Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

photo: Marissa Pina, Vivala

When it happened, I was caught off guard. “Esa, la americana allí,” a boy said, pointing towards me. Huh? I looked around, not understanding what he was talking about. It took me a few seconds to grasp that by moving to Mexico, I had suddenly become what being born in the U.S. and living there for 30-plus years had failed to make me: Una gringa!

If you are the child of immigrants raised in the U.S. you probably know what I’m talking about.  All your life you hear, “Where are you from?” and “What are you?” You answer with the place your parents are from, even if you’ve never walked the streets of Puebla or smelled the Amazon rainforest air.

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Most of us don't answer, “I’m American,” but we are. Sometimes it takes going far away from home to understand this and a lot of other things about being an American Latina. Living in Mexico for the past three years has taught me so much and surprised me more often than not. Here are a few things I have discovered:

1) U.S. Latinos can be pretty ignorant about Latin America.

Living in New York for almost half my life made me think I was pretty worldly. However, I still had the ingrained idea that Mexicans mostly come in the same shapes and colors.* Wrong! Living in Playa del Carmen quickly made me realize that Mexicans don’t always look alike, that there are many different social and economic groups, and they are as diverse as they are unique. There are also Afro-Mexicans, Mexican hippies, circus performers, poets, doctors, skaters, intellectuals, dog rescuers — a huge variety of people that our stereotyped ideas in the U.S. don’t even begin to include.

It was a revelation for me once I realized how diverse Latin America really is. In college, I sometimes felt out of place with the other Latino students because I hung out with artists and skaters and liked punk, house, and hardcore music. Living in Mexico has taught me there’s not one limited way to be Latino. Latino is just where we’re from— not our personalities and interests!

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2) Latin Americans can be pretty ignorant about us too.

“In the U.S., Mexicans have to pay extra for anything we buy—there is a special tax for us!” insisted a man in the gym. I've also heard, “In the U.S., everyone hates Mexicans!” And of course, “Pochos (U.S.-born Latinos) just want to forget their culture.” Sometimes I feel like I am a one-woman public relations campaign for U.S. Latinas, trying to correct all the crazy ideas that some people have about us.

The weirdest thing I’ve faced over and over is a strange hate of Cesar Chavez. Someone has convinced a lot of Mexicans that this Chicano hero was a total villain. No matter what I tell them to the contrary, they are not convinced! Some of my daughter’s friends were even barred by their parents from seeing a movie about him. This remains a mystery to me.

3) We assume Latin America is inefficient. We’re wrong.

It’s true, there are a lot of terrible problems in Mexico. We’ll get to that in a minute. But, there are also a lot of things that work very well—even better than in New York. For example, the garbage trucks sometimes come twice a day! The workers are always cheerful and yell out, “La basura!” in case you want to bring out more trash. Same with the postmen. Mine even has my number and calls me when he has a package for me to make sure I'll be home when he stops by.

There’s still a lot of that personalismo—and it shows the most in the nursing home where I have my mom (which is the whole reason we moved to Mexico.) In New York, the nursing homes I visited gave me chills. They were impersonal, smelly, and depressing. In Mérida, where my mom lives, the nursing home looks like a nice bed and breakfast, smells surprisingly good, and has the kindest staff I’ve ever seen. I’m grateful that somewhere in the world, people are handling elder care better than in the United States.

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4) U.S. Latinos take a lot of things for granted and don’t realize how good we have it.

Some of us grew up in the barrio, but lots of those barrios have flat screen TVs not to mention food and running water! Kids I’ve worked with here sleep in a criss-cross of hammocks over a dirt floor, in houses made of nailed-together boards. When they get sick they definitely can’t afford medicine. Dinner is rice with Maggi cubes and some of them don’t have shoes.

When was the last time someone in your family here in the U.S. didn’t have shoes?

Not to mention the deeper things: School here lasts only four hours a day. Sometimes, the teacher doesn’t show up. Last year, teachers’ strikes shut down schools for months. This happens even though Mexico has some of the richest people in the world and a huge wealth of natural resources.

Then, there’s Ayotzinapa. Forty-three students disappeared in Guerrero, Mexico, last year after protesting against their local government and still, no one knows what happened to them. And Ruben Espinosa, a journalist killed a few months ago after covering protests against the government.

In the U.S., we grow up with so much opportunity to study, to eat, to speak out against injustices.  

Living in Mexico has made me appreciate those opportunities I had a lot more. But it’s also made me cherish the parts of our Latin American culture we’d be smart to preserve—the kindness, the personalismo, and the incredible diversity.

*EDIT NOTE: We realized some expressions added to the original text in this article were referring to Mexicans in a stereotypical way. Our intention was to provide a different perspective about the country and its culture, and would have never aimed to offend its people. Changes have been made. It originally read, "But I still had the ingrained idea that Mexicans are mostly short, brown-skinned, and grew up poor in small villages."