At dinner several years ago with long-time friends, I dug into brick-oven fired pizza while we spoke about ethnic backgrounds. These were not friends who I’d just met or thought lightly of. They were good friends, people who contributed to our community, and who crossed paths in schools and churches. I identified with them, so you can imagine my confusion when one of them turned to me and asked: “So Sid, do you get offended when someone calls you Mexican?”
My instinctive response was simple, but wrong on so many levels; and because of this, it has stayed with me these many years. Let me now share with you how I responded and how I think we all share a common card, and motivating force, as minorities of one type or another.
My instinctive response
My response was as bad as the question. I muttered, “No,” and then changed the subject. In doing so, I validated the notion that calling someone what they are can inherently be a bad thing. And, as it relates to my ethnicity, I perpetuated an existing negative stereotype.
I moved to Utah when I was 4 years old–old enough to remember our orange trees in the backyard of our home in Whittier, California, and old enough to remember shying from my ethnicity as I acclimated to Utah. Technically (and I now have an ancestry DNA test that can show you all the beautiful detail) I’m ½ Mexican, ¼ Dutch, and ¼ German. My parents split when I was still young and I was raised by my mom, who hails from the Mexican side. And as a boy, when I discovered that the term “Mexican” had a negative connotation, I adapted. I found that my last name was a clever disguise and my skin was, on the margin, less tan than the average Mexican boy. I even discovered from my mom that our Mexican heritage had roots in Europe (which is true, shout-out again to the DNA test). So bam!, just like that, I was “Spanish.” Whenever anyone asked, that was my response.
The internal conflict that built within me, as trivial to an outsider as it may seem, was both real and motivating. Look, I’m ½ Mexican, grew up in Utah, child of a mother who grew up in LA, and I have had every opportunity that a 3rd generation individual in the US could have. We may not have had much but we always had food on the table, nice clothes on our backs, and books on the shelf. Our home wasn’t necessarily material for hosting a block party but we lived in a safe cul-de-sac. And though I didn’t have personal tutors or access to all the test prep, I had a deeply invested parent and teachers and earned good grades throughout my education. So what’s there to talk about? Well, here it is. I felt different. Sometimes felt like less. And mostly, I just felt insecure with this aspect of who I was, whether you consider it material or not, and that created conflict within me (shying externally from who inwardly and outwardly, I am). This conflict that required me to do something with it. Either inaction and discomfort or action and potentially less discomfort.
Coming to terms with your uniqueness within the crowd can be the greatest motivating factor for achieving something, period. My story is still being told, so rather than trying to over-extrapolate from my life, let me briefly share a snippet from one of my relatives…
“I’m the only Chicano on the train”
Two months ago my wife and I visited Normandy to pace the sacred grounds of World War II. With that memorable trip still in my mind, I share a copy of a postcard dated February 28th, 1943. It’s from my uncle, Manuel Sambrano, addressed to his mom and dad, my grandparents. It contains what I imagine most newly enlisted troops wrote to family at the time—nonchalantly sharing their whereabouts while naively preparing to embark on war missions from which they might not return. It’s not until the very last line that I light up with real emotion:
These words, “I am the only Chicano on the train,” like the rest of the postcard, come across casual and matter-of-fact. Unless you knew the man penciling these. Before serving as a radio operator and gunner on a B-17 in the Air Force and flying and bombing over Nazi Germany, my uncle was a young boy who helped the family make ends meet in El Paso, Texas by selling vegetables and newspapers. He later moved with the family to Los Angeles, California and battled insecurity and embarrassment for being teased (still a youngster) for his accent. That resentment followed him later in life as he would not allow Spanish to be spoken in his house by any of his children, despite both he and his wife being fluently Spanish-speaking Mexicans. What he did develop was an undying attitude and persistence to problems he perceived. As a teenager, he was part of the Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC) in the 30s, which helped put young men to work during the Depression. He was on the debate team in high school. And despite being the only Chicano on that train, he went to nobly serve his country in a war that would leave deep scars that impacted him his entire life. True sacrifice. And true achievement in the midst of real conflict.
Wave your minority card & wave it well
One of my mentors will quickly let you know where he grew up and that he’s a proud Jewish boy. The first time he shared this, in my mind I muttered, “can he say that? I guess he can. Is that good, is that bad, is it neutral?”
We are conditioned to blend in. And for those of you who find a place following others, finding your spot in the pack, and not being on the bleeding edge of innovation, well, it’s not ok anymore. The fearless founders, champions for change, and mad scientists have all made it clear that they are completely comfortable with who they are. And they’ll let the world know. But I don’t think there are enough of us in this world willing to stand out, even if we’re further back in line or buried in the crowd! I had no more potential as a contributor to society as a founder of a startup employing 100+ people than as a pizza delivery boy in high school delivering fresh and warm, if I was doing my job, pizzas to 100s of customers. But I did contribute more meaningfully when I was owning who I was, taking deep pride in that, and telling myself, “I’ll be damned if this Mexican doesn’t make a name for himself.”
To my friend, the one who asked “So Sid, do you get offended when someone calls you Mexican?” I’ve got love for ya. And some words:
I am surprised the term still has a negative connotation in Utah. It’s too bad. First, technically, that’s exactly what you call someone with Mexican heritage; you aren’t offended when I call you a Canadian, right? So get comfy and hunker into the notion that you will have equally awesome interactions with many more Mexicans, not to mention blacks, gays, trans, [pick your descriptor]. Second, I feel you. I grew up here and actually had some negative perceptions that grew on me about certain groups, including my own (in validating a negative stereotype)! Strange, right? But look, I consider my personal narrative as relevant as anything—it is both who I am and what nudges me along to make the kind of choices and take the kind of action that I hope add positively to that narrative. I’m trying to “go further” than those who made the trek to get me here while maintaining an appreciation for all the beautiful simplicity that started it. So, I’ve told you some of my story. I want to hear your story- tell me, what’s your minority card?
Each of us at one time or another comes face-to-face with the feeling that we don’t quite fit in. And like my uncle, the only Chicano on the train, we may go on to nobly serve country, family, friends or customers. True achievement in the midst of real conflict, even if those battles are waged without bombs going off and bullets flying past us. Sometimes that greatest battles are interpersonal and of the mind. So I raise my hat to the entrepreneurs and anyone grinding against the grain around them and say, “Wave your minority card and wave it well.” I salute you. I support you. And I’m honored to be among you.
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