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(Re)Claiming My Heritage

Updated: Oct 5, 2022

If you aren’t aware—this month is Hispanic Heritage Month. I am elated to be nominated for several awards that honor my own Hispanic heritage.

But not just elated. Elated and…guilty? Nervous? Conflicted.

My external dialogue goes something like this: “Oh wow! That’s so cool!”

My internal dialogue on the other hand goes something like this: "Erm. Am I Mexican enough to be nominated for this? I love my heritage and I am so proud of it, but my story is so unique. Is someone going to shame me? Am I going to offend someone? I don’t speak any Spanish. I feel like that should exclude me.”

I have been talking to my team and some of my closest friends about these feelings—feelings that I have grappled with, honestly, probably for most of my life and definitely for the entirety of my career as a small business owner. I have talked to other Latinos (Latinx? Is that the phrase now?) and surprisingly, what I have found is that these feelings of worry are not as unique as I thought. They are out there A LOT.

All of these conversations led me to beg the question: At what point can someone claim their heritage? And at what point is it just appropriation?

My not-so-unique story is this. I am Native American, French and English on my mothers side. I am Native-Mexican and Spanish-Mexican on my Father’s side.

My great-grandma Eva and I eat some homemade tortillas and watermelon
My great-grandma Eva and I eat some homemade tortillas and watermelon

I have always been very proud of everything that makes me..well…me. My mom did a ton of research chronicling our family and our French fur-trader roots in upper Michigan and into Canada. Our connection to the Ojibwa tribe is through unclaimed marriages and dotted all along our tree as was (sadly) typical for the time. My husband is also French and when we decided on the name for my company—I decided to lean into these roots. (Why French? Honestly? Because French parenting styles were being seen as smart and chic with the release of several recent popular parenting books, and I felt like it was a good marketing play. It was also available. El Pueblo turned up like 1000 local Mexican restaurants.)

My Mexican heritage from my father is steeped quite a bit more into my collective upbringing. But it’s not without baggage. Multiple layers and layers of baggage.

While I was fondly referred to as “mija” my entire childhood, I was really never raised with Spanish spoken around me. In my Nana’s house—tiny phrases would sometimes slip out dismissively or be shouted to oneself in a moment of frustration, or conversely, be cooed to someone in a moment of fondness. But all in all the language was rarely used.

I asked my Father recently why we never spoke Spanish. My Dad reminded me that the heritage that everyone is so proud of now was dangerous for a really long time. My grandpa was in the service and while it wasn’t directly stated, I could pick it up. People were cruel. I asked my Nana recently about being a Mexican when she was a young mother and she said,

“You have to remember, when your Dad was little? This was the height of the Vietnam war. People were scared and angry. I grew up in a segregated country. Kennedy and LBJ? It felt closer than far away. I was scared, my husband was overseas, and I had 2 young children. It was a different time.”
Nana, Dad, and Grandpa before he heads off to Vietnam
Nana, Dad, and Grandpa before he heads off to Vietnam

After my Grandpa returned from Vietnam, things were never the same. They divorced and my Nana married a German man named Paul who would be the central father figure for my Dad most of his life. “We moved to the country in Wisconsin. There was simply no one to talk to there. There was no one like us. And I honestly forgot the language after a while.” My nana, Carmen, started going by Anne and did for a really long time. She said it was her Christian name, and she thought it was pretty. She’s always been just Nana to me.

My Dad’s perspective of that time was the same but different. When he was a kid his heritage was definitely not celebrated. He used to get into fist fights because people were constantly cornering his sister, my Aunt Michelle. “It wasn’t even necessarily because she was Mexican. It was because she might be Native American. There’s a reservation close to where we grew up. Those kids were not welcome in the town. And to some people, neither were we.”

This is all BD. Before Daniella. That’s when stuff really gets complicated: my parents had me at 18. My father, the child that he was at the time, left shortly thereafter. Not permanently mind you, but he struggled with his role as a father for most of my childhood and where he wanted to fit into it. Everyone was in denial. It was just really scary and hard (I’m sure).

Mom and I open presents at Christmas
Mom and I open presents at Christmas

Especially for my mother. There were not a lot of options for mothers really, especially in the 80s in rural Michigan. She did what she had to. She figured it out. She raised me as a single Mother. My Dad floated around the country following his music—sometimes very much a part of my life and sometimes not.

His family, however, were a pretty integral part of my early childhood. I practically lived between my Aunt Michelle’s house and my own. She and my mom were best friends for a long time. And while the language was dimmed—the food and the music never were. Tejano music and Mexican food were always at the ready. And football. The Dallas Cowboys/Green Bay Packer rivalry was epic. Salsas that would make you sweat and cry and beg for more beside summer sausage and cheddar slices. Homemade flour tortillas. Never store bought. (We’re Texas Mexicans. That’s just how we do it.) I never questioned my Mexican-ness at this age. I didn’t know I was supposed to.

And then when I turned 8–everything changed. My Aunt Michelle decided to move back to Texas. And just like that—most of the happy parts of my heritage were gone.

Shortly thereafter my mom moved our family to rural Ohio. I took my Mexican-ness with me, loud and proud. I didn’t know that I would want to hide it. And this is where I got all of the unhappy parts of my heritage. The racism. The cruelty. Our family tokens muttered in Spanish were made fun of. The wispy baby hairs that framed my face and my fuzzy upper lip were pointed out and laughed at. They called me a wetback. I didn’t even know what that was but I could tell that it wasn’t a nice thing.

“Mom, why did they call me a wetback? What is that?”

My mom’s lips set into a thin line. We were always very honest with each other. She sighed. “Because, they say, that when Mexican people cross the border, they have to swim across a river and they get wet. I guess their backs get wet? I don’t really know, baby.”

“It’s a mean name isn’t it?”

“It is.” She pulled me into her lap. “But look, all this”, she touched the soft black hair that grew gently down my jawline, “it’s beautiful. It’s unique. It is a part of what makes you, you.” She hugged me.

I didn’t feel beautiful. I felt lonely. Even in my own household, I was different. My mom had remarried into my stepdad Brian’s giant Polish family. He would be the central father figure for most of my childhood. And even though I was very loved, I knew I didn’t quite fit in here either. This family with their blue eyes and blonde hair.

I felt othered everywhere. No one even knew who Selena was here. They didn’t think she was cool. I used to be so proud because when I put red lipstick on playing pretend, I felt like I looked just like her. I could be her. I could be J-Lo.

From then on I went through varying degrees of trying to repress who I was and fit in and celebrate who I was to stand out. I never felt I fit in anywhere.

I remember the first time that someone called me a “coconut”. I was just out of college and it was said in jest, with a chuckle and a pat on the back. My puzzled expression quickly gave me away.

“Eh-you know, a coconut! Mexican on the outside, white on the inside.” They chuckled jovially. I did too. But I went home that night pondering the expression. It felt like my history…my struggle—the cruelty I endured, the chip I earned on my shoulder that made me stand up a little taller no matter what everyone else thought—MY story, was erased with that statement.

I walked slowly. Am I white?

No. No I am not. My experiences should not be erased. In the words of one of my fav movies of all time. “We gotta prove to the Mexicans how Mexican we are and we gotta prove to the Americans how American we are…It’s exhausting.” ;)

I've heard the phrase, "Ni de aqui, ne de alla." .

I realized that I didn’t know who I was or who I was supposed to be.

To this day I still don’t. And I used to think that I was alone but now…I realize that so many people have this problem. Usually those of us with messy family histories. These folks with a singular story line—dang! I am jealous.

I grapple with this now more than ever—if I don’t know who I am culturally, how can I teach my daughter who she is culturally? So I ask again: At what point can someone claim their heritage? And at what point is it just appropriation?

So here is my final question. Do we get to choose? Do I get to choose who I want to be, who I am proud to be, and if I do…who is that person?
Choosing my Path: My Dad and Vivie, and I <3
Choosing our path...Vivie's Abuelo never misses a birthday or a holiday, even the small ones <3

So here’s what I know, I am PROUD to be Native American, and French, and MEXICAN. I choose to love my heritage. I do not know Spanish, but I choose to LEARN the language that I find so beautiful and important. I choose to help my daughter learn the language that my family lost due to fear and shame.

Dad and Nana today

I choose to teach her how to make her Nana’s homemade tortillas while dancing in the kitchen to Reggeaton which is her Latin music of choice. Perhaps I’ll play her some Selena just in case she loves it. I choose to grow Jalapeños in my garden and share them with my Nana so she can make her FIRE salsa and share it with all my friends and family. (PS Nana, I am out—so maybe now you’ll share the secret recipe?).

Perhaps this weekend I will show Vivie how to style the same wild wavy curly hair that her mother has, brushing her wild tufts of baby hairs down with a cream. The kids are calling it styling your “edges”. Whatever that is. Yes she’s blonde (for now), but there’s so much of her that is Latina and she should get the right to celebrate her heritage free of guilt or shame or fear.

Happy Hispanic Heritage Month. I am very proud of my story. I am proud of the obstacles I have overcome to get here. I can say with confidence that being a Latina is a pivotal part of what makes me the leader that I am today. Thank you for nominating me and thinking of me, I am truly honored. Thank you for celebrating with me and being part of the love that will erase so much hate. There’s so much work to still be done and I am proud to be woven into the fabric of that change. I am proud and prouder every day. ❤️

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