When I moved to Los Angeles a few years ago for school I apparently became something other than a human being, because this question would get asked of me repeatedly: "So what are you?" And shocking it was mostly white people asking it. The first couple of times I would get confused as to why someone would ask me and the confused look on my face must have alerted the other person that they needed to clarify their question.
A follow up would be: "Are you white, or like Mexican or something? Wheres your family from?" Then I would understand what they were really getting at. When I responded that I was Mexican, they had the best follow up question ever, "Oh so were you like born here?". When I responded yes they immediately got more comfortable and went on to talk about other things. For a while it became an automatic response from me. "I'm Mexican, and yes I was born here, no my family was born in Mexico." But as with many things from that time of my life things changed when I sought out to learn about Chicano Studies.
In that class I learned so much and I started looking back at these encounters replaying them in my head and getting really pissed off when I realized what people were really asking. They were really asking if I was a 'legal' Mexican. They couldn't automatically put me in a category, because I wasn't wearing stereotypical Mexican clothing but my features weren't white, and I spoke English really well, but my name sounded Latin so they were left with nothing but just asking. When they were asking me these questions I never noticed my discomfort until I analyzed these encounters later. When I realized that I was being asked to explain my existence it dawned on me how insane and racist it was. Once I got passed the anger though that question really dawned on me. "What am I?"
Around this time we had just gone through how identity affects your life in my Chicano Studies class, (the focus was how the one you choose or have conflicts or intersects with the one the dominant oppressive culture designates) and I really took that question into consideration. And I had a realization that I was actively rejecting assimilation or being white. I could definitely try and assimilate and to an extent I am partially assimilated being bicultural but just being ethnically Mexican. But I knew through experience and reading for my Chicano Studies class that assimilation and being the model minority is a myth. A lie that the white dominant structures use to divide us, control us, and ultimately use us for their own gain. Its a tool one of many that is used first consciously that becomes insidiously self perpetuating. When our parents tell us to stay safe, "No hagas problemas" because of the culture fear that Latin@s have developed thanks to things like mass deportation, drug related violence in Latin America thanks to the United States war on drugs and massive drug dependency that Latin people are paying for with blood, and being exploited as a cheap labor force, that advice becomes assimilation really quick.
While I am partially assimilated I now know that I actively refuse to continue it. I now purposefully give people reasons to ask me what am I, by not conforming to either stereotype they wish to label me. And when they ask I answer that yes I am a Latino, and no I won't explain further as their question is offensive for the first time meeting me.