Identity, and identity labels, are a lifelong and very personal interest of mine. As a racially ambiguous, multilingual, culturally mixed person, I’ve called myself many things over the years. Learning the truth about my genetic heritage last year disturbed the newfound comfort of my emerging identity as multiracial.
Words and language are another lifelong passion of mine. Words create reality. Even since I was a child, I’ve seen every day how our word choices matter. What we call something – or someone – and the language in which we speak those words, shape what we think, feel, and believe about that person, experience, or object. Those thoughts, feelings and beliefs shape our experience of life, and our behavior. Words create reality. Indeed, our species would be more accurately be called homo narrans. We are storytelling beings that make sense of our past, present, and future by telling stories that dictate who we are and how we act – both individually and collectively.
In my blog posts, I’ve written about language from terms like “diverse person” and “cultural competence” to “inclusiveness” and “<equity”. I’ve written about identity and identity labels inthree academic articles and two commercial pieces on Hispanic/Latino identity labelsand my adventures with my own racial identity.
The two came together recently. For the first time, I just identified myself as a “White/European American and transcultural Hispanic/Latina”.
Transcultural Hispanic/Latina? WT…?
Although I’m biologically European-origin and racially White, my identity hasn’t always been White. While I understand the problems and privilege inherent in my discomfort with my DNA, the truth is other people haven’t always seen me as White either. This has shaped my experience – of myself and of them. It’s also shaped their experience – of themselves and of me.
The “truth” is that I’m White and not White. I’ve passed, been mistaken for, and been categorized for years by people who never asked outright – as Latina, Hispanic, Mexican, Latin American and/or mixed. The “truth” is that I speak Spanish better than the majority of Hispanics living in my adopted majority-Hispanic state of New Mexico. The “truth” is that I came of age, first felt truly at home, first felt part of a family, first felt truly appreciated, first felt beautiful, first felt powerful and first felt proud to be a woman – in Mexico. The truth is that I move between and among worlds.
I am playing with the term “transcultural” in much the way I played with it years ago in grad school. I wrote a paper which I presented at the Global Fusion conference in Austin, Texas, in 2003: “Transcultural Mestizaje: Towards an Alternative Theory of Cultural Identity”. I argued that a new term is needed for an
“emerging group of postmodern individuals that find themselves to be more culturally similar to members of groups that are not of their same race or ethnicity. They are drawn towards different ‘groups of resonance’ – groups which are not of their same genetic heritage or birthright (‘group of origin’), but with whom these individuals resonate, and perhaps identify, and by whom they are accepted.”
I still agree with my 33-year-old self that this is a concept worth exploring, and that “transcultural” is a good word for it. The Latin prefix “trans” means “across,” “beyond” or “through.” “Trans” implies movement, as in “transit” or “transmission.” I wrote that “ ’transcultural’ is (well) suited to denote the dynamic process, transition and transformation, involved when transcultural people, who are what Estés (1992) calls “Mistaken Zygotes”, find themselves in their group of resonance.”
I was super smart in grad school!
Arguing against the term “bicultural” in this case, I also drew comparisons with trans* people (keep in mind this was 2003 and some of my terminology is outdated and too gender-binary!):
“Transsexual and transgender people…have a distinct feeling that they were born into the ‘wrong’ body, much like transcultural people, and both may have had this feeling their whole life without fully understanding or identifying it until they become adults. Transgender people tend to operate, and to a great extent, self-identify and physically resemble members of the opposite sex … like transsexuals, transculturals can never make the complete ‘transformation’ – they will always be partly of their culture of origin, whether by nature or nurture.”
So far, I like the word, and look forward to the conversations it might spark. I look forward to meeting more transculturals and exploring this further. I’ve met a few in my life – Felicia “Fish” De Vargas, a former grad school colleague, was one. I stayed with her and her roommate when I presented that paper in Austin 11 years ago. She was biologically Hispanic, and culturally Hispanic in myriad ways, but also spoke like (stereotypically), looked, and felt African American, and attracted and connected easily with African Americans everywhere she went. We used to joke about her mom keeping secrets and her “real dad” being Black. She liked my “transcultural mestizaje” theory.
By the way, are you wondering about the word mestizaje or my “Hispanic/Latina” word choice? That’s a whole other conversation…for another day!
Meanwhile …Hi, my name is Susana, and I’m a transcultural. I’m a both-and. The journey continues. Won’t you come along?