Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, August 12, 2020


A while back a friend shared an entertainment news story about actor James Roday deciding to go back to using his real last, Rodriguez.  The reason why he started using a made up last name is interesting: when people would see the name James Rodriguez applying for a role, they'd expect him to look very Mexican.  They'd invite him to try out for roles like gang members.  And then when Rodriguez, who is half Mexican, showed up looking like a fairly average white guy, they'd tell him he didn't look right for the part.  So since for an actor their name is part of their brand, he started working under the name of James Roday.  Now that he's established himself, he's decided to switch back to Rodriguez out of solidarity with his background.

Actor James Roday, who is now going back to his real name of James Rodriguez

This struck me as interesting because I live on the other side of that coin: like Roday/Rodriguez half my ancestry is Mexican but I don't look at all Mexican myself.  But since it's my mother's half of the ancestry that originates in Mexico, I also have a name from the Irish/English side of the family.  

None of which would be tricky if talking about coming from a Hispanic family was like talking about coming from an Irish family, a background which relates to foods you grew up with and bits of culture and memory which have carried over from the old country.  But in the US having a Mexican background is not just a piece of family culture or history, it's considered to be membership in a race and thus gets tied up in notions of racial politics.

This stood out to me as a teenager, when I decided that I'd deal with the fact that the PSAT and SAT didn't allow you to put your race down as "mixed" by listing myself as "Hispanic" on the PSAT and "white" on the SAT.  

I hadn't done any prep before taking the PSAT, and although I was generally good in school my scores were a "good but not great" 90th percentile.  This was not good enough to qualify me for any National Merit scholarships, but it did qualify me for a Hispanic honor role recognition, which was apparently only given to the top 1% of Hispanic students taking the test.  

I was kind of embarrassed to realize that the PSAT scores of Hispanic students were enough worse than the average that you could be 90th percentile overall but 99th percentile among Hispanics, but I showed the certificate to my maternal grandfather and he was proud of my achievement.  

Some colleges were also proud of my achievement, but in a less flattering way.  Harvard sent me a recruiting letter in Spanish.  This was difficult because I couldn't read Spanish.  My maternal grandparents had spoken it as children.  My mom had learned it as a foreign language in high school.  I had never learned it at all.  I got someone to translate the letter for me, and it turned out to explain that they had services which would help me with English if I applied there.  They never sent me any recruiting materials in English.  And indeed, I'm pretty sure they would not have admitted me as a white student.  When I took the SAT (after having got myself a book of sample tests and practiced) I got a 99th percentile score, but even so the only top ten college that I applied to only wait-listed me.  

I suppose I could have taken the Elizabeth Warren path and put myself down as a "person of color" but it seemed clear to me that when you checked the "Hispanic" box, a college expected you to have grown up poor in the bario, or struggle to speak English, or be able to write essays about how you worried that your parents would be deported.  I had grown up in the middle of the middle class, with a father who was a science educator and a mother who taught us at home and brought us up to share her love of books.  Claiming to be "Hispanic" according to the definition that colleges and employers had in mind seemed like it would be clearly dishonest.  And I didn't want to take benefits and considerations which were set aside for people who had truly grown up disadvantaged.

But there is a frustrating aspect to the fact that in the US these days, discussions of background are so frequently tied up with discussions of discrimination and oppression.  It means that someone like me, who doesn't look Hispanic enough to have someone making negative assumptions about me, and who doesn't have a Hispanic last name, ends up seeming like he'd be somehow faking to talk about coming from a Hispanic background.  

As racial problems go, being dismissed as "yet another white guy" by politically active online warriors is the most first world of problems, so I'm not exactly here to complain.  But it is a rather cut-off feeling at times.  I'm proud of the stories of my ancestors who walked across the US/Mexican boarder around 1900.  I'm proud of my grandfather who excelled at his studies despite having to go to the schools for Mexican kids rather than the ones for white kids in the little mining town in New Mexico where he grew up.  And I'm proud of the American identity that he built for himself and his children, through a career in the Navy starting in 1945 when he has seventeen.  I wish that the way that the US talked about race didn't mean that if you weren't oppressed because of your background, you can't claim it without seeming like a poser.


Antoinette said...

I have a friend with a similar problem in the other direction. Mexican grandparents on his mother's side so Anglo last name but he looks more like his grandparents. It was a problem when he was working as a union carpenter and got called for jobs. When he showed up, it was awkward.

Kurt said...

I know an person who grew up in Brooklyn, NY and is Irish Catholic. After service in the Navy, he ended up as a teacher in a poor, Mexican-American school district in Texas. to his surprise, good number of the Mexican-American kids had Irish surnames. When the railways were built, Irish men cam to the area. Due to class, religion and bigotry, they all married Mexican American women.

Unknown said...

I'm in the same box: half French-Canadian and half Mexican. I do surprise a lot of people as my surname is Spanish but I am 6'2" with fairly light skin. I like to say "light brown". I don't let forms bother me anymore. I always check all that apply. Irish, French, Spanish? No, it's the Catholic that matters. We all are made in the image of God.

Unknown said...

When I was in high school, I found out from distant relatives (that side of the family is all "distant") that a distant cousin had gotten an Indian scholarship to college. They all told me to apply, you only had to 1/32nd Indian or something like that, and they assured me i was as Indian as this cousin was. I thought that was insane, because the scholarships are (or so I thought) obviously for people who live in reservations, or are otherwise at a disadvantage, or who at least knew anything at all about their distant Indian ancestress -- not of which applied to me. My father had grown up very poor, but had joined the Air Force to go to college, and we were upper middle class. The end, as far as I was concerned. I thought that would be taking something away from someone who really needed it, so I never looked into it an further. But the relatives who had urged me to apply said these scholarships exist, and in many cases no one even applies, so I should use that advantage. That was my introduction to what is and isn't an advantage when it comes to ethnicity, and how it changes depending on situation. I still think that would have been wrong to do.

Kurt said...

I believe the rule for any government or direct university aid for most schools is that you have to be an enrolled member of a recognized tribe. Privately funded scholarships can, of course, set up whatever criteria they like. Of course we have in this country an historic problem with miscegenation leading to the "one drop" rule. This seems to be an obsession of Anglo-Saxon Protestants. In the Catholic world, intermarriage was no scandal. Of my parent's generation, I knew several mixed race couples who converted to Catholicism as no minister would marry them.

Mike Melendez said...

Everything I've encountered agrees with what Kurt said. One must be a member of an American tribe recognized by the U.S. government. My father's father was a Yaqui Indian, so I am one quarter indio. However, my grandfather was not a Pascua Yaqui from Arizona but from the original homeland in Sonora. So I do not fit the rules. Senator Warren's claims were absurd before the DNA analysis, which is why several Chiefs of recognized tribes had some words with her.

Kurt said...

Yes, but I will just say people are free to say what they have heard from their family about their heritage, as Senator Warren did. She never applied for any benefit or scholarship based on what her family told her.