Generally, I walk around feeling like myself. But I remember the first time I realized there might be something wrong with me. Something wrong with my body and the places it had been. I remember the first time I felt like, maybe I wasn’t completely safe in my skin, in the world as a person. I was 8 years old. I was in the cafeteria line (school was not a joyful place for me) making small talk with friends. Joe Mason, my cousin and the child most often in lines next to me (what would we do without alpha order?), made a joke about wetbacks. A lazy, lazy wetback joke. A few things happened all in my mind at once. First, do I laugh? Second, I know a wetback is a bad word for a Mexican person. Third, well, I’ve been told I am a Mexican person>a mixed person specifically, with Mexican blood. Fourth, I know this means that my parents and my parents’ parents and my parents’ parents’ parents are definitely Mexican and would definitely never laugh at a wetback joke.
As a result, my 8 year old self furrowed her brow. Joe Mason laughed his way onto another boring topic of conversation. I felt something cave-in inside of me. MORALES that pride. That name, felt dirty to me. I suddenly felt like…maybe this isn’t okay? Maybe it’s not okay to have this name and be this way or look this way or know those words in Spanish? Maybe….
But to realize too, that in another way, that I was not perceived from the outside as I felt on the inside. To realize that I would pass through spaces, moments just like this, for the rest of my life. Where someone would say something offensive to me, my people, and be surprised or not notice, or not want to notice when I didn’t laugh, when instead my internal dialogue resulted in a furrowed brow and a slight frown.
I had to learn quickly that the response to my, “that’s offensive” comment would be the offender then telling me I wasn’t Mexican enough to count. I wasn’t Mexican enough to be offended. I wasn’t Mexican enough for them to respect Mexicans. “But you’re white” was their conclusion. Their final word. Their ruling.
I learned later in adulthood that certain Mexicans would feel the same way, would hold the same opinion. That my Mexican wasn’t enough to lay any claim to their safe spaces. That I was more invader than comrade. That I didn’t count.
No one was around to guide me through this. I didn’t know it was a thing to guide through. I didn’t know how I felt or what to feel or why regardless, I always felt wrong. I didn’t know why others’ reading should be regarded as more valid than my own claim to my own lived experience and identity. And I knew too, that if I could ask my parents or my ancestors they would tell me, you are doing everything right. That somehow I did still count, despite every one else’s arguments.
I’ve learned to tread carefully. I’ve learned to choose my words carefully. I’ve learned that it’s best to assume you’re not safe, and be relieved, rather than to assume you are safe, and to feel violated. It’s better to expect the worst from people than the best. I’ve learned there are people who get it and there are people who won’t. I’ve learned the words for what has been done to me, said to me, looked at me. I’ve found a way to be despite the pigeonholes I’ve been shoved into. I’ve learned to see the similarities in the people who are different from me. I’ve learned there are people who will claim to be like me, but who in fact are something different. That’s okay. Because I’ve also learned to really, really appreciate the people who are like me. Who like me.