“What Radicalized You?” The popular hashtag turned Reddit thread, turned q and a for social media circulates through my feed on almost a daily basis. Someone responding with their personal experiences of racial, gender or socioeconomic inequity will tell us about their friend who had to drop out of college because they couldn’t afford it. Of their first time learning of a Black boy killed by police. Seeing their mom survive domestic violence. Learning what it means to work full time and still go hungry. Having a family member deported. The question asks us to think back to that moment in which our reality was so shifted that we were forcefully shoved into what felt like an alternate universe. One where we would instantly begin the search to explain the realities we lived in within a larger system of brokenness. So we could fight it. I feel like for many of us, that moment is like clarity. Contextualization.
I began to ask myself that question. What radicalized me? I couldn’t really answer it and have it make sense. I have always felt radicalized. Maybe not as a small child, but ever since I can clearly remember my high school years and beyond, I was searching. I read, a lot. I listened to punk rock, a lot. I understood on a philosophical level that our systems were broken, and yet, I felt mostly protected and privileged enough to avoid most hardships outside of money being tight and my parent’s divorce. I remember being happy most of my childhood, but critical of the world anyway. Many times I investigated something and discovered the brokenness, I would feel an affirmation of something I already sensed was wrong. It would take that idea I had and sharpen it.
The first time I remember I acted on this relearning of reality was with vegetarianism. I knew killing animals wasn’t right. That eating them wasn’t necessary for our survival. That exploiting life for our own selfish gains couldn’t be ethical. After confirming the reality of factory farming, I was radicalized when it came to food. No more meat, then years later, no more animal products at all. I write about it, I talk about it, I live that political choice to heavily opt out of a food system that is corrupt and set up to exploit animals, people, and the planet in order to make us all sick for the profit of few. But outside of being a vegan, why can I not trace my radicalization and unlearning of other systems to any one moment, or time in my life?
I have a degree in journalism. I’ve had it for about eleven years. About one year ago I started reading books and listening to podcasts written and produced by Mexican or Mexican/American journalists that identify as women. Four years of studying media theory and not one of these (sometimes Pullitzer Prize winning) journalists was mentioned or studied. Sure, I got my degree eleven years ago, but I am almost positive that Mexicans were around back then.
I remember being disillusioned and bored in college for the first few semesters. I learned about who owns the news in America (white guys), who owns the television networks in American (white guys), and who critiques this co-opted and mostly biased dissemination of information in America (they told us, mostly white guys). I knew there had to be more to this equation than reading Noam Chomsky and being upset at Viacom. I didn’t see myself anywhere in that reality, and I felt equally unseen in classrooms where being louder is overvalued and being quiet and introspective is a reason to not get the media job.
So first, I tried the theater department. I needed to blow off steam after taking depressing class after class on media theory and how corrupt it was. The problem, I see now, is there was no greater framework presented to help us understand the inequalities or reasons for corruption: theory. And then no real plan to change it: action. It was all just depressing this is how it is, and feel free to sacrifice yourself at the alter of fighting the good fight, if you dare, for $30,000 a year. I needed more explanation. I wanted to “fight that good fight” (aka: write) but I didn’t understand why I was drawn to the fight in the first place, and what we were fighting against or for exactly. There were blind spots and unexplored intersections everywhere and they were screaming out at me to be discovered. How could I write to change a system that no one was naming? It would take me years to understand that education is also a complex and often times corrupt institution that protects itself by omitting what is necessary to do so.
So, back to the theater department. I took acting. I took costume design. I loved being creative and doing things outside of my comfort zone and I felt more seen. Things like studying A Midsummer Night’s Dream AND A Raisin in the Sun are important. But I still needed more than that. I needed explanations. And I found them in the Women’s Studies Department.
And the explanations (with a million additional questions) were everywhere if you wanted them. It was like your brain could explode on a daily basis if only you wanted it to. A lot of the theory presented explained my experiences and added legitimacy and context to previously amorphous concepts. Some of it was so paradigm shifting that it took months or years of unlearning to start to understand. But each day I was a little bit more radicalized. I took Feminist Theory, Race Gender and Globalization, Water Politics, (turns out, enough to get a second degree if I could’ve afforded one more semester) and as things got more confusing, they made more sense to me, and I wondered why Women’s Studies was separate from the other disciplines because it’s really in everything. In separating it lies much of the problem.
So I’d find myself searching. And I’ve continued searching ever since for what radicalized me. And I found it, or at least a big part of it in Mexican Female journalists, writers, and podcast hosts.
My entire life I have been over-represented. In every form of media I was told I was the beauty ideal, the American standard, the blonde-haired, blue-eyed symbol of whiteness in this country. Porcelain skin. Barbies look like me, Disney princesses look like me, the people on Saved by the Bell and Full House looked like me. I would be hard pressed now, or growing up, to turn on the TV or look at a beauty, fashion, or fitness ad anywhere in this country without seeing someone who looks like me.
But they aren’t me. They’re only half of me. The other half goes unnamed, erased, invisibilized and ignored. Or worse, vilified. My mother is a Mexican immigrant. I am biracial. I am simultaneously represented everywhere while being erased from almost all narratives. Because of my biracial identity, I rarely centered whiteness, aware that I was half Mexican, which equally deserves to be centered. Yet I was constantly told through popular culture, education, and media that my white half is the valued half, the half that is seen and recognized. The half that is worthy and entitled. So what becomes of the other invisible me?
What radicalized me was not one moment, but a million little moments of denying my identity (almost always unintentionally or unconsciously) in a country that favors whiteness. I was taught to erase half of myself in order to step into the immense privilege the other half gives me. This happens in small ways and in big ways. Sometimes the erosion happens slowly as I choose silence and privileged whiteness over pain and confrontation. Sometimes it’s more obvious. A swift mental breaking down amidst the dual concepts of being entitled to everything while simultaneously being entitled to nothing.
I’ve never felt afraid or discriminated against due to the color of my skin, my language, or my accent.
I once stood in front of a white woman, doing her makeup in the mall when she flippantly mentioned her disdain for Mexican immigrants who are “illegal” and “taking our jobs.” This comment came from no where and was completely out of context. As she looked into my blue eyes for confirmation, seeing a camaraderie implied by our common whiteness. I was stunned, but not too stunned to tell her I was half Mexican, and my mom was a Mexican immigrant. She said nothing for the rest of the appointment.
Was I worthy of this job? Was my mother worthy of existence? And if she wasn’t, wouldn’t that mean I wasn’t?
I have never felt that I’ve lost business / clients or am perceived to be lazy or less competent because of the color of my skin, my country of origin, or the language I speak.
I was once giving a routine facial to a client I’ve seen once a month for years. Off topic, she mentions the laziness of “illegal immigrants” who could simply fill out the form online to become a citizen, but choose not to do so. She went on to explain the simplicity and ease of this one form that she perceived would magically lead to their instantaneous citizenship.
I chose, in that moment, for her white comfort, to explain the complexities and hardships of becoming a US citizen using an example of a close friend from Australia who married a US Marine. I chose to erase my Mexican family (and half of myself) in that moment to avoid a combative response.
What does that say about me? I was born to someone she just described as incompetent and lazy. In that moment I used my whiteness as a shield, a shroud. Something to protect myself but also to protect that client and her racism and xenophobia.
My husband wonders why I don’t speak Spanish. Why I don’t cook recipes passed down for generations. And the only explanation I can seem to come up with is a slow and insidious wringing out of Mexican culture. A reduction in browness that has everything to do with a generations-long assimilation into whiteness, which in this country is synonymous with being American.
A piece chips off when my mother tells me she’d be mistaken for the maid or nanny when we’d go on outings together when I was small.
Another piece falls away every time I check a box. Whiteness is a social construct so why is it even on there? Which do I choose? I’m half of each but constantly told by the country I live in to only choose one.
My high school Spanish class was made up of 99% white kids who were instructed to dress up like “Mexicans” as part of a required project. I spoke up, was ignored, and got a lower grade for “non-participation.” Another piece is chipped off.
A piece chips off when my parents moved away from the city to raise my sister and I in a “safer,” small, rural, white town. I learn safety is synonymous with whiteness. I’m slowly taught to leave my browness behind in a place where it’s completely erased.
But my mom did the best she could to show us. Every summer I would play with my Barbies (that looked like me) in a small two bedroom Los Angeles apartment where those few familiar notes of La Cucaracha regularly blared indoors from somewhere out on the street. Where my grandparents, aunts and uncles would talk in Spanish over a loud telenovela while smoke from chilis burning on an open flame wafted out the sliding glass door. Mama took us to Olvera Street where we watched beautiful women twirl in their folklorico skirts. Grandma always had money for Paletas, or Helados bars from the ice cream man at the park, or who drove on our block. And grandpa loved his fresh conchas that would sit on the dining room table next to the fresh fruit.
I felt shuffled between one world where I looked like no one, and felt that I only partially belonged, to another world where I looked like everyone, and still felt like I barely belonged.
I am over represented everywhere, yet invisabilized everywhere. My double life radicalized me. My journey to mend my two identities into one whole person radicalizes me now.