My Last Name is Haas, and Yes I'm Latina: The Complexity of Latine Identity

Colorful and diverse graphic of a young Latin woman with a map of Central and South America displaying each country's name.

This article republishedfrom The Daily Californian with permission.

It’s tricky navigating this world as a Latina with the last name Haas.

For some, I am too brown, and for others, I am not brown enough. My Spanish doesn’t roll smoothly off the tongue. My skin golden and illuminated under the sun doesn’t blush and blister, and my hair is both curly and straight — not knowing what to choose.

I am the granddaughter of immigrants and a first-generation college student. I am the dream my grandparents dared to dream as they left their countries and moved to the United States.

Many immigrated in search of opportunity and the chance to build a new foundation that their kids and grandkids could build upon and grow. Immigrants left their respective countries and their homes because they believed the United States was a land of opportunities.

According to a study published by the Pew Research Center, 72% of Latine adults believe that the United States is a safer place to raise children, and 86% say the United States offers more opportunities to be successful than the country of their ancestors.

People leave their homes out of necessity. They run toward the promise of a future. Unfortunately, the American dream promised to many is not afforded to most Latine immigrants.

The U.S. government and U.S. business interests recruited Mexican immigrants for cheap labor, and upon arrival, these immigrants faced racism and segregation. The lands Mexican people lived on were taken from them by two provisions in the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which enforced taxation and required proof of land grants in American court.

Puerto Rican people also faced racism and segregation when immigrating pre-Civil Rights Movement. Both were neglected and stripped of everything they had. Puerto Rican people were given statutory citizenship despite being a U.S. commonwealth, which meant their status was established by legislative means rather than by birth.

Voters in Puerto Rico can participate in presidential primaries, but they do not have voting representation in congress or electoral votes in U.S. presidential elections. However, the participation of Puerto Rican people in the Civil Rights Movement had been integral to their political and social lives.

Today, Latine people in the United States have more access to human rights, but they still face racism both socially and institutionally. I know this firsthand as a Latine person.

My last name never stopped people from asking me if I needed a green card to be here, from being followed around a store or harassed by white people at my school and on the street. And when asked for, my last name is always greeted with odd looks and questions. Haas doesn’t necessarily fit my characteristics or demeanor.

My last name comes from my paternal grandfather — an American-born veteran whose last name even he knows little about. So I can’t tell you anything about where the last name Haas comes from or the origins of immigration this part of my family experienced.

What I can tell you about is my paternal grandmother’s story of leaving Mexico and the town she grew up in. I can tell you about the small town in Puerto Rico where my maternal great-grandmother fled and why she left. Their stories resonate with me because they are the ancestral stories that make my identity complex and unique.

Being third-generation, my roots can feel deeply cemented in this land yet also far removed from another. These stories from my family are the anchors that ground me in my Latine heritage and identity.

But I used to define my identity by the way others saw me. My inabilities and disconnections to a culture that has kept me on the outskirts of belonging and othering has shaped how I perceive myself. And as the aforementioned Pew Research Center study found, the complex aspects that define Latine identities continue to change as generations grow in the United States. We see this in the way someone doesn’t need to be fluent in Spanish or have a Spanish surname to be considered Latine in the United States.

Society has told immigrants that if they wanted to assimilate, they would have to abandon parts of their culture. For some immigrants, this went as far as not teaching their kids Spanish or naming them something that was “easy” for Americans to pronounce, essentially white-washing our culture.

To be American has historically meant that you have to lose a significant part of yourself to create a national identity that you’ll never be accepted into anyway.

This Latine identity was created in the 1980s for mobilization purposes.

According to UC Berkeley sociology professor G. Cristina Mora, organizers, pop stars and political leaders used the media to create a common identity around the Spanish language, making it easier to mobilize them.

However, Latine political participation was unequivocally low due to a lack of identity in the United States, which meant the needs of Latine people were being overlooked. A large contributing factor to this was the fact that Latine people were under the white racial category in the U.S. Census. As this common identity and political message became a national conversation, it led to the creation of the Hispanic ethnic category.

But one identity based around the Spanish language alone doesn’t accurately convey the nuances of my identity or that of other Latine people.

America is a nation of immigrants, and we should celebrate the vibrant, unique and diverse cultures that illuminate our communities instead of make them conform to a nation that would not exist without them. I am part of this nation because my family immigrated — both the parts that have challenged my ties to my Latine culture and the ones that gave me my tanned complexion and wavy hair.

It is also true that my last name has never anchored me to ancestral lands and traditions. It has never offered me kindness or privilege, but it has played a role in shaping my identity. It connects me to my father, siblings, cousins and grandparents, and I have learned to lean into that aspect of my family name and hold it as a connection, not an identifier.

Aspects of my identity will continue to grow and shift with the knowledge and wisdom I hope to gain as the years carry on, but my roots will forever exist steady and strong in both the land I descend from and the land that I was born on.

I can no longer afford to cut the roots that keep us connected to our cultures for the sake of fitting in with a country that discriminates against, murders and incarcerates our loved ones. I will no longer conform to a society that was built on the backs of our ancestors or water down my identity and culture.

It is important now more than ever to stand in my Latine identity proudly and unapologetically; to uplift my communities and explore my cultures because they are beautiful and unique.

That is what makes this nation great to me.

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