Friday, July 23, 2004

Chicana Demographic

"Did our ancestors suffer, sacrifice and struggle just so we could come here and read books, Regina?" - Rayfield A. Waller, Cornell University, 1991.

A July 22 Reuters article, on a survey done by The Pew Hispanic Center and the Kaiser Family Foundation, said that although 40 million Hispanics live in the U.S., only about seven or eight million of us are actually expected to vote. That was interesting enough, but here's what really caught my attention: Hispanics that are registered to vote "are better educated and more likely to use English as their primary language than their counterparts who are not U.S. citizens." Reading this made me feel better, since as a highly educated Latina whose dominant language is English, I often feel uncomfortably atypical. Apparently, my language preference isn't so uncommon among my Hispanic peers who are registered to vote. Yay! I'm in the majority of a minority (Hispanic registered voters) of a minority (Hispanics in the U.S.)! Okay, well, it's a start.

I also feel very atypical as a Hispanic woman who is 37 (for one more day) and single, who lives alone, and who earns over $40,000/year. As I make this statement, I feel like the little Whoville child, in Horton Hears a Who, who stands on top of a tower and cries, "We are here!" I want to declare my atypical Hispanic existence and add to some hoped-for critical mass of people who will eventually be recognized as a demographic. Or something.

Or maybe I'm a unicorn, searching out other unicorns, always keeping my eyes peeled for other Latinos of my educational class and income. American Hispanics are not a homogeneous lot. We don't all speak Spanish, grow up in an intergenerational household, and struggle our way out of the barrio. We don't all have accents and children and believe in god. And the issues important to us are not all tied to immigration, language and the (archaic and tired) Cuban embargo (this one's a totally partisan link).

I finally appreciate the education my parents and grandparents made available to me. In the context of the white suburbia I grew up in, graduating from high school and going to college was common and unremarkable. But as I look at my life in the context of the country, which is easier to do living in a heavily Mexican neighborhood, I can see that graduating from high school and going to college was a real achievement. But it wasn't my achievement. It was the Mexican American community's achievement. It was my grandmother's achievement, who somehow knew that education was the only way to get anywhere in this country -- and she had that radical idea in the 1920's. It was my parents' achievement, who not only finished high school, but got themselves through college in Texas in the 1950's and '60's. They and their siblings established the tradition of higher education in our family. And it's the achievement of all the Latinos who spent the 1960's and '70's establishing community organizations and political caucuses and voter drives and scholarship funds and thus created an environment in which the grandchildren of immigrants could follow a college-bound path with as little struggle, financial hardship and cultural conflict as I did. I believe my bachelor and masters degrees reflect in large part their struggles and successes. I just took the tests and memorized the information, the same as everyone else in those classes.

So here I stand, childless and godless, a credit to my race. Mine is the life of freedom and independence that so many before me wanted for themselves, but could only help my generation obtain. Looking at it that way, my frequent shame for not speaking Spanish or not having married yet becomes an insult to the Latinos who worked hard for me to occupy this specific place. Likewise, the disapproval of those who judge me for those things is similarly insulting. I am the product of many people's dreams, and each life choice I make is possible only because of those dreams. So when I feel like a weirdo for being "the only" Chicana with a certain set of demographic characteristics, I'd do better to feel grateful for the freedom to live this way and proud to reflect the achievements of those who got me here, however counter-culturally I might do it.

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