washingtonpost.com
Rising Voices of America
On the Hill, Latino Interns Have Much to Say About Who They Are and What We All Should Be

By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 26, 2007

This land is your land, this land is their land, and they hail from California to the New York island -- 34 of the best and brightest Latino college students, sojourning in Washington to do the congressional summer intern thing.

They arrived just in time to witness the spectacular flameout of the Senate's immigration reform bill in June, then to read about attempts to deny services to illegal immigrants in Prince William and Loudoun counties, then to immerse themselves in a project to provide services to one and all in Columbia Heights.

Washington makes them mad. And it inspires them.

It also has made them think deeply about who they are, and where they fit into this turbulent feat of political imagination and plain winging-it called America.

Such existential ruminations spark other considerations: Whom do you date? How good (or bad) is your Spanish? How comfortable are you with your skin tone? (Too dark? Too light?) Are you American enough? Is the reputation of la Raza riding on your every move -- or is that perpetual feeling of being watched just an illusion?

One of the first things they did upon arriving was question authority, as represented by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, host of the internship program, which is providing transportation, lodging and a $2,000 stipend for eight weeks. Why, the interns demanded to know, do the members of the caucus insist on calling it the Hispanic caucus? Don't they realize Hispanic is an oppressive, colonial term that emphasizes the Spanish (European, white) part of their identity? To them, Hispanic belongs in the same lame purgatory of embarrassing cultural artifacts as the Macarena and Speedy Gonzales.

The correct term, the interns informed the adults, is Latino, which, to the students, better embraces the three rivers of blood that cascaded together to form a People. White blood, African blood, Indian blood: Hispanic, Latino. Mexican, Guatemalan, Salvadoran, Nicaraguan, Puerto Rican, Dominican, Venezuelan, Colombian, Peruvian. . . . South American, North American . . . American?

Esther Aguilera, president of the institute, responded to her young charges by saying, well, yes, good point, but a few decades ago when the organization was forming, the U.S. census had gone with Hispanic, making it the official term. And thus the potent undertow of federal bureaucratic logic became another fact of Washington for the interns to experience.

Now, a few weeks after that baptismal rebellion over nomenclature, as the languid liberation of summer twilight settles over a plaza on the George Washington University campus, a group of the interns is sitting under a sculptural clock, sipping iced coffee and talking about identity. They're not who they were just a few years ago, but neither are they who they will become.

"I will never say I'm Hispanic," says Israel García, 22, a senior at the University of Colorado at Boulder. On his mother's side, his roots in a rural Colorado valley date back six generations, grafted with Apache stock. His father was an undocumented migrant lettuce-cutter from Baja California, Mexico, now a legal resident applying for citizenship.

García calls himself a Latino, an American citizen, but it's not that simple.

"I don't underestimate the power of us being allowed to name ourselves," he continues. "And to be able to say 'this' is who we are."

Beyond the Ethnic Cul-de-sacs

The immigration debate has forced Latinos to ponder who they are, or risk having that answer imposed by others.

"The media tends to portray the mexicano standing in front of Home Depot, as if that is what the Latino population is made of," says Ricardo Zavala, 27, a senior at Texas State University, whose family came to Texas from Mexico five generations ago.

"We're finding our voice," says Cristina Seda, 20, half Puerto Rican and half Jamaican, from the Bronx, a junior at Trinity College in Connecticut. "We're realizing, okay, this is one way people have perceived us, and they've generalized us in a lot of ways in order to make a voter bloc and create a group of consumers, and to sell to us and market to us -- and to market us to the greater society: 'This is salsa, buy this, Americans, look at this culture, it's really exotic!' And we're seeing there are a lot of us, and people are recognizing us, and now we're trying to shape it for ourselves, instead of having our identity shaped from the outside."

There's a contradiction in how the interns want to be understood. On the one hand, they're tired of the diversity of the Latino community being ignored. The interns' families together claim roots in eight Latin American countries. When students from Caribbean cultures cook in the little campus kitchens, students from the American Southwest don't recognize the names of the dishes.

And yet, unlike their parents and grandparents -- who found solace and strength in Chicano power, Puerto Rican power, Dominican power -- this generation feels free to move beyond those ethnic cul-de-sacs. Historians say this is the first time a pan-Latino identity is emerging, a banding together forced by the immigration debate.

"I used to get offended when people would say, 'You must be Mexican,' " says Carmen Mendoza, a junior at the University of Wisconsin, whose parents fled the civil war in Guatemala. "Now I don't get mad because you know what? . . . At the end of the day I look Mexican, even though I'm not Mexican, and my people are having the exact same struggle as the Mexicans are having."

"Our generation is the first generation to grow up with accessibility to each other," García says. "We have such instant means of communication, like the Internet, like cellphones . . . that our parents and grandparents didn't have. The only means they had when they came to this country was to survive with one another, was to be proud of la patria."

Shared Experiences

The summer sky is deepening, darkening. Identity also comes in colors, but colors are deceptive.

"I'm sure this has happened to all of us," García begins. As he elaborates, the group sitting beneath the sculptural timepiece chuckles in recognition.

"People will say, 'Where are you from?' I'll say Colorado. No, but where are you from? I was born and raised in Colorado. But where are you from? Well, my family is from Mexico. And that's the answer they're looking for. It's like, you're obviously not like us. You're obviously not an American. Colorado is not a good enough answer for you."

García speaks English without an accent. His hair is short, stiff and black. His skin is bronze.

Listening and laughing with the others is Yuri Castaño. He could give what García calls "the answer they're looking for." He's from Mexico City.

But Castaño is hardly ever asked. His skin is white, his hair brown and tousled.

"I have all the privileges of any white-skinned person in this country," says Castaño, 19, who immigrated with his mother about 10 years ago. He's a junior at the University of Pennsylvania. "Of course, it's beneficial to me in that sense, but in another sense, within the Latino community there's a little bit of a struggle to be recognized as Latino."

At Penn, he says, there are students who are known as Latin Americans who are richer and whiter. And there are Latinos who are poorer and browner.

"I could never identify with the Latin Americans, even though I was born and lived for 10 years in Mexico City, because I'm poor. But on the other hand, there's some tension with me and Latinos, because in terms of racial identity, they see me as white and not brown. . . . My identity has been evolving, to some extent. My sister is much darker, she looks much more indigenous than I do. I have felt shame about being light-skinned. The same way people have felt shame about being dark-skinned."

"I always wanted to look like my [lighter-skinned] sister, and my sister wanted to look like me," says Mendoza, who has grown past that longing and now proudly calls herself "la negrita indita" -- the dark Indian -- because of her Mayan heritage. Color is a head game, she says, and "You're never going to be satisfied."

Zavala, the fifth-generation Texan, is as light-skinned as Castaño. When he was growing up, Latino children would sometimes teasingly call him white. Now Zavala is dating an African American woman. He has realized that among the charms he appreciates in a woman is darker skin. "When I have children, I want them to have a darker tint because I don't want them ridiculed for being lighter," he says.

But identity is more than skin deep. Mendoza dated a white guy for six years. They had strong religious convictions in common. But he was from a more well-to-do family than hers, and she felt some cultural pressures.

"When I was around his family I would make sure I didn't wear my hoop earrings that day," she says. "I would make sure I didn't wear my hair big and curly like it really is, I would make sure that I straightened it. I would make sure I was on my best, best behavior because I wanted to prove I wasn't one of 'those' Latinos."

It didn't work out, not simply because he was white and she was brown, but because of all the strands of identity tied to those skin colors.

"I've dated Latinos, my boyfriend now is Native American," Mendoza says. "It's so much easier to date somebody who is Latino or a minority because you can just identify with them on a different level. There are certain things I could not express or get him to understand. No matter how much he loved me, no matter how great we got along, he was never going to understand, we didn't have that common bond."

Language Matters

A smattering of Spanish echoes in the brick building on F Street NW where the interns live in spartan suites. Many are fluently bilingual, but most conversations are in English, and group meetings are conducted in English.

Are you the language you speak?

Born in San Antonio, Krizia Martinez, 20, was spoken to in Spanish by her Puerto Rican parents. She started learning English in a bilingual class. At home she would play teacher with her brother, two years younger. "I would tell him, 'No, don't say it in Spanish, say it in English,' " she recalls. Now she is a bilingual senior at the University of Texas at San Antonio. But her brother can't speak Spanish, and he good-naturedly blames her. Martinez feels a little sheepish about her role.

"A good assimilator," she says ironically. "It's hard for him. A lot of people assume if you're of Latino background, you speak Spanish. . . . He's still very proud of being Puerto Rican. . . . As we try to shape our identity, we're trying not to lose what's important to us."

Zavala's great-great-grandfather was a vaquero, one of the early Texas cowboys. His father is a file manager for a law firm, his mother a mortgage loan processor. "My parents grew up in a time period where in the school system, if you spoke Spanish in class you got hit by your teacher," he says. "So when they had me and my younger brother, they felt that it would be hindrance to teach us Spanish. I'm really trying my best to learn it. And I definitely want to teach my children Spanish."

This tall, white, fifth-generation English-only Texan could melt completely into the big American pot. But that's not who he thinks he is. He can't fully explain why.

"I always felt that's who I am and I'm going to stay who I am," Zavala says. "A lot of mexicanos who are first-generation, they sometimes look at me and they go, 'How come you don't talk Spanish, or how come you don't eat certain foods every day like we do? How come your mother doesn't make homemade tortillas every morning?' My mom doesn't because she's fourth-generation and she doesn't know how to make tortillas. We grew up eating pizza pockets and corn dogs and spaghetti and Ramen noodles."

Job Experiences

Wearing smart dark suits, bunkered in cubicle warrens, they answer the telephones, catalogue mail from constituents, research legislation, attend hearings. In this epoch of the immigration wars, they've been on the receiving end of a lot of passion and venom blasted into Washington from the voters. The charged environment on the Hill has made the issue fresh and raw for the students, all of whom are legal residents or citizens, as the program requires.

Martinez, working in the office of Rep. Rubén Hinojosa (D-Tex.), went home one night and kept hearing the angry voice of a caller outraged about her taxes paying for school lunches for children of illegal immigrants.

García, a campus activist who helped organize a large immigrant rights march in Denver last year, is picking up tactical pointers from his perch in the office of Rep. John Salazar (D-Col.). Seeing the flow of communication coming in from advocates and voters, he concludes the most persuasive voices appear to be the ones anchored on a bedrock of usable fact. "I will never contact my representatives the same way again," he says. "Public policy is shaped by information."

Mendoza, assigned to the office of Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), goes to a Senate-side cafeteria and notices many of the workers are Latinos. They immediately spot the Latina in the suit, rare enough on Capitol Hill.

"It's funny the sense of appreciation I get from them, and I give them," Mendoza says. "They speak to me in Spanish, they smile at me a little bit extra. It just feels good to see them, and they see me."

Mendoza's mother used to tell her, "No seas una Latina fea." Don't be a bad example. Don't disgrace the community. And if there have been times that directive feels like a burden, it also helps explain why many middle-class Latinos feel connected to working-class Latinos, why many with documents joined marches to support those without.

"We're Latinos and we share a common struggle," says García, who, like several of the others, grew up poor and feels privileged to be in college, when Latinos have the nation's highest high school dropout rates.

Some nights, the interns gather in the basement of their building to plan their community service project. It's going to be a health and education fair Saturday at the Mary's Center in Columbia Heights.

It's aimed at high school students and their parents. The education component will "demystify the college process," García says, "helping people understand college is not a place in the clouds."

Identity Questions

What is an American?

Sometimes they feel the vertigo of existing between identities. Mendoza, despite being born in the United States, suspects that because of her Mayan copper skin color, she will never be perceived as American enough. Or is that just a perception in her own head? When she visits Guatemala, her cousins have no doubt: She is "the American."

Other times she thinks: "I'm Latina, I'm Guatemalan, you cannot take that away from me. I also feel that I'm more American than others, too. What is the purpose of America? The way I see it, I'm fitting that mold of what our founding fathers wanted, which was for someone to come, have a new beginning and fight oppression."

"I refuse to accept that idea that we will never be 'American enough,' " says Seda, the Bronx-born daughter of a Puerto Rican father and a Jamaican mother. "I think it's our job to redefine, and define, what America is."

The conversation beneath the clock is ticking down, and it's going to be a warm night.

"The thing that we're refusing to do is become just like the white population of this country, because we're not and we never will be," García says. "The American Dream is the simple idea that you can come and work and get something back and make your life better than what it was before. When we don't feel access to that dream anymore, we lose our stake in it, and we're not American anymore. But when we go back to our countries of origin, when we see, well maybe I've worked hard and look what I've gotten, and it's a lot more than what I had here, that's when again we're, like, maybe the dream is still alive. Maybe I am American."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company