China cochina, Hershey's Bar... they were names that kids called each other at my elementary school. In a Fanonian phenomenon children of one persecuted race insulted another. My Japanese friend became "dirty Chinese girl." Light-skinned Mexicans insulted darker ones. I do not specifically remember being called names, but at an early point in my childhood I came to understand that gringa salada was Spanish for "white trash."
In Mexico City, as well as in the states, race and identity play a large roll. My light-skinned professor is addressed as guerra in the market. Those from the city are chilangos. White women and men grace every billboard. With rare exception the beggars are invariably more indigenous. And while my appearance gets me noticed, I can barely scratch the surface of what I am sure is a complicated system of ethnic politics.
What I do know is where I come from. My mother's side is mostly Irish, my grandmother's grandfather having fled the homeland during the Great Famine. My father's side, as far as I can tell, were English before they inhabited the deep south. In terms of race, the first time my Irish patriarch saw a black man and his son bathing in New York he ran in fear of having seen the devil--the darkest skin in Ireland is that of a potato. My southern great grandmother thought black people were great and that everyone should own one.
The point is not that I am either proud or ashamed of my family's origins but that I know them. They are part of my identity. And so it surprised me the other day to learn that a classmate of mine knew nothing of hers. We had all assumed she was Latina, but when asked she simply said that she did not know--she was adopted.
Race says very much about a person and nothing at all at the same time. The election of a black president this year in the US meant a tremendous amount to a lot of people. And yet at the same time Obama is genetically indistinguishable from any other American. At most times I could care less about my ancestors. I am big on determining my own destiny and family history is something so distant that rarely concerns me. But by the same token how one appears in society opens some doors and closes others. To say that I carry nothing of my family would be a lie. This girl also has ancestors. When people look at her, she falls in to their categories, creates expectations. And somehow, she got here. To not know where you come from is a terribly liberating thing.