Growing Up Brown in a Border Town

Commentator Tanya Barrientos grew up as a Guatemalan-American in a border town in Texas. She reflects on her teen years, when self-consciousness about her heritage and her brown skin caused her to distance herself from her identity.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

Yesterday's boycotts and demonstrations staged by immigrants across the country struck commentator Tanya Barrientos at a personal level. She was raised in a border town in West Texas. And she says she can remember when she was ashamed to be a Latina.

TANYA BARRIENTOS: Yesterday I was at the bank. It was May Day, the day immigrants demonstrated across the country. The man standing next to me said he owned a construction company. His workers would be coming in that afternoon to cash their paychecks.

"Do they have ID?" the teller asked.

"Social Security cards," he answered. "They're from Guatemala." And that was that. His message had been passed, as if the word Guatemala was English for illegal.

I know exactly how I would've reacted when I was younger. I would've stayed quiet, finished my transaction and just before leaving, I would've thrown out a big have a nice day to prove I had no Spanish accent. Because when I was a kid, I hated being brown. Being brown in the border town where I was raised meant being Mexican, whether you were or were not. It meant being a fruit picker instead of a lawyer, a maid instead of a doctor. And I wanted none of it.

So I refused to speak Spanish or hang out with the kids who did. I worked extra hard to fit in with the girls named Heidi and Leslie and Kim. And I can remember taking it as a compliment when they said I didn't seem Mexican to them.

It sounds so wrong now, but America wasn't a hyphenated nation back then. People who came here were expected to drop their ethnic baggage at the border, become apple pie citizens as quickly as possible and never look back.

When I was 16, I told my father how much I hated being seen as a person from south of the border. My father, whose skin is the color of tobacco, my father, who as a kid taught himself English by reading American comic books and as a young college professor, left everything he had in Guatemala to bring our family here and start over.

I told him and he cringed. Then he made a radical plan. That summer instead of sending me to the ballet camp in Colorado that I wanted to attend, he enrolled me in the National Ballet School of Mexico in Mexico City.

"I want you to see how beautiful Mexico is," he told me, "so if anybody calls you Mexican, you'll hold your head high."

I went reluctantly and found out he was right. I've been thinking about that summer a lot lately as hundreds of thousands of brown immigrants march through the streets, pleading to be seen. Mexicans, El Salvadorans, Guatemalans, they all look like me.

So at the bank, I turn to the man and said, "I'm from Guatemala." He looked at me, the tellers looked at me, none of them sure what to say.

Finally the man smiled and said, "I hear it's a beautiful country."

I smiled back and said, "Yes sir, it is."

SEIGEL: Tanya Barrientos is a features writer and columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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