole history in a minute starting from colonization to mixing with the indians (mestizos) and the migration of peoples north. The fact that there are 100’s of indigenous languages in mezoamerica (that word always draws attention) and the dialects of spanish especially calo from the american pachuco. There is lots of fun in having this behind us as a reference. I too have learned not to be so annoyed about the whole thing. We first have to know who we are for others to understand.

  43. My mother is a full-blooded, NATURAL blonde hair, blue eyed Mexican who immigrated to the USA 24 years ago and speaks English with a thick accent …..You would not believe the things Americans tell her or ask her about her heritage or background and when my mom finally corrects them or straightens them out they are usually either in complete denial, disbelief, shock, or disgust that there exist Mexicans whiter than them. It’s complete ignorance and stereotyping…..Most Americans are unaware that Mexico is ALSO a country of immigrants….whose immigrant have come from around the world. Thanks for the post!

  44. My experience has been that some anglos just can’t think anything but race. They call indians “chief” and relate to hispanics as “compadres”. With blacks they just remind them that they are black. And that is it in a nutshell…for some reason or another white culture just feels uncomfortable with race and they have a need to remind a person of color that they are of color. I find it very odd.

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