“You’re no longer Mexican; you are pocho,” asserted Antonio in Spanish. He was a family friend who had also recently immigrated.
Antonio had asked me if I was learning English. Proudly, I said yes, and added that I knew my numbers up to 100, colors, months and days of the week. With that, he disqualified me as Mexican.
Literally, pocho is a fruit that has become rotten or has lost its color, becoming lighter in hue. It’s the later meaning that figured into the Mexican lexicon.
In the Seventies, Mexicans used pocho, as a pejorative term to label an immigrant who had forgotten Spanish and had set aside his native heritage, in exchange for an American identity. It was also assigned to Mexican-Americans. In all, it means that one is a wannabe white, if one is Mexican, or not Mexican enough, if one is of Mexican heritage but born here.
As a boy, I was aware of this concept but I had been safe from racism and prejudice because I was only around my immediate family. We lived in the middle of 100 acres of vineyards with no neighbors for a mile. When I entered school, this safety was compromised. No adult spoke Spanish. I was one of three Mexicans in my classroom but the only non-English speaker. Everything became an indecipherable puzzle of language and expected behavior. For example, on day one, I didn’t understand the concept of recess—that it was free play but that there were areas of school assigned to first graders. Nor did I know that I had been instructed to line up afterwards. When the bell rang, everyone scurried to organize themselves in single file lines according to classroom but I was confused about what was happening. I couldn’t ask kids for help. Finally, I recognized my teacher and went to the line that had formed in front of her. Back in the classroom, I was still lost. Even simple issues, such as a dull pencil, were perplexing for I had never seen a pencil sharpener attached to the wall.
In the cafeteria, the spirit of the day spilled over into what would become the norm for me. The entire table froze, in puzzlement at my home lunch: a fried beans burrito wrapped in aluminum foil, which came out of a thermos. Apparently, in 1975, none of those kids had seen such food. From then on, lunch was the most feared time of the day. Kids began to purposely sit next to me so that they could be first to critique what mom put in my black tin lunch box. Soon, criticism followed me onto the playground and even the bus. My language, clothes, hair and shoes were targets of their “fun.” But it was no laughing matter to me. I longed to get home where I would be away from ridicule. I felt safe at home. It was a relief to be where I fit in. Antonio’s accusation stabbed that shell of safety as a knife cracks open a watermelon. His words sank into my belly, becoming a fist. It pushed upwards and settled as a lump in my throat. I was six years old but Antonio’s words gripped something deep inside of me.
After the mockery that I endured at school, to now be told, by a fellow Mexican, that I was no longer Mexican was the ultimate rejection. I understood why I was an outcast at Eastin-Arcola Elementary but now that a paisano labeled me as such made me feel as I had betrayed my own people. Of course, I was just a boy, then. But given the conflict that I faced daily at school, a fellow immigrant telling me that I had become pocho blindsided me. I was left feeling as if there was no place for me in this new land.
Perhaps, this kind of accusation might throttle some immigrant kids from becoming American. At a time when fitting in is of greatest importance, I imagine that a child may choose to hang on to the one identity that he or she has out of fear of being outcasted by family and friends. As a result, the child may develop a complex about being perceived any further to lose his or her Mexican roots. How detrimental this could be on the path to adjusting to the new country. Fortunately, I pressed on with learning English and everything else that school offered. Though Antonio’s words were hurtful, I had an innate drive to learn. Furthermore, soon I learned that there was some sort of difference between the uneducated and educated. I wanted to be the later. I lucked out, really, because it wasn’t as if I took a calculated decision to continue my diligent studies. I just wanted to learn.
Antonio’s accusation had a lasting impression, however. It made me always consider how I’d identify myself: Mexican, Mexican-American or simply American. To complicate matters, every decade or so, a new label comes forth, in the US, for those of us with roots south of the border. In the Eighties, it was Hispanic, then Latino and now Latinx. And of course, there’s Chicano. The term has been around since the Sixties.
Some tell me, “Just American. That’s what you are now.” However, at the DMV, there’s never a bubble for “just American.” Neither was there ever one in college applications, insurance documents or the US Census.
I’m glad that I went on to attain good education and now I’m thankful that Antonio’s words lead me to always updating how I think of myself. In next week’s article, I’ll interview others, inquiring how they identify themselves. In the meantime, share your comments or pose a question below.
By Marcos Dorado