When I 'came out' as Mexican

Cinco de Mayo: What you need to know
Cinco de Mayo: What you need to know

    JUST WATCHED

    Cinco de Mayo: What you need to know

MUST WATCH

Cinco de Mayo: What you need to know 01:09

Story highlights

  • Elizabeth Elizalde: I was teased because I "looked Mexican"
  • My father was the only direct link I had to my Mexican heritage, she says

Elizabeth Elizalde is a New York-based freelance journalist. Born and raised in New York City, she is a recent CNN en Español intern and is a member of the New York chapter of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. The views expressed are her own.

(CNN)On Sundays, I make tacos and my famous guacamole for my family. Food bonds us, and it's a way for me to keep in touch with my Mexican heritage. And yet, although my childhood was full of culture, adventure and happiness, for years I denied that I was Mexican. In fact, I finally came out as Mexican only a few years ago.

Elizabeth Elizalde
Born in New York City to an Ecuadorian mother and a Mexican father, my family always told me that I had the best of both worlds. I traveled to Mexico and Ecuador. I loved my abuelita's Mexican cooking -- enchiladas, yes please.
But I was teased in my New York school because I "looked Mexican." I was told to "Go back to Mexico!" by a classmate. The few other Mexican students at my school were also made fun of by other Latinos. I never understood why discrimination existed among us.
I live in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn, and my parents enrolled me in a military school, predominantly Puerto Rican and Dominican. It was the best decision they made. If I had gone to public school, things could have been worse. After all, I had heard all about the fights in the public schools in my neighborhood.
My father wanted to protect me from the discrimination and the fighting. He told me his car was keyed and "wetback" was spray-painted across the window, all because he had a Mexican flag hanging from his mirror. His job at South Street Seaport was worse. He worked a 15-hour shift each day, packing fish and shrimp, barely earning minimum wage while being called a "beaner."
"Don't say you're Mexican," he would tell me.
But his attempt to protect me from the cruelties of society only made me doubt my identity.
At home, I did embrace my Mexican-ness. I would secretly confiscate my dad's Angeles Azules' albums and hide in my room to play them on my Walkman. I imagined myself being in Mexico as the romantic Cumbia beats gently played through my headphones.
Trapped in a bubble full of anguish and despair, I tried to figure out who I was. I confided to my mother that I couldn't handle the pressure of lying. I battled low self-esteem and depression during my teens, which contributed to my shyness. I felt very ashamed, and I thought if I'm ever going to come out as Mexican, why couldn't I look like Thalia or Selena?
Instead of hanging out with friends, I stayed home to read and write, excelling in English class and receiving honors.
One day while my dad drove me to middle school, he turned the volume up to blast his Norteño music, embarrassing me to the core. I quickly turned off the radio, worried that someone heard the music. "Dad, what are you doing?" I said. He chuckled and kissed me on the forehead. I knew he didn't want to keep our Mexican-ness a secret anymore.
But by then, for me, the damage had already been done, and I continued to lie throughout high school.
Mexicans have always been a big part of American society, but not in New York. It wasn't until recently that New York saw a significant jump in its Mexican population. According to Laird Bergad, director of the Center for Latin American, Caribbean, and Latino Studies at the City University of New York Graduate Center, in 1990, there were 58,000 Mexicans living in New York City. By 2010, this number had jumped to 340,000.
I was born in 1993, a product of that mass immigration to New York. My father had come to the United States from Mexico in 1991, walking through the Tijuana desert and swimming the Rio Grande. He married my mother in 1992.
She was already a resident and obtained her American citizenship in 1994. She told me to be proud of who I am and encouraged me to embrace my multiple cultures. She also convinced my father to get his documents. He studied day and night, took the exam, and became an American citizen in 2004.
My father was the only direct link I had to my Mexican heritage, and when my parents divorced in 2006, he left and took everything of his that could have taught me more about being Mexicana. Their separation made me even more depressed. However, in a way it also came as a bit of a relief because I no longer had my father to tell me to lie.
And, in fall 2011, I came out as Mexican.
It was during my first semester at Brooklyn College. The diversity on campus, the same one my mother attended, amazed me and encouraged me to make new friends. "Wow, they (students) look just like me!" I said to her. She was glad I had found my comfort zone.
The campus was my haven: an artistic, colorful and warm environment that welcomed me with open arms where students have the opportunity to learn about each other's cultures and traditions.
With my caramel complexion, straight long brown hair and petite stature, I now feel very much Mexican, as well as Ecuadorian and American. I even got a tattoo to merge my pride of these cultures: the skull of a condor on the right side of my ribs represents Ecuador's national bird and a headdress adorned with feathers represents my indigenous Mayan ancestors.
I love both my parents, and I appreciate that they tried to protect me from the hurtful stereotypes imposed on Mexicans. And that long journey to discover my cultural identity, as difficult as it was, has taught me to love myself. I have learned how to embrace how complicated being Latina can feel. And I'm thankful that I have.