Growing up in Pacifica, California, a predominantly white suburb of the Bay Area, there was never any question in my mind of whether or not I was Latino. My parents are immigrants from El Salvador who came to this country having little knowledge of English, let alone American culture. As such, unlike the other kids who went to my elementary and middle schools, I spoke Spanish at home, not English, I had a Quinceañera, not a Sweet Sixteen, and I would choose a Tres Leches cake over the standard vanilla and chocolate any day.
Upon coming to Yale as an undergraduate, I was placed into a situation entirely foreign from my childhood experience. On a campus stereotyped as an old-boy's elitist institution, I found myself in the midst of a Latino community so strong that it prompted a whole new set of questions revolving around a central worry: "Am I Latino enough?"
Strangely, I found myself feeling the need to prove the extent of my Latino identity to other Latinos. There seemed to be a gradient scale ranging from "the ideal Latino" to the "white-washed" Latino. Gaining access to the desired side of the spectrum was simple enough: demonstrate an intimate knowledge of Latino culture, whether that be by dropping a line of Spanish into English conversations or demonstrating your ability to dance salsa in social settings. Conversations surrounding these topics never crossed into a domain other than casual chitchat, but the circumstance of being encouraged to put cultural identity on display for reasons other than natural impulse, seemed bizarre to me. Who was this show being put on for, exactly?
The concept of being "white-washed" is one that has always bothered me. I never quite understood, and still don't, what it means exactly to be so. Hearing the phrase has always prompted me to ask what was meant by it. I can never get a clear answer. The answer has varied from having to do with socioeconomic status to the way a person dresses, to the way a person speaks. None of these at all encapsulate what it means to be Latino. In the simplest terms, to be Latino, a person must be of Latin-American descent. In my experience, however, I have found that "being Latino" is often based on an outside observer's own idea of what Latino is. An attempt at reconciling the differences between my elementary school and college experience inevitably led me to wonder whether cultural identity is other-referential, any idea that I was not willing to accept.
For a 'Latino gradient' to exist and to have people placed in different stereotypical categories based on this scale does little more than spread exclusivity. In doing so, the spread of Latin-American culture is only hindered. Who has the authority to make such designations, anyway?
In order to continue preserving and celebrating Latin-American culture, all Latinos, regardless of whether or not they fulfill an entirely subjective cultural checklist should be included in the discussion of and promotion of the Latino identity. By creating in-groups and out-groups based on who is Latino and who isn't, the possibilities for cultural education are limited. To exclude people based on arbitrary designations would do nothing more than to set the Latino community backwards.