Araceli Cruz

Me as a teen, me today

photo: Araceli Cruz

Vivala is proud to feature a series of articles for National Hispanic Heritage Month that represents our vibrant culture and honors our history. Click here to read more.

"When people ask you what you are, what do you say?" my cousin asked me. "I say I am Mexican," I responded confidently. "But you're not, you were born [in America]," she said. That interaction, which happened while I visited family in Mexico as a teen, shifted my perception of my identity. 

In retrospect, I shouldn't have expected to be completely confident in my identity. It's a hard concept for anyone to grasp, let alone a kid. However, that poignant moment started a domino effect that made me question everything about being Mexican-American.

While I was born and raised in Southern California, my family took annual trips to Mexico to visit extended family — and I really looked forward to those visits.

My dad and I on vacation in Puerto Vallarta.
photo: Araceli Cruz

In Mexico I learned so much about my family's history and culture, but speaking both English and Spanish automatically made me different from my cousins.

For example, I struggled to explain myself completely in Spanish while having a conversation with the same female cousin that ridiculed me for being born in America. She saw my difficulty, let out a big sigh, and said, "just tell your sister what you're trying to say in English."

I felt useless and humiliated. That feeling arose again when a college classmate asked me if I'd been born in Mexico. That's when I realized that people in America saw me as Mexican first. These moments put me in a confusing predicament. I felt like I didn't fit in Mexico or the United States. 

You see, I'd never considered myself different because I grew up in Montebello, California, a suburb of Los Angeles where most people look and speak like me. But once I left the cozy confines of SoCal, I really stood out in non-Latino environments. 

In my early 20s, I began traveling throughout Mexico and researching our history in the United States. I studied the history of Mexican settlers, specifically in California. Mexican-Americans have lived in California since Spanish Colonial times, so we consider ourselves some of the first Americans

Educating myself on Chicano culture helped me come into own identity.

Araceli Cruz and her extended family in Mexico
photo: Araceli Cruz

Juggling two cultures is routine for Latinos in the United States. In fact, a lot of us are doing it every single day. The Pew Research Center found that Latinos of Mexican origin account for two-thirds of Latinos in the United States, which means there are 35.3 million Americans who are just like me

It just took me a long time to realize it.

I had a pivotal moment of clarity while watching "Frida" with some friends. The iconic artist never apologized for being half-German and half-Mexican. She owned both of her identities equally. The movie helped me see the magic and vibrancy of Frida Kahlo's work — and her passion for Mexico. It also helped me understand how Kahlo embraced and navigated her Mexican identity. 

After watching the movie, I called my father and literally screamed: "I am so happy that I'm Mexican!"

That moment filled with me pride. I decided that I would never again be ashamed of being Mexican and American. Now, I have no issues telling people how to pronounce my name, what my name means, where I come from, why I have so many damn Day of the Dead skulls, and why Latinos are so obsessed with Selena Quintanilla. I enjoy talking about Latino culture and sharing it even more.  

When asked what she tells people about her background, acclaimed author Sandra Cisneros once said: "I usually say Latina, Mexican-American or American Mexican, and in certain contexts, Chicana, depending on whether my audience understands the term or not."

I can relate to Cisneros in that way. While still I come across people who don't understand my background, I now simply say I am Mexican. And I have no problems talking about my identity — in both languages.