I grew up in a home filled with stories, music, and foods passed down from generations. I always felt deeply connected to my self, my personal philosophies on life, my spiritual connection to the universe. At home, I felt deeply rooted, formidable, strong and comfortable in my own skin. I was fortunate to know my family history, our homelands and past migrations. And yet, my existence has been marked with learning how to navigate borders. Borders that define nations, but not culture or identity.
My father grew up in the same town I did, as did his father before him. Before the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo claimed our homelands as The United States, my ancestors inhabited what is now known as the Southwest. I am decedent of both the Yaqui – who still stratal the US-Mexico border – and the Juaneño – a band of California Mission Indian colonized by the Spanish. As the border shifted and nationalities changed, we became Xicano.
Being Xicana has always been a strong part of my identity. Not quite “Mexican-American”, as I had no direct ties to modern day Mexico, but felt deeply Mexican in my soul. We spoke Spanish in our home, ate tortillas and frijoles, and kept an altar to remember our antipasados. Growing up, everything I knew about myself was Mexican. But despite my strong cultural ties, I was never enough – not Mexican enough, not Native enough – to fit others people perception of what those identities look like. It was a constant battle of learning how to navigate space and explaining history that was never taught.
My mother’s side always felt a little farther away from me, because it was so distant for me. She grew up in Northeastern Brazil, in a town on the Atlantic coast called Recife. Born to a Portuguese-Brazilian mother and a Kambiwa Father – a tribe native to Northeastern Brazil. My grandfather left his reservation at the age of 12 to escape the tremendous poverty he faced, and my mother left Brazil at 16 to escape the dictatorship.
Claiming my Brazilian identity was challenging, something I did with great caution, because it always came with the possibility of being sexualized. “Oh I like Brazilian girls”, guys would say with a snarly smile, “They have big butts.” And I would roll my eyes, pretty sure I was the first Brazilian they had actually met. I constantly get told how my Brazilian blood made me exotic, as if being othered was something to aspire to.
Growing up in a community that was deeply segregated not only by race, but also by socioeconomic status, I never really knew where I fit in. I would constantly be told that I acted white, talked white, liked white things. This challenged me on so many levels, because I always felt deeply connected to the things that made me not-white, the things that made me proud to be a brown girl, proud to be a testament to my ancestors – their journeys and struggles.
I never found my place until I entered college and joined a Latina Sorority. For the first time, I was surrounded by women who looked like me and who related to my story in a variety of ways. Some were first generation, others were like me – historically from the United State. Some were native Spanish speakers, others didn’t speak a word of the language. All of us were of various mixes, blends and skin tones, and it was the first time I felt as though I didn’t have to justify my existence or culture.
In 2011, I decided to further discover my Brazilian roots and study abroad. Living in Brazil allowed me to discover so much about myself, my family and really strengthen my Portuguese. For the first time I lived away from home, thousands of miles away from my parents and friends, but I never felt alone. I felt strong in my independence and my ability to adapt to an entirely new world. But my journeys in Brazil came with one very unexpected revelation – that I am, without a doubt, an American girl.
There is some level of irony in the fact that I never truly felt American until I went to live in Brazil. Before that, I felt as though my American experience always needed to be hyphenated: Mexican – American, Brazilian – American, Latina – American. But when I was living in Brazil and tell people where I was from and my ethic background, they would simply call me an American – that’s where I was born, where I was raised, English was the language that more comfortably flowed from my tongue.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve grown more comfortable in my skin and more comfortable in telling the story of my heritage. I’ve also learned to embrace my identity as an American through embracing my indigenous roots – my Juaneño blood from Southern California, my Yaqui ancestors who sit on the border of Arizona and Mexico, and my Kambiwa grandfather from the heart of Brazil. These were the original inhabitants of this land, they were the first Americans. The blood in my veins are of these original Americans, from throughout the two continents, and of those who came to colonize us. I will always be from and deeply rooted in this land.
Con Mucho Amor,
Photographer: Tyler Endischee
Dress: The Reformation
Jewelry: Huichol Beadwork – Mexico
Eagle Feather – Gifted to me from my Juañeno Elders
Location: Papago Park, Arizona