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Defining One’s Identity

The things we do to adapt

By Erika Hernandez

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Defining one’s identity is one of the most difficult things that a human being can do. Because identity can be fluid, there can also be judgement about it. However, judgement (both external and internal) should not be the driver of our identities. 

Identity goes hand in hand in with personality types, that often get shaped by the society we grew up but not necessarily. Sometimes, there can be issues when your core personality is somewhat different to where you grew up. In order to adapt, we make tradeoffs. However, to what point should we be making such tradeoffs that stop us from being who we really are?

I grew up in Puebla, Mexico about 40 years ago. It is a beautiful colonial city that is now thriving economically. Back in the day, women were supposed to stay home, be feminine, be financially dependent, and stay “quiet” because “you look nicer” (the common saying was calladita, te ves más bonita). Being in one of the most Catholic cities in Mexico, my family was surprisingly the opposite – on my mom’s side women were strong. It had been like this for generations – women had been left by their spouses or partners to fend for themselves and their entire families. No one would talk about it or asked questions – it was seen as an embarrassment although they had stood up for their families. When my mom and my dad got together, my dad being somewhat laid back was a good match then to my mom with a strong personality. To make us even weirder, my parents did not believe in God or the afterworld and they would only go to church due to family commitments. They strongly believed in science and we grew up that way. I learned that “you can save yourself through education and working hard.” 

This personal family background in a Catholic society like that one, created a huge dissonance in my head. I did not know where my identity allegiance should be – I had one at home and another one is school. Separately, my personality was also one of a woman with opinions, unique ideas, and being kind. The culture there accepts female kindness but it has a hard time accepting female leadership, for which I was the outcast at school at times. My voice was too much for a place like that. My adventurous spirit, my need to break with traditions and to help the vulnerable, to have a fair system, my need to break with classism, and defend those that were less ‘white,’ completely annoyed my school niche. I felt like the stone in my small little society’s shoes. Not everything was bad. I did have a few people supporting me. I once had Ms. Paez at elementary school pushing me to make a public speech on the need of social justice as part of a class project. 

Moving to Mexico City for college and work begun my lifetime change – the world seemed more accepting. But it was not until I moved to Washington, DC where I felt more at home and at peace. I was no longer an outcast – I was exactly the kind of people that live in DC. Being a woman with opinions here is acceptable. Wanting to make positive change is the thing-to-do. Being liberal is also another quality. Women leaders are welcomed. 

A word of caution is due here. I love my Mexican culture. I love our kindness, our food, our ways of helping each other, our valuing of human relationships, amongst many other things. However, machismo is something I grew up with and it is still predominant, unfortunately. According to Infobae and based on statistics from the Public Safety National Security System, there are approximately 10 women that are killed every day in Mexico of which only 24% are identified as homicides. Impunidad Cero, a Mexican NGO, indicates that there were 1.55 feminicides per 100,000 women, which was 125% higher than six years. Machismo culture has been difficult to address there.

In my process of embracing values of gender equality and others in the US, I have also been called malinchista in the past. Malinchista is often used to describe how some Mexicans prefer foreign things, but the term originally referred to the indigenous woman Malinche who showed the conquistador Hernan Cortes his way around Mexico. Allegedly, this eased the Spanish conquest of Mexico. As always, there are two sides of the story: indigenous pueblos there had been suffering significantly by the dominion of the Aztecs, which triggered Malinche to help Cortes. While being called malinchista has felt as if I have betrayed my culture, I now know that such term is based on judgment. Clearly, not everyone is bicultural and not everyone will understand it. Moreover, for those with multiple cultures choosing values that best suit your personality is an individual choice that needs to be respected. 

As I have arrived to the process of synthesis, after having experience and thesis and synthesis’– per Hegel’s dialectics, what do I finally choose to embrace in terms of identity and values? What works best for me? I have chosen to embrace my Latino culture in that family is one of my top priorities. I embrace both the Mexican and American good manners of being nice to others, even if they are strangers. But I also embrace my female strength that has allowed me to thrive professionally in the United States. I am incredibly thankful for that. I am no Malinche, but the modern product of globalization and multiple identities within – I am Mexican-American.

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