By Conor Sanchez
As a Peace Corps Volunteer living abroad, you’re constantly introducing yourself to people who may be meeting an American for the first time in their life. And no matter where you serve, your reputation always precedes you. Be it U.S. foreign policy in the 1980s vis-a-vis Nicaragua, Chuck Norris movies, or Keeping up with the Kardashians, it’s impossible to escape the things implicitly stamped into your passport upon arrival.
The good news is it doesn’t take long to challenge popular notions of who Americans are. In my case, I just tell them my name, which usually elicits a long blank stare. Then, without fail, they say the same thing: “¡Conor, como John Connor de Terminator!” For some reason, everyone in my town has seen the Schwarzenegger movie, Terminator, so as of late, I’ve resorted to preemptively introducing myself as “Conor, como John Connor del Terminator.”
Then I tell them my full name and the confusion starts all over again. “¿Sanchez?” they say disbelievingly. I can see the wheels turning in their heads; he doesn’t sound like a Sanchez, he doesn’t look like a Sanchez, and his first name is so..so..not Latino.
I’ve dealt with this reaction ever since I left New Mexico. Yes, I’m Latino. I’m also Irish. My dad is from New Mexico and my mom is from Ireland. No, I didn’t grow up speaking Spanish. I’m also white, which doesn’t help when “Hispanic or Latino” is given a racial value. In New Mexico (the only state where an American minority population is actually the majority), these are common traits for families that have lived there for generations. Unfortunately, many stereotypes linger on (e.g. we’re all first-generation, we grew up speaking spanish, we look the same, etc.).
Here, the look of surprise isn’t so much due to skin color (lots of Nicaraguans are chele – Nicaraguan for someone who’s light-skinned), but rather because I’m obviously not a native speaker of Spanish. So the fact that I have the name Sanchez and didn’t grow up speaking Spanish immediately attracts questions about my family’s origin, and this is where I struggle the most. I sometimes resort to giving a short, albeit inaccurate, answer that I’m half-Mexican. But recently I’ve wondered if I should be using this as a teaching moment in trying to promote a better understanding of Americans – and, specifically, of the U.S. Latino community – on the part of the country served.
So often the dominant Latino narrative refers to us as immigrants or descendants of immigrants, but some of us are neither. Latinos have lived in today’s continental United States for centuries. Around 100 to 200 years before the Declaration of Independence was written, ancestors of many of today’s Latino Americans were building cities like Santa Fe, Albuquerque, El Paso, and St. Augustine. Then, the borders crossed us. New Mexico’s constitution was written in both Spanish and English. In my mind, this makes surnames like Sanchez, Chavez, Martinez, and Lopez just as “American” as the surnames Smith, Johnston, Jones and Franklin.
My dad’s family has lived in the territorial United States for 14 generations. That’s longer than 99% percent of American families and yet, it’s my surname that solicits the same question over and over; “Where is your family from?” I usually respond with New Mexico, but then I get asked, “Yes, but where are they really from?”
The truth is, it’s not that simple, and for a growing amount of Latinos who are half-white or have lived in the U.S. for generations, that question is pretty frustrating (For the record, I am a first generation American and if I tell people that, it’s usually assumed that one of my parents is from Latin America. In fact, it’s my mom who emigrated from Ireland). This is why giving a singular name to categorize all Latinos, or Hispanics or hispanos, has always been tricky business. In New Mexico, most people used Hispanic. In California, most used Latino. Most of us, it turns out, don’t identify with either term.
For one reason or another, I decided to go with Latino at some point in college.
As a half-Latino, half-Irish American mutt, I arrived in Central America in 2014 expecting to recognize some of the region’s customs. Instead, I rediscovered what I learned when I moved to Los Angeles a decade ago: Latino cultures are extremely distinct from one another. Nicaraguans don’t like comida picante. They have no idea what green chile or sopapillas are. Nicaraguans have words and expressions that don’t exist anywhere else (like Tuani and Dale Pues). Although people sometimes use the word Latino here, they first and foremost identify with their nationality, and they do so passionately as evidenced by the popular expression, “Soy Nica – ¿y que?”
Coming from an environment that lumps us all together into one massive voting block, it’s actually been quite refreshing to be in a place that acknowledges diversity within diversity. As a result, my experience has forced me to think deeply about my own identity. I think about it every time I introduce myself. I think about it when I’m called “gringo” on the street. I think about it when I tell people I’m from New Mexico and they ask when I moved from there to the U.S. I think about it when I slip in a New Mexican phrase like, “a la maquina” or offer to bake some biscochitos – both of which elicit some fairly confused expressions.
Learning about a new Latin American culture (and in the process, sharing my own) has reminded me how awesomely diverse Latinos are and how much we have to gain by interacting more with one another. One of my favorite projects so far has been a Pen Pal exchange between my 10th grade class in a farming village called La Esperanza and an inner-city school in Washington, D.C. Most of the American students are originally from El Salvador and are bilingual. They write about their love for pupusas, hamburgers, and pizza, but they also describe feeling torn between liking their new life in the U.S. and missing the familiarity of home. For my Nicaraguan students, it’s been fascinating to learn about life in the U.S. as well as El Salvadorean culture, which they know very little about despite its proximity.
In the U.S. we often talk about breaking down barriers between Latinos and others, but I’ve discovered how valuable it can also be to break down barriers among Latinos themselves. The diversity that exists within our community is vast and the misperceptions are numerous. It’s such a huge identity that’s been placed upon us that even the U.S. census is still trying to figure out. Worse yet, some of us feel like we aren’t Latino enough or have to act a certain way to be considered Latino.
The urge to shatter preconceived notions of what an “American” looks like is something all Peace Corps Volunteers strive toward. For minorities, it’s also about sharing what makes you unique and how that fits into the broader American fabric. In my case, it’s been trying to add some nuance to what a “Latino American” looks like. Some of us speak spanish, some of us don’t. Some of us are black, others are white. Some of us do not identify with a Latino nationality and a growing number are of mixed heritage.
Finding the bridge between my Latino and Irish backgrounds will always be a challenge in a world that prefers teams and uninterrupted lines. I can only imagine what my future kids, who’ll speak Spanish with their cousins in Texas, visit cousins in England on holidays, and attend Jewish services on Saturdays, will feel.
As for the question, “Where are you really from?” – I think I’ve got that one down.
“The United States. I am really from the United States.”