“But You Were Raised White”

I am the bi-racial product of an interracial marriage. It’s something I wear as a badge of honor. My ethnic makeup is evidence of progress, of a willingness to see beyond racial and ethnic boundaries for the sake of love.

I am deeply proud of both of my parents. It took me a long time to get there with my father. He was born in the United States but spent his early years in Mexico. He was a Mestizo – my grandfather Mexican and my grandmother a Mexican Indian. They fled Mexico under bizarre circumstances, leaving a life of success and wealth for a cobbler’s shop in the border town of Douglas, Arizona. Apparently my grandfather was tough to live with and my dad became the same way. He was a hard man and a mean one. He hurt my mother and me deeply, and on more than one occasion. He was a sinner and I saw that sin up close.

His sins are his own and yet he did not sin alone. In many ways, he was a product. The product of a hard father. The product of Mexican traditions and values that expect men to be a certain way. The product of a world that wanted him to remain in his place and not rock the boat. The product of the shame he felt when he had to downplay his ethnic heritage to succeed in White America. His sins are his own and yet he did not sin alone. I think I understand that more today than I did before he died.

It didn’t take me nearly as long to be proud of my mother. God graces the world with few women as strong as her. She was born to a poor family struggling to get by in Wales. They had little but their family. I’ve heard the stories of what it was like for her to grow up poor and it is because of her fighting spirit that such poverty remained stories and nothing more. She is one of the hardest workers I know. As a child, she studied hard and had the mind to excel. She may have started her life in poverty, but today she holds two Masters degrees, is the principal of an elementary school, and still hears from former high school math students who hold “Miss” in high regard.

She is the one who persevered when I was working through the angst of a broken relationship with my father and anger at the world. She is the one who refused to cave when I fought going to church or youth group. She is the one who put up with the punk-rock band rehearsals that took place in the bedroom down the hall. When faced with the unenviable situation of raising me in large part by herself all the while shielding me from the worst parts of my father, she rose to the occasion. And in my humble opinion, she did quite the job.

The obvious result was that I was raised white, more Welsh than Mexican, more Anglo than not. My Mexican father was an object of fear while my white mother provided comfort and refuge. The only family I really knew was the family an ocean away. Having been rejected by the Mexican side of my family, I found connection in the living room of my Welsh Nana and the laughter of my Aunts. Her house was a damp stroll from a gas station that sold the best candies Wales had to offer: chocolates with fruit flavors and pastels coated in sugar. They were much better than the spicy Mexican candies I had tasted only a few times back home.

Yes, I was raised white. But the truth is, when people see me they don’t see my mother’s struggle. They don’t see the hard work she put in to make me the man I am today. They don’t think of her story. No, when people hear my name they aren’t whisked away to the Welsh capitol. When they see the color of my skin (at least in the summer) and the structure of my face they do not see a white man. I am brown. They see my father’s eyes, my father’s smile, and hear my father’s voice. It is the pigment of my father’s skin that makes the most immediate impression.

How I was raised has little to do with how people perceive me in those first pivotal moments. Yes, after some time of getting to know me, you’ll learn that my love for sports came from my mom. You’ll discover that I support the Welsh national team with a fervor that I can’t manage to muster for the Mexican team. To be honest, if the two teams met in the World Cup, I’d be cheering for Wales. You’ll find that I don’t know Spanish (although I am learning now) and am virtually ignorant of Mexican history.

And so it surprises people when I say things or stand for things that betray my ethnic heritage. It comes as a surprise when I mourn for my fellow Latinos as they are exploited in the fields of Arizona and Southern California. They’re not ready when I refer to the Mexicans who have made it to the United States as refugees. They don’t expect that I would feel a solidarity with my Black brothers and Sisters as they mourn injustices and weep over children lost to a violent and biased American system. It is not a solidarity built on a flimsy agreement about public policy. It is a solidarity found in the American minority experience.

And so, in understandable confusion, they say “But you were raised white!”. And that’s true, I was. But that doesn’t make me any less brown. My privilege, a privilege that most Hispanics in this country do not have, does not change which box I check on a questionnaire. It does not stop people from turning to me for a “Latino perspective” or expecting me to have opinions about telenovelas (true story). My privilege is a tool to be used for those without, to lift them up and help their voices be heard.

Yes, I was raised white. But that’s only part of who I am! God has fearfully and wonderfully knit me together to be a Brixican man, each section of that word indispensible. Each part – British, Mexican, American – informs my worldview and shapes my passions and beliefs. And now, Jesus has claimed me and is using his Spirit to fashion me into something new! But the newness does not exclude the ethnic identity. It does not deny the worth found in being a British-Mexican-American.

I was raised white. For that, I am thankful. I am also brown. And for that, I am thankful.

Marcos Ortega

Marcos Ortega (MDiv, Westminster Theological Seminary) is an Assistant Pastor at Goodwill Church (Evangelical Presbyterian Church) and lives in the Hudson River Valley in New York with his wife and two daughters.

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