Being Brown in the USA Race, Ethnicity, and the Struggle for Identity

“When I looked in the mirror, I hated what I saw there, I hated who I was.  I saw brown, and I hated being brown.”

While “brown” isn’t a race, people are often stereotyped based on their appearance and skin color, including the spectrum of “brownness.”  And for many Latino youth, this can lead to serious issues with identity, particularly when they don’t fit the stereotype.

For Alan*, the journey to self-acceptance has been hard, lonely, and hurtful.  Many look at him and see another young Spanish-speaking Mexican immigrant, struggling to make ends meet through jobs that require hard physical labor and little education.  But this perception is far from reality.

Alan was born in the US to middle-class Hispanic parents; his family’s immigrant story includes Mexican-born migrant workers in California, European Jews fleeing persecution, and ancestors from Spain.  Alan didn’t grow up speaking Spanish.  “I’m learning,” he jokes.  “Even though I look Latino, I’m different, I don’t feel like one of them, because of my language and culture.”

I often encounter youth like Alan who get lost in their search for identity and belonging.  They resent being labeled “Mexican” when they are, in fact, Salvadoran, Nicaraguan, or Colombian.  An immigrant family of four from Nicaragua moved from a small apartment in a school district with a relatively large Latino population to a more rural school district, where they purchased a house in a better, safer neighborhood.

Their son, Andres*, was one of the only Latinos in his new middle school.  He was called “the Mexican kid” by his peers, and no amount of explaining about his heritage made any difference.  He soon came to hate school.  He was ashamed of his family’s language, culture, and ways of doing things, and he soon began hanging out with the “wrong kind of kids.”  His parents no longer knew his friends, he was experimenting with drugs and alcohol, and obsessed with gang culture.  The family finally made the difficult decision to move back to a neighborhood with more Latino immigrants and racial diversity, a school where their son felt less isolated as a Latino immigrant.

Like Andres, many immigrant youth experiment with alcohol or drugs or negative behavior simply to fit in with a particular group, usually “American” peers.  Marisol*, a 9th grader, was finishing her first year at a new, predominantly white school, and two girls asked her to watch the bathroom door while they were in a stall using drugs.  Her reason?  “I wanted them to like me, I wanted to have friends.  No one had asked me to do anything all year, and I thought they would be my friends.”  When the girls were caught by a teacher, the girls insisted it was the “Mexican” girl who had put them up to the incident.  It was Marisol who ended up suspended and who spent a year in Alternative School, primarily because she was ashamed to tell her parents what had happened.

Some youth “choose” not to be smart at school, because they only see “white” kids in advanced classes.  When asked about their grades in 8th grade, Javier and José stated that they would “be smart next year, when it counts.  It’s not cool to be smart.”  Javier, a US citizen whose parents are Guatemalan, is now a Marine.  “I was pretty stupid back then,” he says.  “Thank goodness I had adult mentors and people who cared about me who helped me get over that!”  And José is a college student, holding down two part-time jobs to pay his way through school.

Others deal with the pain of social isolation and identity by self-mutilation or attempts at suicide.  A recently-arrived teen from Guatemala, Daniel,* was identified as being at a high risk for suicide and was hospitalized.  He had just begun experimenting with self-mutilation, and his mom was terrified.  “I just don’t understand,” she said.  “We give him everything he needs.”  His parents couldn’t identify with Daniel’s feelings of being “stupid” in school as he struggled with English, with his sense of loss at no longer living in a rural village with grandparents who had been like parents the past 8 years, or with his struggle to accept his place as the oldest sibling in his US family.  “My mom left me,” says Daniel in Spanish.  “And now she brings me here, to be with my ‘family,’ and everything is supposed to be OK.  It doesn’t work like that.  I need some time.”

These types of situations baffle immigrant parents, who wonder why their children can’t embrace the opportunities they’ve worked so hard to provide.  While the stories of Andres, Marisol, Javier and José, and Daniel are all different, they have all struggled with issues of race, ethnicity, and culture.  They’re all second generation immigrants, caught between two worlds.  Through counseling and pastoral care, I help families understand this struggle for identity, the competing cultural values in their children’s lives, and the challenges of raising children in another culture.  And I help the teens know that it’s OK to be

Today, Alan no longer hates his brownness.  He’s a college student with plans for seminary and eventually earning a Ph.D., with a focus on Latino/Hispanic theology.  Thanks to caring individuals who recognized his struggle for cultural identity, he has moved beyond perception and embraced his Latino heritage as a positive force in his life.

“I’m still defined by being brown, but that’s OK.  Jesus is brown, too.”

By Sue Smith, D.Min., MSW, LSW

*Names have been changed

Many Ways to Welcome Immigrants Campers at Passport support ministry efforts among immigrants

The camp offering from Passport Camps this summer will go to Cooperative Baptist Fellowship work in the Rio Grande Valley, to Touching Miami with Love in Miami, Florida and to Virginia-based LUCHA Ministries.  “We’re honored to be featured by Passport,” says Sue Smith, Executive Director of LUCHA. “We’re glad to have had a part in shaping this summer’s focus and helping campers learn how to reach out to new immigrants in their schools, churches, and communities.”

What we do at LUCHA is Connected to a Larger Network

After learning about thousands of unaccompanied children traveling north from Central America last June, Passport called on Rick McClatchy, Coordinator of CBF TX to learn more. He introduced Passport to Diann Whisnand, CBF field personnel working in the border town of McAllen, Texas. Whisnand, who works involves literacy training and English as a Second Language, became involved in joint efforts of local ministries responding to the influx of people overwhelming the city. “Cooperative Baptists provided pallets of water,” says Whisnand, “Catholic Charities provided a welcoming space, and the Salvation Army made soup. We all worked together.”

Many of those who came from Central America last year have now made their way to families in New York, Virginia, Florida and California.

Sue and Greg Smith, co-founders of LUCHA, work among the Latino community in Fredericksburg, VA. “Many of the people from Central America are fleeing gang violence and crime.” said Sue Smith. “Unlike others who have immigrated to the United States, many now arrive traumatized by violence and are in need of a different kind of support.” One report estimates that there are ten murders in the city of San Salvador every day. It is not uncommon for children to have witnessed a murder.

In Homestead, Florida Wanda Ashworth Valencia works at Touching Miami with Love, under the direction of Jason and Angel Pittman. “Sometimes Miami is called a first-third world city,” says Jason Pittman, “because of the large discrepancy between the extremely rich and the extremely poor.” The Pittmans work in Overtown, an historic African American neighborhood, while Wanda offers similar community development work in Homestead, which serves a largely Hispanic population.

“What’s with the Dolls?”

Passport 2015 Emphasis 2These handmade dolls are a symbol of welcome for the many immigrant children who come to the United States.  The Welcome Dolls were created by a Women in Ministry group from College Park Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, North Carolina and sent to Diann Wisnand in Texas, where they were distributed to newly-arrived immigrant children.   Each child also received a note of encouragement, reminding them to think of God’s love and care as they hug their dolls.

Many Latino children who arrive in the US are reunited with their parents after many years of being apart.  They’ve been living with grandparents or other relatives while their parents came to the United States to work and establish a home before sending for them.  They don’t speak English, they don’t know their parents personally, and they’re grieving over the people and things they’ve left behind.

“The adjustment is hard on everybody,” says Sue Smith of LUCHA.  “Ministries such as ours focus on helping the whole family understand that it’s not an easy process. It takes time.”  Programs focus on practical aspects of adjustment, such as homework assistance to help children in school, ESL to encourage language proficiency, and adult language and literacy programs to help parents become more engaged in their children’s education.

And then there’s the emotional adjustment.  Parents have dreamed of having their children with them, and children have dreamed of coming to the states to live with Mom and Dad.  But there are challenges.  The kids are essentially entering a “new” family, learning the rules and getting to know each other.  It’s frustrating for parents, and it can be lonely for the new children.

Maria*, who arrived from Guatemala at age 12, says that it was really hard to adjust.  “I didn’t know my parents or my little brothers.  I felt stupid in school because I couldn’t speak English.  People laughed at me.”  But she says it was her church friends and youth leaders who made a difference.  Some helped with homework, others practiced English with her.  “They didn’t laugh at me, and they made me feel welcome.”

Today, Maria is 16 and is one of the young people who attends Passport with her church.  Not only has Passport taught campers about welcoming immigrants, but they’ve modeled it by welcoming many of these children and youth in camp.

*name changed to protect identity