A Self-Professed Citizen of the World Ponders His Hybrid Heritage : Asian Latino's Journey of Self-Discovery Has Led Mark From Castro's Cuba to L.A.

As an Asian Latino, Samuel Mark represents a unique hybrid that has blended naturally into Los Angeles' urban formula. Born in Havana in 1951 to parents of Chinese, Korean, Spanish and Mexican ancestry, he and his sister were sent by their parents to the United States in 1960 to dodge Fidel Castro's Cuba. They reunited with their parents in Long Beach two years later. Despite his Asian features, Mark considers himself a Latin American. "I never felt that I was Asian ; I just looked Asian. I was Cuban." His three USC degrees, including a doctorate in Spanish, reflect his deep interest in claiming his Latino identity, an issue he struggled with as he grew up in a racially tense United States. As an administrator at USC, he created the Office of Hispanic Programs and co-founded the Institute for Hispanic Media and Culture. He has written extensively for English and Spanish publications, including a monthly column on education in VISTA magazine. In 1987, Mark was knighted by King Juan Carlos I of Spain in recognition of his work promoting Latino culture in Southern California. He is now USC's assistant vice president of civic and community relations, where he serves as liaison to the Latino communities surrounding the university. He was interviewed by Enrique Lavin.


After the Cuban revolution, my family was pleased. There was a great feeling of hope, but at that time, of course, people didn't know Fidel Castro was a Communist.

I was 9 when I arrived in the United States with my 10-year-old sister, a year after the revolution. By that time, everybody knew that it was communism, especially the Chinese, many of whom had experienced the same in China. So the Cuban Chinese community were some of the first to leave. We were aware of that because my grandfather was a prominent member of the Chinese community in Havana.

My sister and I were attending a Presbyterian school, and my parents pulled us out because the schools had been taken over by the government, and they started to change the curriculum in order to indoctrinate the population.

My sister and I spent a period as refugees in Miami, living in an apartment with her godfather from 1960 to 1961. It was real tough for me. Although we had English classes in Cuba, we actually learned English in Texas City, Tex., while living with an aunt after leaving Miami. When my parents arrived with my younger brother in Long Beach, we flew to meet them there through the Family Reunification Program in 1962.

Shortly afterward I went to Lincoln Heights Junior High and then I went to Belmont High. The changes were difficult.

When I was growing up in Cuba, I didn't feel like I was not Cuban. I think everybody thought that way regardless of what you looked like. I found that it is in this country that people are very conscious about your physical aspect. I never felt inferior there, and from what I hear, Cuba is now virtually colorblind.

I think it's the culture. The Hispanic culture, which is Mediterranean, has always been a mixture of people. So mixes of people are just a fact of life. That phenomenon, what we call the mestizaje , is not as common among, let's say, Northern Europeans.

I'm Latino because I was born in Latin America. Then while in Los Angeles, I grew up with Mexicans, Chinese and blacks. Belmont High is a very international school. And when I went to college, we were going to school with people from all over the world.

Now I know more about Spain or Mexico than I know about Cuba. So I don't say I'm Cuban anymore. What do I know about Cuba? I don't think my work with the Latino community is because I'm Cuban, but that certainly helps.

I would not have this job if I had not had the background that I do. My responsibility is the Latino community. Being a mixture helps because you don't have the potential conflict of being Mexican or Salvadoran and feeling obligated to serve only Mexican or Salvadoran interests.

When I speak on the phone, I speak mostly Spanish and people can't place where I'm from. And when they come in to see me, it's amusing to see how they react. They can't believe it's the same person. The negative side is that some people are not comfortable dealing with me because I don't look like their conception of what a Latino should look like, but those people are the minority.

When I was in Texas, it was practically forbidden to speak Spanish in school. And of course there was discrimination against blacks; they were totally ostracized. Then when I came here, it was still uncomfortable not being white. So even though I was in schools that were primarily Mexican and Mexican American and with Chinese friends, there was this big push toward assimilation.

I went through a period where you sort of aspired to be white. Not being white, you just felt inferior. And so when I arrived for my freshman year in college, I was ashamed to speak Spanish in public--it got to that point.

But like many people who eventually become politicized, I felt the need to rediscover my roots. From the very first semester I started in college (Claremont Men's College, now Claremont McKenna College), I tried to discover what I was, particularly the Latin American side. I enjoyed studying Spanish very much, and in a sense, it served the purpose not only of finding my identity, but of building my self-esteem as well.

It was very traumatic for me going to college, because I was placed in a very white, hostile environment. I was unprepared at 18. After the first year, I transferred to USC because I couldn't stand it.

At that time, I was not interested in pursuing the Asian side of my background--perhaps because of lack of familiarity, or possibly I undervalued it. Maybe it goes back to that period in junior and senior high school where there was such a push to assimilate that I didn't want to identify with the Chinese kids because they were not white, or because they were being what they called an "egghead." You were supposed to dress and act a certain way, depending on how you looked. So maybe I was still resentful of being pushed into an Asian stereotype to which I didn't think I belonged.

It's only been in recent years that I've made an effort to learn more about my Asian side. I've even been taking classes in Chinese and Japanese art.

And then I went to China last May.

Being different, where in some situations you are stared at, and then going to China was liberating. I looked like everybody else, almost. They knew I wasn't Chinese, but I was just not interesting to them. That was a nice experience.

I've talked about this identity issue with friends who have similar backgrounds. The conclusion we've come to, and it may sound trite, is that we are citizens of the world. We don't really fit anywhere.

The place that we are most comfortable is here, because if I went back to Cuba, or my friend went back to Mexico, we'd feel like aliens. We've changed. We are not Cubans or Mexicans anymore; we are this hybrid.

The good aspect of this is that you have a certain distance and objectivity, a readiness to not be judgmental and to be more accepting of differences.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World