08/07/2014 11:08 am ET Updated Oct 07, 2014

Labels Don't Matter as Much as You Think They Do


My parents both call themselves Mexican-American, but as someone who was born in the United States and has spent a grand total of two weeks in Mexico, I never felt comfortable having a hyphenated identity. Still, I defaulted to calling myself such because it was easy and familiar. At my first official college function, a barbecue hosted by the Latino Alumni association, I was asked outright to explain how I identify culturally. I froze on the spot.

"Let's go around and say our name, hometown, country of origin and how you self-identify," said the facilitator. I couldn't chose my name or where I came from, but the one choice I did have left me confused and uneasy. I was stumped.

It wasn't for lack of options: As the American-born daughter of two immigrants from Mexico, I had my pick of the lot. I could chose to call myself Mexican, Mexican-American, Hispanic, Latino, Latina, Chicano or Chicana -- each of which has a different connotation.

The definitions of these terms have become muddied through decades of political manipulation, societal obsession with the politically correct and major shifts in demographics. Without a set of agreed upon definitions, I had nothing to fall back upon besides the stereotypes and connotations associated with these words.

As far as my parents are concerned, Hispanic sounds too European, Chicano too radical, Latino too foreign. No label would ever fit them as comfortably as "Mexican-American," which left me in a bind. Do I continue to identify as Mexican-American to keep myself connected to my parents, or find a use a new label that better describes who I am?

I soon learned I was not alone in my dilemma in negotiating between a twin desire to stay close to my family and to establish my own identity. Choosing how to self-identify is a problem for many racial minorities my age. Friends described similar confusion when deciding how to define themselves in their new college settings. Black or African-American? Bi-racial or mixed? Korean or Asian-American?

The clean slate of college is both a blessing and a curse. It gives you a chance to start over. It also forces to decide how you want to present yourself the world, which invariably requires some serious self-reflection, the kind that forces you to confront yourself openly and honestly even if it dredges up old wounds or strikes upon a raw nerve.

The more I think about it, the more I understand that labels do not exist to define you. The complexity of identity can never be condensed into a single term, nor should it be. No label can ever capture the love I have for my culture and my family, disconnect I feel from the birthplace of my parents and my grandparents or the immediate connection I feel to others whose experiences being caught between two worlds mirror my own. Labels are merely tools to help others better understand your identity.

"My name is Neidin Hernandez. I'm from Los Angeles, CA. My parents are from Mexico, and I am Latino." Calling myself Mexican-American would not make me feel any more connected to a place I hardly knew, just like calling myself Latino did not make me feel any more distant from my family and culture.

Maybe next year I will call myself Latina or Chicana or Hispanic. The point is that while the term I use to identify with my culture may change, who I am at my core will not. I will always be proud of my heritage, however I decide to label it.

There can never be a word that encompasses the complexities of my who I am, but choosing how I want to be seen by others was the first crucial step in taking ownership of my history and my future.