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Nice to ‘meet’ you

Amanda Pena | Wednesday, March 6, 2013

It is human nature to make immediate judgments about the people you first meet. You draw from their exterior makeup to quickly decide what kind of person you are interacting with and whether your interaction should cease or continue. Are they smiling? “Yes, so they’re probably friendly.” Are they talkative? “Not really, so they might just be shy.” However, for minority students there can sometimes be a level of uncertainty and heightened awareness during these introductions. This is especially true at Notre Dame.
To clarify, I am not suggesting all minority students always have uncomfortable encounters; many have formed diverse friend groups and relationships in the Notre Dame community, including myself. But minus the brown sugar, my churro-colored skin tone (no Mexican pun intended), curves and thick black hair make it challenging to blend in among most of my peers. Surprisingly, though, that isn’t what makes me feel like a minority sometimes.
My upbringing in southeastern Los Angeles exposed me to a world of gangs, drugs and low-skilled, low-wage jobs. Yet here I am, a member of the Fighting Irish at the prestigious University of Notre Dame. Back home they’re cheering for me; they’re living vicariously through me and placing the pressures of paving the way for Latinos on me. But I don’t think there are many students here who know that about me, largely because few people have taken the time to get to know me and understand the challenges and pressures that have shaped my identity.
Two weekends ago at a party, I was approached by a male Caucasian student and asked, “Are you Asian?” Asian? I never heard that one before. He justified his question by pointing out how my eyeliner made my eyes appear “squinted.”
After telling him “no,” he said, “Well you must be Thai, right?” Again I told him “no.”
“Then what are you?” he inquired. I am numb to that question now – I am asked this often – so it wasn’t difficult to respond, “I’m Mexican.”
“Really,” he excitedly announced. “So what part of Mexico are you from? You speak Spanish, right?”
“No, I don’t, actually.”
He proceeded by saying, “Well, that’s weird. Are your parents immigrants? Or how did you get here?” I then explained to him my grandparents immigrated here and my parents were the first of their siblings to be born in the United States.
“Are they still illegal then?” he asked.
“No, they earned their citizenship shortly after immigrating.” I replied.
“Oh, cool. Well it was nice to meet you, Amanda” he replied before leaving to join a circle of other students.
Nice to meet me? How did he meet me? He knows nothing about me. He doesn’t know I wasn’t taught Spanish because my oldest sister’s learning disability prevented her from learning both English and Spanish. He didn’t know I don’t identify heavily with my Mexican heritage because my family is very Americanized. He never asked what my major was, what I like to do in my spare time or what dorm I live in. He made ethnic assumptions about me after I explained where the brown tint of my skin color came from, and sadly he isn’t the first person to have asked me, my friends or other students questions like these. Frequent conversations with students of color have proven this.
For what it’s worth, I know this guy did not have any ill intentions about this conversation. Most people might not even think it was that big of a deal. In fact, I didn’t think it was at first until I had a chance to reflect on it. It’s just such an awkward and unexpected thing; you choose to just roll with the punches instead of assessing the ignorance of the situation. The aftermath of a conversation like this, though, can usually evoke a series of introspective questions and feelings of self-consciousness about why you can’t seem to make genuine connections with your peers. My first thought has never been,”Maybe it’s because I’m Mexican.” It’s usually, “Do I talk too much? Am I that boring? Maybe I should have gone with the heels.”
It’s really hard to understand why I can’t fit in with the rest of this “family” Notre Dame is glorified as being, but when people ask me for guacamole recipes or make jokes about why I pick up the litter someone else left behind, it’s easier to blame this discomfort on ignorance and cultural insensitivity. Most people here have seldom taken the time to learn more about me, so I tend to embrace the role as their token Mexican friend. I am hopeful, however, that the Notre Dame community will come to appreciate the individuality of each of its students – minority or not.

Amanda Pena is a sophomore sustainable                  development studies major with a poverty studies      minor. She can be contacted at apena4@nd.edu
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.