Latina Identity Development as Nonlinear and Continuous

The struggle is inner: Chicano, indio, American Indian, mojado, mexicano, immigrant Latino, Anglo in power, working class Anglo, Black, Asian—our psyches resemble the bordertowns and are populated by the same people. The struggle has always been inner, and is played out in outer terrains. Awareness of our situation must come before inner changes, which in turn come before changes in society. Nothing happens in the “real” world unless it first happens in the images in our heads.

(Anzaldua, 2012, p. 109)

Analyzing the overall trend in my identity development began with a division of my life into the four timeframes mentioned earlier: high school, undergraduate, move to New York City, and motherhood.These categories highlight the importance of context and how a shift in place or an important life event either changed or cemented my understanding about my identity as a Latina in that specific context. The trajectory described below is essentially a way of understanding how Moraga and Anzaldúa’s (2002) theory in the flesh is reflected in my narrative. With each stage of my life, the changes in the physical realities of my existence— mainly my geographic location and which racial/ethnic group was dominant in these spaces—resulted in a shift of the politics of my identity as a Latina. The particular salience of place in constituting self has been further echoed by Brukitt’s (2005) and Martinez-Roldan and Quiñones’s (2016) descriptions of how places helped shape aspects of their identities. For Martinez-Roldan and Quiñones (2016), the movement in between Puerto Rico and the United States and in between a Spanish-speaking household and school, respectively, played a role in cementing their identities as “bilingual learners.”

Following a holistic-form analysis based on the salience of the label “Latina” to my self-identification, it was clear my comfort with the label has increased or decreased with each of the four stages. My first noticeable decrease happened in high school, where I felt as if I had no true connection to the “Latina” identity as a result of feelings of exclusion from Latinx social groups. It is important to note that prior to this time period, my family’s traditions and summer trips to El Salvador played an integral role in my understanding that I was Central American—though not necessarily “Latina.”This is followed by a rise in comfort with the label during college and a period of stability until I moved to New York City. My affinity to my Latina identity then surged again and was followed by another period of stability during my time as a middle school teacher. The second drop in my positive association or comfort with the “Latina” label occurred when I simultaneously entered motherhood and my doctorate program.

This nonlinear and continuous development in my self-identification as Latina serves as a counterstory to the myth in popular culture and in research that once an individual claims their Latina identity and uses it as a source of resistance, that identity does not waver. This is especially evident in my testimonio from the period of my life where I simultaneously became a mother and started my doctorate program. At these points, my identity as a Latina—and my understanding of what that means—wavers and succumbs to fears rooted in marginalization and oppression, even once I consider myself firmly rooted in my beliefs about Latinidad. Below is an excerpt that exemplifies this during my pregnancy:

My coworker asked me what I thought she would look like. I had no clue at that moment, but her question haunted me for days. The joy I felt when I thought about having a little girl quickly transformed into fear. At its worst, I wanted her to look nothing like me. I wanted her to pass. To walk into a room and not be labeled as Latina or Brown. All my years of education and all the work I did to resist my insecurities evaporated into thin air. I wanted her to look white and I wanted her to have straight hair. I’m embarrassed to say that out loud.

This above excerpt, and others like it, largely illuminate responses that are rooted in fear instead of self-hatred. Internal colonialism (Gutiérrez, 2004), the concept that we internalize the larger oppressive messages about People of Color, largely leads to self-hatred or secondary marginalization as outcomes.This concept often gets pointed to as the reason for an excerpt like the one above both within and outside of the Latina community. This is not that. This is fear. This is the fear that comes with knowing about and being able to identify oppressive forces that function to subvert my personal and professional success.

Constantly navigating microaggressions (Sue et al., 2007) and seeing People of Color marginalized by white people in white spaces that are supposed to be “liberal” and “accepting” can feel overwhelming. I succumb to these thoughts, rooted in fear, because I am fatigued. As a mother, like most mothers, my instinct is to protect my child.That includes a protection from oppression and exclusion. At that moment, I did not want her to pass for white because I believed she would be more beautiful or more intelligent if she were. I wanted her to present as white because I felt she would be more protected if she were. She would inevitably end up in a white space where she would be susceptible to experiencing exclusion and be forced to defend herself against the assumptions placed on her because of her perceived racial and ethnic group.

The very real emotional and psychological costs of being aware of oppression and racism as adults and academics need to be further explored if we are to combat the homogenized understanding of Latina identity. The rejection of Latina identity may at times be rooted in fear instead of inferiority. Similarly, it is important to emphasize to those struggling to navigate the many parts of their identity that even those who seem firmly grounded in their racial/ethnic identities may waver at times and succumb to their fears. That experience needs to be normalized and accepted if we are to truly create a unified Latinx community across the various contexts and experiences that exist in the United States.

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