Antonio de Jesús Alanís

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Antonio De Jesús Alanis migrated to the United States with his parents at the age of six. Upon moving to Durham, N.C., he felt a need to explain his identity in a place where he is viewed as a minority. As a Mexican-American, Alanis has experienced a variety of identity labels, some, he created; others may have been imposed upon him. The terms Latino and Hispanic (a term created by the U.S. Federal Government, used in censuses) are examples of such identity labels. Alanis discusses the meanings of those two terms, elaborating on his personal usage of the terms and well as the ways in which he prefers to identify himself. He also goes into some detail about the use of the terms Latino, Mexican, Mexican-American, and Hispanic. Often, such identity labels reinforce stereotypes by grouping diverse people into one big group. He addresses such concerns and discusses the ways in which his identity has changed since his childhood.


Joël Hage: This is Joël Hage interviewing Antonio De Jesús Alanís in the FedEx Global Center at the University of North Carolina in Chapel. It is the afternoon of April 8th, 2013. It’s approximately 2:45pm. All right, let’s go ahead and get started, Antonio. The first question I’d like to ask you is when people ask you where you are from, what do you normally say?
Antonio De Jesús Alanís: Okay. So, when I normally encounter these types of situations I like to say that I am Mexican-American, and not really American. I don’t feel one hundred percent that I’m from here even though I live here. I don’t like to say that I’m Mexican because I also haven’t lived in Mexico for a long time. But I guess I can explain this question if I talk a lot about my background history. So, in 1996 my family had the chance to migrate from Mexico to the U.S. and I was six years old in 1996, so that was about ten years after. And then we moved to Texas – that was our first stop in the U.S., and then we lived there for four years. Didn’t speak English at all. It was just like another side of Mexico, in El Paso. And then in 2000 – or 1999 – we moved from El Paso, Texas to North Carolina – in Durham, specifically where I live now in 2013. And so that trajectory has really given me a changing perception of who I am, from the beginning to, now, where I am. But I like to say that I am Mexican-American.
JH: Okay. How do you identify here in the U.S. compared to how you would identify in Mexico? And I know that this is something that – you know, you’ve been to Mexico on a few occasions, so this may not be something that you have a lot of experience with. But, have you found, especially in your most recent trip to Mexico, that you’re – there is a little bit of a shock when you’re trying to identify yourself, or you don’t know exactly what to say?
AA: Sure. It’s like I said before, in the U.S. I like to say that I’m Mexican-American, although it is confusing to say that you’re a Mexican-American because I’ve looked in encyclopedia entries and some of them say that for you to be a Mexican-American you have to be born in the U.S. and then your parents have to be from – from yeah, from Mexico. And that doesn’t really fit my description, but I like to include both Mexican-American because it kind of like overlaps both countries’ characteristics, as opposed to using Latino and Hispanic, which I’m sure you’re going to discuss a little bit later. In Mexico, I’d really – I would like to – when I went back to Mexico I didn’t really say that I was Mexican – Mexican-American, but I really prevented those types of conversations because I know it can be confusing to talk about something you don’t feel comfortable talking. Generally when I speak and talk, I like to be sure what I’m saying, and like I said, identity is so confusing and so fluid and scholars have spent probably most of their lives talking about this and sometimes I just don’t feel comfortable talking about something I don’t really know. But, in Mexico I really didn’t say that I was from Mexico – I did say that I was born in Mexico, but I didn’t identify with being completely 100% Mexican because I’ve lived most of my life in the U.S. Like I said, I lived there for six years in Mexico. A child that is six years old, I don’t think they have a set – I don’t know, delineated personality in terms of citizenship, of – I don’t know – identity, so I just don’t feel comfortable saying that I’m Mexican. Although I do have some Mexican parents. They’re not very traditional. They don’t have like the traditional, typical Mexican festivities or – I don’t know – celebrations, but I do like to say that I’m Mexican and American – both.
JH: All right, that’s very interesting. I appreciate you sharing that. So, like you’ve said, we are going to talk about Hispanic and Latino. What does Hispanic mean to you?
AA: Okay, so, for my general, vague understanding of these concepts, I think that a Hispanic is a person that just speaks Spanish. Someone who just speaks the language – that’s what I think.
JH: No matter where – is there a region that they come from, or is it just someone who speaks Spanish natively as their language? Because as you know, you can come from many places and speak Spanish natively.
AA: Right. It’s like – I’ve heard about people in Spain, specifically, who don’t like the label of being Hispanic because for them – it just depends – it just depends on the perspective. For them, being Hispanic just means that, probably, Hispanic is somewhere from Latin America. But still, it just doesn’t make sense to me sometimes – I don’t know, it just – too many overlapping characteristics I would say.
JH: So you would, I guess – in speaking about Spain, you’re a little confused. You don’t know how to classify them, as Hispanic or not. And your definition, maybe your understanding, of Hispanic would be just anyone who comes from South/Central America that speaks Spanish natively?
AA: Right, yes.
JH: And then, do you mind if I jump into specific groups of people that live in Central America or in parts of South America that don’t speak Spanish natively?
AA: Sure, you can ask me.
JH: Yeah, so, what do you think about them? Are they considered Hispanic, or no? If – and I’m assuming when you say Hispanic you’re referring to people that come – people that speak Spanish that come to the United States – is that right, or just people in their homeland as well?
AA: I think that in whole Latin America, people who speak the language. If you’re talking about indigenous populations or indigenous nations, I don’t think that they are Hispanic. It just depends, if they do speak the language maybe they are, but many don’t like to – for several reasons, don’t like to identify as that. But it just depends, and I need more studying.
JH: I think that makes sense. And now, Latino. How does this definition differ, or is it the same as Hispanic for you?
AA: Right, so I wish I could have taken an introduction to Latino/Latina studies, but, I think that Latino is this umbrella term that kind of has all these nationalities – Mexicans, Salvadorians, Hondurans, Chileans, Argentinians. And then, I think a subset of that, I think, is a Hispanic, someone who speaks the language if they do speak the language and they are in this – in these continental parts. So, I think that Latino does have a huge – it just includes many, many, many people.
JH: Okay. I think that’s clear, and then, I would ask – I guess – do you attach – I already asked you about Hispanic, if you attach it to the United States at all, and you kind of said no. And what about Latino? Do you attach that term to people living in the United States at all or having something to do with the United States? Or can they be completely removed from the United States and still have the title Latino?
AA: I believe that in one of my history classes, we discussed that the U.S. had a lot to do with the naming of Latinos in Latin America, so I would just imagine that Latino is a term that you would hear in the U.S. and not in the rest of Latin America. Because what I’ve heard from other countries and from other people that I’ve spoken to that they like to identify based on their nationality, and not – “Oh, I’m Latina just because I live in Latin America.” So, someone lives in – I don’t know – Mexico, they would like to say I’m Mexican as opposed to Latinos. So I would imagine Latino is just something you would find in the U.S.
JH: Okay, and then, just to clarify, this is my understanding of what you said – is, for example, I will give you an example that I’m familiar with, is – in Guatemala, in the eastern part of Guatemala, you have a group of people called the Garifuna, and they don’t speak Spanish as their native language. According to your understanding, you would consider them still Latino because they come from that area, that’s kind of their culture, but their native language isn’t Spanish. Or would you say no, they’re not necessarily Latino. Because throughout Central and much of South America you do have different Afro-Caribbean groups and other ethnic groups that may not speak Spanish but still come from that cultural region of the world.
AA: Right. I really – I really don’t know.
JH: You don’t know.
AA: No, I really don’t know, but it’s a wonderful question that you ask, and I will definitely keep in mind what this means.
JH: Cool. Now, this next question I would like to just, kind of – you can go two ways. You can give me kind of an academic answer, or an answer that you think society would say – or I would maybe prefer an answer that you feel. You know, when you think about it what answer would you give? What do you have in common with people from Central America, outside of Mexico? From people in South America?
AA: Okay, well, this is a very tough question because I don’t think I have many people form South America or Central America who are representatives of these nations – or these territories. But of course we do have many historical similarities. But from a personal viewpoint, I think we have lots of similarities – the language, we have of course, the religion, the Catholicism which is, I believe, the largest – or if not – the biggest religion in both continents. Well not both continents, but kind of like Central America, and then down to the South, America. It just – I would like to find out more about what we have more in common. I’m sure we have many more other similarities, and I think part of that is I haven’t really lived with many of people who are from Central America or South America. I lived in Durham, so I don’t think it has a huge, wide variety of immigrants, so I don’t feel that I have enough understanding of what it means to be from South and Central America. I think if I would have lived in a huge city, such as Los Angeles, or some other huge city, I would have more symbiosis, or I don’t know – some sort of experience living with other people. So – and I think also, many migrants who come here are Mexicans. So it’s kind of hard for me to understand, or say that, oh, I shared my life with people from South America or Central America. I guess I haven’t had a lot of experiences with people from there.
JH: So, I guess the two big things you pointed out were religion and language. So do you feel like – and I know it’s hard to speak about it when you haven’t had much experience with it, but do you feel like in that sense – because what I’m trying to get at in asking this question is kind of the meaning and significance behind these terms, especially what they mean to immigrants and to people from different backgrounds. Do you feel like the terms Latino and Hispanic kind of do a poor job in grouping a bunch of different people together into one group under one title, when in reality all they may really have in common is just a language and a religion? Or do you feel like, no, it may be – there may be something more than just language and religion?
AA: These are huge questions [laughs].
JH: Very huge questions.
AA: Absolutely. I think that people are – well I personally don’t feel comfortable calling myself a Latino because I think I will just lose my Mexican side of who I am and who I’ve become throughout the years like I explained when I was a child, and now that I’m here in college that I have studied more of what it means to be Mexican – the country, the heritage, the roots. Of course, about religion and the language, it is – they are two similarities between all of these groups, all these peoples. I just don’t think they are true representatives of what people are. And I found this question very interesting because I think that identity is something that people study a lot whenever they are not in their home countries, because I think that if I were just a Mexican living in Mexico I wouldn’t really care about what – being Mexican. And I think that when a person moves from the country, they begin to reflect upon themselves and say, okay, this is who I am. Or am I this? Or am I not that? I don’t know. I’m confused. What am I going to do? And I think that that is something that really does originate when people just migrate to other places. But, it definitely is a huge question.
JH: That’s yeah – it’s very true. Identity arises from noticeable difference.
AA: Right
JH: Without difference there’s no such thing, I think, as identity. Okay, so do you believe that the titles Latino and Hispanic – and thank you for sharing that you don’t want to identify as Latino. But do you think the terms Latino and Hispanic are something that are understood or shared by a large number of people in the United States? Or are they just fictional identity labels that were imposed on people? And so, what I’m getting at with this question is do people actually accept these terms? In your experience, do you find that people who come from similar backgrounds to you, are they okay with these terms? Or do they flat out reject them and say these are not our terms? We don’t call ourselves this.
AA: Right. So again, I really cannot speak for the whole U.S. [laughs] and tell you all about what most people think. But I think that many people, including me, we’re just confused. We don’t know what this means, because of course many people of studied their lives – studied these types of concepts all their lives. But I think that it just depends on the many factors and the educational levels and what this means. So I know a couple of people who I’ve spoken to about what it means for them to be Latino, Hispanic, or Mexican-American, or just Mexican. For instance, a couple of weeks ago, I interviewed another person and I asked her what her identity was, and she said that she thought of herself as being a Latino, even though she, just in my case, was born in Mexico and migrated from an earlier age. So it’s just very, very different and fluid – it’s just a matter of preference. It’s what do you like to be called? It’s something – yea, something as similar as, oh I just like lemon ice cream as opposed to chocolate – or something like that, you can just change. But – so she accepted she was a Latino, and she explained to me that she liked that term because she works with immigrant rights, so she likes to have an encompassing identity of what it means to be an immigrant living in the U.S., not from the U.S., because of – she didn’t want to be looked upon because she was from another country, so she just liked to be called Latina. But, for my parents specifically, I think that my parents are – they were born in Mexico, so definitely they spent most of their time – they lived there in Mexico most of their lives, and now they’re just – I would just imagine they’re just Mexican. And they accept that as being Mexican. I’ve heard my dad a couple of times about him being a Hispanic, because like me he thinks that being a Hispanic means just talking Spanish. So there is no difference. My little brother, he’s another generation. He was born here and he’s from Mexican parents, so I think he just – according to some encyclopedia entries he would be a true Mexican-American because he was born here and he’s from Mexican background. But I’ve also heard other terms such as Chicano/Chicana. I’ve heard other people talk about Pochos, who are people who just disregard or just forget about their Mexican background. And many, many other terms that I’ve heard. But we’re all – there’s just a huge difference in acceptance of or rejection or…
JH: So there may not be necessarily one thing that you could just say this is what most people do?
AA: Yea, so it just depends. Maybe it’s because of – they’re not – they haven’t studied what this means, so they don’t – I just, I don’t know, many, many things.
JH: And also just due to the fact that none of these terms have – have meanings that are always agreed upon. A lot of scholars will say Hispanic means one thing and Latino means something else, so I think that has a lot to do with it as well. Do you feel like where you live, I guess in Durham, that you belong to a Latino/Hispanic community? And so, again, what I’m getting at here with this question is not necessarily whether they call themselves as a Latino or Hispanic community, but is there a community that exists that kind of embraces these ideals – what you already mentioned as to what it means to be Latino and Hispanic?
AA: Well I really – to be very honest, I don’t really have a community in Durham. I’m not really involved in many activities. I really, even though I am Catholic, I don’t go to church, so I don’t have an understanding of what many people think about being a Hispanic or a Latino in the U.S. And I can talk about my family, about my mom’s side of the family, if community counts as being family.
JH: Of course.
AA: So my mom’s side of the family, they live here. They are – they – so, they’re recent migrants to the U.S. and sometimes I don’t feel comfortable talking to them about what it means Latino or Latina, or Mexican, or Mexican-American because they’re very adamant of what it means for them to be a Mexican, so sometimes I just feel uncomfortable talking to them about something that they’re just not going to even to open up for discussion. So I just stand away from talking about that. I just really don’t like – and I think they’re very patriotic. I feel that at some times there may be, not confrontations, but you know, tension in the air. So I really try to stay away from that type of thing. But, I think they do like to be called just Mexican as well. Yeah.
JH: All right. So this is something – you already said that you don’t feel comfortable identifying as Latino and you explained what you do identify as – but do you feel like your identity has changed in any way throughout your life, or, if at all? I mean that’s – and how has that changed?
AA: Yeah, this is a very personal question and it hits a lot of personal struggles – and I could talk about it. It has definitely changed and it has been improving from – when I was a small kid, I just didn’t think about who I was, like Mexican, Mexican-American. And then we moved to Nor – Durham. I began to hear many racist remarks about who I was and, just, a couple of nasty ones. I just don’t really want to talk about them. But at the time it really did make me hurt inside, and I spoke to my parents about that. There was a time that I told myself, like, I hate being Mexican, because people just say nasty things about being a Mexican. And of course, you know, middle school, it’s just like purgatory. It’s just a horrible, horrible place to be. I just didn’t feel comfortable being a Mexican at that time. I really didn’t think about being an American at the time either – maybe just a person, you know, a person without any labels. And that’s sometimes what I like to think about. Many times I say, well this is so confusing, why can’t I just – why can’t I just forget about this and be a citizen of the world, I don’t know. A citizen of the U.S., that would be, like, it. And just forget about this. So, that was like in middle school, and then like in High School I began to meet a couple of more Mexican people who strive for excellence, who were excellent students. So that was – that was very inspirational for me to understand that even the media – the media explained what Mexican was, and right now I just don’t feel that that’s true. And then, so in high school I felt very inspired by students who were smart and just gave me hope for, I don’t know, improving my self-image. It was like a kind of a nationality low self-esteem, I would imagine. And then, now here in college it’s like heaven. There are many Mexicans, Mexican-Americans, Chicanos who are excellent people. They are wonderful. And it just makes me feel very proud of where I come from, where I am right now.
So, it makes me – even the classes, I’ve studied a lot of what being Mexican means, and then, just, the heritage, the music, countless artists out there, both visual and musical artists. They’re just wonderful. And it makes me feel very proud that the food, the culture, everything where I come from – it’s a wonderful place. And like you mentioned earlier, my recent, or my previous, trip to Mexico; it was one of those wonderful times that I realized that I was very mistaken when I was a young kid – that being Mexican was something bad, something I would look at badly, in a way. Because of course we visited Guanajuato, perhaps one of the cultural Meccas of Mexico – just like the birth, of course, of the Mexican Independence en Dolores Hidalgo. So it’s just like, having the chance to stand on that church and feel the history – it was breathtaking to me. Definitely, being a Mexican from the beginning has really improved. And I think that’s why I really haven’t accepted myself as being a Latino, because I was kind of like working and struggling to define what being a Mexican was. So it was just like – I’m just going to pull that away, to the sides, and just focus on what it means to be a Mexican. And then another thing I have about this is that my parents, they’re like I said, they’re not really traditional Mexicans, so it’s like when I was in High School many times I spoke to my friends and said, “You know, even though I’m Mexican, I don’t feel like I fit into the Mexican person/characteristic/type of being.” Sometimes I felt alone, or just trying to figure out who I am back then. Now, that’s why I like to embrace everything Mexican – many, many, many things.
JH: Okay, thank you for that. Are there times when you feel that you must explain your identity to people who seem to have little knowledge of your country of origin?
AA: This is one of those questions that sometimes doesn’t really fit to me. Many times, or rather, I haven’t really met many people who have asked me where I come from. Although, there was a couple of times people just confuse me with being an Italian person or something like that. So I was like, okay – I was like, no, I made sure to tell them I was Mexican, or Mexican-American like I like to say. But, I think that Mexicans being the vast majority of immigrants in the country, I don’t think that I feel the need of explaining to them of where I am or where I come from.
JH: Okay, so you think that if you were somebody who wasn’t Mexican, then you would probably have that – you would probably feel like you have to explain what you are.
AA: Right, definitely. So, yeah.
JH: You get the benefit because you’re the majority.
AA: Exactly, yeah. So many people think like, oh, he’s from Mexico, like, I know most of – hopefully positive things. So I don’t really have to say much about Mexico. Although sometimes I do feel that I have to explain where I am in the – where I come from in Mexico. Many people think of Mexico as being Mexico City, I don’t know, major centers.
JH: As if there’s nothing outside of that.
AA: Right, in the south. And then – I think I come – well, I don’t think – I come from the north of the country, in Durango. So sometimes people say, “Where is that?” You know, and I have to say, well, Durango is in the northwestern part of the country, and it doesn’t have many people. I think it has lowest – the second lowest population density in the whole nation. So many people don’t really know where that is. So, it is – I don’t have to explain too much about where I am.
JH: Okay, have you ever identified before as Latino, before you started to identify yourself as Mexican-America?
AA: So, maybe if we go back to the time that I was trying to figure out who I am – who I was, in middle school. Maybe if I didn’t feel – okay, let’s see how am I going to say this? I would use – maybe, but I’m not sure – but there might have been a time, like a small amount of time that I might have identified myself as being a Latino because I was maybe full of shame of being Mexican because of the perception that others had of me, of this nationality. And, what was your question – the second question?
JH: Did you – yeah, like why did you identify then at those times as Latino? Which I think you just answered, right?
AA: Right.
JH: Okay, and then the other thing is – or another question that I have is why – can you explain to me why you choose to have the – or why you choose to identify as – choose not to identify as Latino and Hispanic? Because I understand why you choose Mexican-American. But why not Latino maybe as a second label, or Hispanic as a second label?
AA. Right. Wow. Well, maybe it’s a second label, would be a good offer [laughs]. I’d be like okay! Mexican-American, and then, well I could be a Latino because this is like – there’s nothing wrong with being a Latino. It’s perfectly fine with me. It’s just so broad that I think if I just choose to be a Latino I just lose where I come from, right, so it’s very hard for me to say, oh, I’ll just be a Latino and just forget about, I don’t know, my history, my – everything that I am proud of. And I think this has a lot to do with my studies and my academic formation. I’ve just fell in love with studying about where I come from, and about the historical trauma that has, I don’t know, impulsed people to come to where they are right now. So it’s very personal. I think being a Hispanic or a Latino is just – would give me a – would just make me forget about this concentration that I have. So sometimes I do feel that if I just say, oh, I’m from Mexico, that’s fine. But, you know, there was another time that – sometimes I try to stay away from talking about Mexico because Mexico is like the biggest, one of the biggest concepts that we talk about. One time there was this – and I know I’m digressing – but one time there was this friend who is from Peru. And she was trying to apply for a minor in Latino Studies, but she was very disappointed, and she came up to me and said, “You know, Antonio, I’m very disappointed that I tried to apply to get into the Latino/Latina Studies minor but most of the classes concentrate on being a Mexican, on Mexican history.” And one of those – it did make me feel, just, uncomfortable being in that situation because I know it’s something that is true. And it just doesn’t feel fair for them, for people who identify as Latinos because of course Latinos is not just Mexican – it’s all these other nationalities. So, sometimes I really don’t, even though I could say with proud, “Oh, look at this, we’re talking about Mexico again. I’m so excited!” I don’t like to look at others and say, “Oh my god, here we go. We’re going to talk about Mexico again. There’s more in the world than Mexico.” You know. But of course we can’t just forget about Mexico because it’s one of the biggest cultural countries in Latin America that we learn about.
JH: Yeah, that’s interesting. So do you feel – I think it’s – to summarize what you were saying, kind of, the reason you don’t choose the word Latino is because you feel like there’s pieces missing from that, like pieces of you missing from that title. Like, there’s a lot of specific details about who you are that you don’t really get the sense of when you just call yourself a Latino. But do you feel like if you do use the word Latino, that there are times when you can gain something from using that? And maybe I can give you an example – here at UNC, with your friends that are from different parts of South and Central America, do you feel like at times you want to identify as Latino because they’re around you? Because you feel like you’re gaining some sort of bond with them by doing so? Or no?
AA: You know, that’s an interesting question. I really never thought about it. Maybe just – I like to call, to say that we’re friends. Not say that “Oh, we’re Latinos.”
JH: You never caught yourself before ever, around friends maybe from different places, calling yourself Latino?
AA: Right. No. Not even – no. I haven’t just spoken about, oh, look I’m Latino today. Yeah, even most of the times whenever they ask me about my nationality – or that confusing thing, whatever they ask in polls or whatever. I just like to say, well, Mexican-American. Yeah, just that.
JH: Is there anything else that you’d like to add?
AA: [nods ‘no’]
JH: Alright Antonio, I appreciate you agreeing to do this interview with me. It was very useful. I got a lot of stuff out of it. And it was very interesting to hear a little bit more about your personal story and your background.
AA: Well you very welcome for inviting me, and thank you so much.
JH: Thanks.