In my Social Problems class, we read and discussed a piece titled “La Raza Cosmica,” written by a journalist named Richard Rodriguez. In this piece, Rodriguez discusses the reality of the Mexican immigrant into America, the experience of changing one’s personal culture and values, assimilation into a white-American sense of self, and embracing however one feels about themselves.
Rodriguez explains how growing up in America, he has never felt internal connection to Mexican culture. He is constantly criticized for his lack of Spanish fluency, his internal ideals, and lack of understanding of his family’s heritage and history.
“When I go to Mexico, even the waitress lets me know with her voice that I displease her because I don’t speak Spanish well. I have betrayed Mother Mexico; I have betrayed memory.”
However, Rodriguez doesn’t feel that these things are necessary for his personal self. He explains that he defines his own culture that isn’t related to his Mexican background.
“My detractors seem to think I somehow ‘left my culture’ at the Greyhound bus station; I forgot it somewhere. I lost it as though it were something independent of me. But one doesn’t lose one’s culture. I am my culture. Lucille Ball is my culture. And Walt Disney is my culture. A California freeway is my culture.”
He further explains that immigrant parents should not persist on teaching children their culture, or tell them to fear losing it; rather, to define their own culture for themselves.
This piece struck many chords with me – it is extremely relevant to my childhood battles with my culture.
As a queer, first-generation Pakistani-American Muslim Agnostic Atheist, I grew up with an intersection of identities. At home, I was taught to “be better” than everyone else at school, that “my religion” put me above everyone else. Yet, I do not fluently speak my parents’ native language, which is Urdu. I am also queer, which ultimately outcasts me from the general community as well. I felt incredibly isolated and disconnected with my family’s culture and religion – I felt I was too liberal, too progressive; too different.
At the same time, in school I was taught to be American – to speak English, to listen to American music, to value American ideals. I felt that being American was more valuable, more accepting – yet I also felt a sense of disconnect here as well. I was too brown, too Muslim; too different.
In a way, I relate a lot to how Rodriguez feels. I understand what it’s like to feel pressured to live up to expectations that you somehow feel do not reflect who you are personally. I know how it is to feel outcasted, to feel like wanting to escape the boxes that society put you in.
What I didn’t realize as a child is that this process of assimilation is actually very damaging to a person’s self – when you lose your history, your background, your heritage, you become influenced by the standards of being set by white people, by white supremacy.
White supremacy has taught us to “get over” colonialism, imperialism, apartheid and genocide; to “get over” the mass killings and rapings of land, people, communities, histories, and culture committed by white European parties. White supremacy has taught us to value American standards over our “backwards” immigrant families’ culture.
I believe understanding our heritage, our ethnic backgrounds, and our histories are so immensely important to retaining the small identity that we have left, because of white supremacy. If we do not even have these things, we become nothing but assimilated by the white man.
At the same time, many of us in the American diaspora feel disconnected due to the outcasting from our immigrant communities. As a queer person, I feel that the Muslim Pakistani community wants nothing to do with me. As if being queer is only an “American thing.” They, too, have been affected by assimilation.
I believe mutual understanding and solidarity is so necessary in feeling at home with our ethnic communities. If we do not understand each other, we start to hate one another. For so long, I resisted communicating with other South Asian people because I believed they were all “backwards;” what I realize now is that I was influenced by white ideals of being.
I don’t want to assimilate anymore. I don’t want to be rejected anymore. I want to find balance in my background as well as present. I want to be proud of all that I am, not what others tell me to be. I want to be complete.
by ZAIN AHMED
(image source: http://184.108.40.206/Images/Blogs/gcalvert/Assimilation.jpg )