By Miguel Barker-Valdez
I am a walking Rorschach test.
As a physician’s assistant in an orthopedic surgery clinic, patients have referred to me as “the well-dressed Mexican,” the surgeon’s “little Japanese friend,” and most recently, “the man from East India.” Facebook has pegged me as “77% Brazilian, 13% Japanese.” My father called my brother (Paul) and me his “little Lamanites” when we were children.
But I must admit that I’ve been just as confused about where I fit in as everyone else seems to be. I was born into a kind of racial limbo, never able to find a place to call home.
It’s not that I don’t know who my biological parents are. My mother, Heidi, immigrated from Guatemala to the U.S. in her teens soon after LBJ’s Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. She came along with my tías (her sisters) and my abuelita (her mother)—part of the large migration of Latino-Americans in the 60s. My father is Caucasian—born in Roseburg, Oregon, and living most of his life in San Jose and California’s Central Valley.
But my parents divorced when I was about five years old. My father married a second time, to a Mexican Latina with two children, but they annulled their marriage after less than a month.
Prior to my father’s second marriage, my mother kidnapped Paul and me, whisking us away to Canada to live with her and her new Canadian husband. She eventually had to return us, and my dad met and married Chareine—the woman I now call Mom. They stayed together for 23 years until my dad died.
Chareine and her family immediately took my brother and me in, making us kin without even batting an eye. Even though Paul and I were obviously more darkly complected, she made no distinction between us and the three children she had with my dad (in fact, each of those children had to learn independently that Paul and I were from another mother). She even tried to officially adopt us.
Though my dad called Paul and me his little Lamanites and said the occasional Spanish phrase to us, he also started distancing us from Heidi’s side of the family. Whenever she called us, he would pick up a phone in the other room so that he could listen in on the conversation. We shared a building with the Spanish branch my Latino relatives went to, but that was the only place we saw them. Paul and I were a bit frightened of them, anyway; my dad had told us some cautionary stories that we had taken to heart.
But even such minimal contact turned out to be too much. My family began preparing to move to Manteca, ostensibly to help my dad expand his paralegal work. The strange thing was, we weren’t supposed to tell anyone about the move. In fact, the move itself occurred the same day my father was released from the bishopric. It wasn’t until almost a decade later that I finally found out that we had moved specifically to get away from my relatives on Heidi’s side of the family.
This was one more step away from my Latin roots. I was raised so white that recently when I asked some old high school friends if they had perceived me as white or Latino at school, they chuckled and said, “I don’t know, man. You were just Mike.” My Latin roots had been covered over. I never knew that pictures of Paul and me as children with our Guatemalan family even existed until I was a teen and found some hidden in my parent’s closet.
Despite our move, Heidi’s side of the family continued to keep in contact with us. With permission from my dad and Chareine, they attended my high school graduation, but their presence upset Chareine’s father, whom I loved as a grandfather.
I tried to bring some of my Latino roots with me on my Spanish-speaking mission to Dallas, Texas thinking that they would be useful. But my mission president warned me that I would likely not be accepted as Latino. “You do not speak Spanish natively,” he told me. “You are not Latino enough.”
I blew his warning off and, in an attempt to build relationships of trust, told people that my mother was Guatemalan.
Their eyes would immediately narrow. “Why don’t you speak Spanish, then?” they would ask.
“My mother abandoned us when we were children.”
“A Guatemalan mother would never do such a thing. Your father must have done something wrong.”
And downhill from there.
Branch members took to calling me Chicano, which, to them, meant “not Latino enough.” One Mexican woman I taught yelled this epithet at me from her porch, flipping me off with both hands.
But it seemed that everyone adored the white missionaries. So, I eventually stopped telling people about my Guatemalan mother. When someone would remark on my brown skin, I’d chuckle and say, “I know. I’m just a brown white man.”
The covering over of my Guatemalan heritage carried over to my career. For a long time, I would use a translator when consulting with Spanish-speaking patients. I was embarrassed by how badly my Spanish had deteriorated and I didn’t want patients asking questions about my brown-ness. I started to realize that people saw themselves reflected in my racially ambiguous face. White people assumed I was white. People who spoke Spanish assumed I spoke Spanish. And, as I pointed out at the beginning of this essay, I’ve also been pegged as Japanese and East Indian.
However, I’m mostly seen as white by the people around me: my colleagues, ward members, friends. This would probably make my father, Chareine, and Heidi happy. They knew that to be white is to have privileges. I’m also pretty sure that Heidi valued whiteness over brown-ness. She only married white men, and she didn’t give the children from her second marriage Latin-sounding names. Neither did she teach any of her children Spanish. She always distanced herself from her Guatemalan origins. And the whiteness they taught me has bestowed privileges that I might not have had if I were more apparently Latino.
I discovered how true this was when Donald Trump was elected.
I saw how scared my female friends were, my LGBT friends, my black friends, my Latino friends. And I decided to push back against the protection my apparent whiteness gave me. It was time to make my brown body a part of the conversation.
I started by having a purple, flat-brimmed hat made which said, “Bad Hombre,” protesting Donald Trump’s racism. I would sometimes wear it with a flannel shirt, the top button closed. I bought purple shoes and eventually a purple T-shirt printed with a custom design of the Mayan goddess Ix Chel—the words “Brown Orgullo” (Brown Pride) beneath it.
This was a huge switch from what I had worn before. And my new wardrobe seemed to change the perception of those who had previously treated me as white, from colleagues to strangers.
I walked into department stores and saw how people suddenly postured themselves, as if I were a threat. A white man who said he didn’t have jumper cables suddenly found them when he saw my white wife. Department stores that refused to let me return an item allowed my wife to return it, no questions asked. Recently a white man flashed a concealed handgun at me. Ward members have said racist things towards me. Friends have insisted that I am white.
I now attend a Spanish branch. I sit quietly in the back of the chapel with my 11-year-old daughter who does not speak Spanish at all. She comes with me so I won’t be lonely. We play a little game where I write Spanish words on a paper tablet with their English translations on the other side. She listens to the Spanish speakers carefully and puts a checkmark by the Spanish words when they pop up in a talk.
I’ve changed my name on Facebook to Miguel Barker-Valdez, following the Latino tradition of including one’s mother’s maiden name in one’s last name. I also identify myself as Miguel Barker-Valdez on the podcasts I participate in for Rational Faiths.
At the clinic, I wear my bow ties, tailored shirts, and cufflinks. One of my cufflinks has the Guatemalan flag with a Quetzal bird on it. I now speak Spanish, however inexpertly, with patients who prefer it. Yeah, they might think I’m a bit of a Chicano, but I’ve decided to own that, too. I now have a shirt with a closed fist and the words, “Chicano Power” on it.
I’ve been other people’s Rorschach test for most of my life, bringing their assumptions and prejudices to the surface. But I’ve started to realize that the most important person to respond to my Rorschach test is me. What do I make out of my mixed heritage, my upbringing, my history, my family?
These are my choices; the acts that create me.