On Bubbles and Boxes

My first significant encounter with standardized testing came in third, maybe fourth grade.

The endless filling-in of bubbles with the approved, number 2 pencil would soon become so ingrained in my academic experience that any single memory is hard to distinguish. But, I remember distinctly sitting in my small desk in a classroom with green chalkboards and brown, industrial carpet. I remember flipping over the 4-page Scantron answer sheet to bubble-in the demographic information on the back. I’m sure we were asked to filling in whatever the 3rd-grade equivalent of age, rank and serial number was. And, as I would soon come to recognize as also standardized, to select our racial and ethnic identifiers.

At the time, I wasn’t fully clear on what that really meant. My mother, I knew, was white. She had blond hair, fair skin, and beautiful blue eyes and my father often remarked jokingly on her maiden name, “White”. I have this distinct scene in my mind, standing next to my mother who sat an old countertop in the corner of the laundry room we’d walled off from the garage. I remember inspecting the nail-polish monogram on her blue and white metal sewing machine. “Mom, who is D.E. White?” I puzzled aloud and she explained to me the concept of a a maiden name and smiled with a tinge of sadness as she mentioned that the machine had been a gift from her late father when she was in high school.

I also knew my grandmother, my mother’s mother, was German — from Germany. Both her nationality and my mother’s inheritance of personality traits attributed to that cultural legacy gave rise to both good-natured quips and snide remarks between my parents at times.

My lexicon for describing my father’s ethnicity was fairly limited. I knew he was Mexican – not from Mexico, obviously. I was raised on epic childhood tales of life in small town Indiana and his family’s traumatic diaspora to Arizona and then Fresno, California. Grandpa, Dad’s father, was from Mexico. The few times I remember visiting him, I remembered that he mostly spoke Spanish, although he seemed to be able to understand English, and I couldn’t figure out why he always called me “Mee-Ha” when my name was clearly Jennifer.

Grandma, my father’s mother who I had never actually met, was also Mexican. She was born in America, and I wasn’t really sure when or where or how her family arrived on this side of the border—though I now suspect that her family had lived on the land on either side of the Rio Grande longer than the boarder itself.

As for me, all I knew was that I was “Half,” or more precisely, “half-Mexican.” Unfortunately, the list of available identities on the back of the Iowa Test For Basic Skills answer booklet did not list “half Mexican” and my powers of deduction were still somewhat in their infancy. The bold print next to the question instructed me that I had to pick ONE option, which felt incredibly unfair. (But I also knew that the ‘right’ answers on most tests were often disconnected from sense and logic and this set of bubbles seemed par for the course.)

Apparently, I was not allowed to check “White”, since the parenthetical clarification restricted that bubble to those “not of hispanic or latino heritage” and I had some vague notion that they were referring to people like me (because, ya’ know, “Brown Dad”). There were at least two options that included the terms “hispanic”, “latino”, “Mexican-American” and “chicano”. I don’t recall now exactly how the test had employed a slash to indicate which two were considered synonymous, but I was sure that one of those options was probably my best bet (even though I also knew that the “o” at the end of most of them technically only referred to men).

The problem was, I had no idea what those terms actually meant, let alone which one included “Half-Mexican girls with German grandmas and White Moms and Brown Dads” like me.

I dutifully raised my hand and asked my (white) teacher, “Which one am I?” She uncomfortably informed me that she was not permitted to give me the answers and walked away. At the time, I was annoyed. Now I look back and sympathize with how deeply uncomfortable I probably made her. I n the interest of being honest, I think I ended up choosing the option that seemed the least problematic: “Other.” 

I realize now that no one ever gave me language to describe who and what I was. My immediate family was the product of a cross-cultural marriage that, in the Central Valley of California where my parents met and married in the 70’s and in many places and communities today, would be labeled “inter-racial.” My parents and grandparents had labels. They had identities. But, those identities were not something that was affirmatively bequeathed to me. My grandmothers never looked at me and said, “We are german.” “We are Mexican.” “Somos Latinas.” They could not. I was half. I was Other.

For many years, that reality is one of pain and disorienting ambiguity. I am Other. I can join the latino student associations and invoke my surname and dark skin during discussions of racial and cultural conflicts during college and graduate school seminars. But at the same time, I cannot simply check one and only one box, which means I am never anywhere that I actually “fit”.

But, as I’ve grappled with the complexity of family and cultural identity, I have also come to a beautiful realization: Identity does not have to be bequeathed to be inherited. I find in my ancestry and surname, in my skin color and physical features, my lived experience and cultural history, identities that I am entitled to claim. Despite what my grandmothers never said to me, I can claim, I am Mexican. I am German. I am not half, I am both. Soy Latina.

6 responses to “On Bubbles and Boxes

  1. Loved this!

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  2. as always, enlightening and excellent

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  3. Thank you for sharing your story, Jenn.

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  4. Excellent post, and I have walked many of the same steps. When my daughter (who is even more multiethnic than I am) asked me what she is, I told her about each part of her heritage and said, “You’re not half or part anything–you’re EVERYTHING! All these people belong to you, and you belong to all of them.” Unlike my experience growing up, she cherishes meeting new family members because she already feels like she belongs. No “Other” here. 🙂

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  5. Thanks for sharing this, Jenn. And Bro. Jones, I really like your “everything” take.

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