03/20/2012 07:40 am ET Updated May 20, 2012

Growing Up a Real Cholo

Cholo? Your last name is Cholo?

Even in Disneyland's Critter Country, I can't escape from my name. The lady at the Hungry Bear restaurant was holding my credit card in her hand and looking at me quizzically. She admitted she had never come across a real Cholo in all her years living in the United States.

She was curious, yet polite so I didn't take offense. Besides, I had been through this a gazillion times before. I knew what she was thinking. Is that really your last name? But how? Did you marry a Mexican ... or a gang member?

Identity can be such a bitch. Cholo is my last name and indeed, I am Latina. Coupled with the mysteries of genetics, I am a human curiosity maybe just a bit short of a circus freak show. My hair was freshly dyed a blazing red, my eyes are green and I have fair skin.

I was born Ana Beatriz Cholo. My birth certificate lists my father as a native of Colombia and my mother from Brazil. My father and my relatives on his side of the family look like the natives in the movie "The Mission" except without the bowl-shaped haircuts. All of them have black hair, dark skin, broad noses and wide faces. My mom, on the other hand, is fair with black hair and brown eyes. My maternal grandfather had green eyes and emigrated from Italy to Brazil after World War II.

I admit, I'm even intrigued by my surname because it's so unusual. How in the world did my family end up with that name? Nobody in my family seems to know. Wikipedia describes Cholo as "an ethnic slur created by Hispanic criollos in the 16th century, and it has been applied to individuals of mixed of pure American Indian ancestry, or other racially mixed origin." When I Googled it years ago I learned there's a Cholo tribe in the rainiest region of the world, which is located in Colombia.

I grew up speaking Spanish and Portuguese because that's what my parents spoke. I didn't know a lick of English until I was immersed in it in kindergarten. There was no bilingual education in those days so it was sink or swim. For the most part, I swam, thanks to my nerd love of books and reading.

But still, I pronounced words with a funny accent and kids being kids, i.e., little jerks, they noticed. They quickly extinguished it by teasing the hell out of me. It's not "da," they'd laugh. It's "the!"

When I was seven years old, we moved to California from New Jersey in a blue Chevy Impala, much like the pioneers except their vehicles of choice were Conestoga wagons. We settled in Stanton, a working-class town in Orange County filled with tacky strip malls and cheap motels favored by the local prostitutes. I went to a public school nearby but when I was in the fifth grade, my parents enrolled me at St. Justin Martyr School.

The school was on the other side of town, in Anaheim. At the time, it was about 98% white. It was here that I learned from my classmates that my last name was a derogatory slang term. Leave it to Catholic school kids. Cholo meant Mexican gang-member, low-rider. Well, as an already awkward kid I have to say that kind of sucked. What I didn't know then was that my name was cultivating my character and making me tougher and stronger. Being a Cholo gave me attitude. How could it not?

It's odd how I can forget the names of people I worked with two years ago but I will never forget the names of the mean girls in my Catholic school. Girls like Monica Miltko. I remember her stringy blonde hair, pale skin and squinty, narrow eyes. One afternoon as I was waiting for my mother to pick me up from school she called me a beaner and wetback all in the same breath.

How dare she?

Sure, we ate rice and beans every night so maybe I was a beaner but I was not a wetback. And that's what I told her. At the time, my English still wasn't the greatest and I struggled with expressing myself but I think she got the point.

I joined the Navy when I was 17. A shipmate of mine loved to sing and he had a beautiful voice. Whenever he saw me along the passageways, he sang my name. That was a first. He made Cholo sound beautiful.

After fours years in the military and an honorable discharge, I got married in a shotgun wedding on a dairy farm in rural Tennessee. Getting married to a Southerner gave me the opportunity to change my last name. I wondered if, as Ana Tipton, I would be able to blend in now. When I worked as a country music disc jockey in Southern Maryland, where my Navy Seabee husband was stationed for a few years, nobody had a clue I was Latina.

At the start of my reporting career, I changed my byline. I was getting a divorce and besides, I never really felt like a Tipton. Tiptons are from the Deep South. Let's just say they are different from me in every possible way you can think of. I went back to my full name - Ana Beatriz Cholo.

To this day, I have never met another Cholo. That is, another person not related to me who has the same last name. This, of course, excludes those individuals who are described as Cholos. That's different.

A rap song called "Lean Like a Cholo" came out a few years back. I wasn't sure whether to be embarrassed or to just roll down my windows and blast it from my convertible Saab and sing, "elbows up, side to side, I lean like a Cholo." When I went to a popular LA restaurant called El Cholo, I showed them my driver's license. My reward? A free margarita.

Someday I hope to go back to Colombia, research my family and perhaps stop in and visit the Cholo tribe.

I embrace my peculiar name and I'm proud of it. It made me who I am. A few years back I even got "Cholo" inked in Old English on the back of my neck. Why not? This is what happens when you get old. You no longer give a crap about what others think.