I am a second generation American. Mexican defines who I am

Ismael Pérez and two other Latinos of Mexican descent explain what made them choose their specific Latino identity. They share the same heritage but have different upbringings, values and skin tones.

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“Sometimes, for some Latinos,” writes Ismael Perez, shown in the center photo, “filling out the personal background information on a standardized test might seem like the beginning of the critical thinking section.”

Ask a room full of Latinos how they identify as and you’ll get different answers.

I am a second generation American. Mexican defines who I am.

My first language was Spanish. I believe in brujeria (witchcraft). I love enchiladas con arroz (rice). I drown my tacos in salsa verde. Before I was exposed to American culture, I learned about Mexican icons such as Pedro Infante, Silvia Pinal, Cantinflas, Maria Felix and Eugenio Derbez.

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I remember a day I felt genuine pride when I was identified as a Mexican in front of an audience.

It happened at Texas A&M University-Kingsville in a class taught by Dr. Manuel Flores, a passionate professor who loves reminding students about the importance of Hispanics in the media.

Flores asked me to stand and said, “This is what the Aztecs looked like; tall, with beautiful bronze skin.” Ismael Cruz Reyes Bustamante Pérez was the best example of a person who portrayed deep roots of Mexican beauty.

Again, Mexican defines who I am. However, I don’t share the same story as millions of other Latinos in the United States. Call another person of Mexican descent Mexican, and they might not feel as comfortable — for various reasons.

Even for Hispanic Heritage Month, there are some who prefer calling it Latino Heritage Month — for various reasons. We are all different.

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About half of Hispanic adults describe themselves by their family’s country of origin or heritage, using terms such as Mexican, Cuban, Puerto Rican or Salvadoran, while another 39% describe themselves as “Hispanic” or “Latino,” according to a national Pew Research Center survey. The other 14% most often call themselves American.

To help bring other perspectives into this subject, I asked two of my closest friends to explain how they identify themselves and why. We share the same heritage but have different upbringings, values and skin tones.

Alejandra C. Garza, Mexican American

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Alejandra C. Garza is a doctoral candidate in history at the University of Texas at Austin

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As a high school student, Alejandra, also known as Alex, said she didn’t know the difference between race and ethnicity.

On school forms, Alex would check a box for “white” when she knew she wasn’t. Another box had “Hispanic” as an option but not Mexican. Then came the question about her nationality. How could she check Mexican when she knew she was American?

Sometimes, for some Latinos, filling out the personal background information on a standardized test might seem like the beginning of the critical thinking section.

As a historian, Alex relied on academics and family history to find her Latino identity.

“My maternal grandparents moved to Texas in the early 1900s,” she said. “My abuelito got his citizenship later in life and my abuelita was told she didn’t need citizenship because her husband had it, so she was a permanent resident her whole life.”

Alex is a proud Mexican American who also doesn’t mind being identified as a Tejana (Texan).

Lauren Hernandez, Hispanic

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Lauren Hernandez is a writer who also has a passion for flowers and floral design.

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Lauren is one of those with a Mexican heritage who does not feel comfortable being identified as a Mexican.

“If I were to call myself Mexican, I would feel guilty and ashamed,” she said. “Not because I’m not proud of where my family came from, but because it feels like a lie.”

Lauren’s parents raised her brother and sister away from south Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, the heart of where most of her family resides. They didn’t grow up in a Spanish speaking household nor did they get to see where her grandmother grew up in Mexico.

While Lauren sometimes felt left out and her identity as a Mexican blurred, she said it was never erased.

“I’ve always steered toward the identity of a Hispanic because I feel like it’s more of who I am,” Lauren said. “Someone whose life differs from their ancestors, but their blood still proudly runs in my veins.”

Ismael Pérez is a journalist at the Chicago Sun-Times.

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