The Perpetual Identity Crisis

Ruben Martinez is the author of "The Other Side: Notes From New L.A., Mexico City and Beyond" (Vintage). This article will appear in a longer form next month in "Half and Half: Writers on Growing Up Biracial and Bicultural" (Pantheon Books)

I’ve always spent more time at movie houses or huddled next to a TV than with my nose between the pages of a book. I read only books directly related to my research and a few literary faves. Sit down with a 600-page best-selling biography? Who has time in the age of MTV?

I want to see colors rippling across a wide screen. I want a soundtrack of violins and trumpets composed by a nonagenarian Russian emigre. I want Bergman (Ingrid), Mitchum, Hayworth (nee Cansino) and Poitier forever teamed up with Curtis.

I grew up in Hollywood. Literally. ABC Studios was just across the Shakespeare Bridge in my Silver Lake neighborhood. The imposing set for D. W. Griffith’s “Intolerance” once stood about a mile from my elementary school. My alma mater, John Marshall High, has a New England-gothic facade that has served as the quintessential American high school for dozens of TV shows and movies; John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John bobby-soxed on my football field when I was a freshman.


Hollywood has given me great and terrible things--a culture as tangible as the mix of race and ethnicity I grew up around. Somewhere between my “reel” and “real” lives lie my deepest beliefs and greatest fears, my dreams and nightmares. I was a kid and now am an adult--with a perpetual identity crisis.

I was the only Latino in my elementary school until the third grade; the vast majority of students were white or Asian. My English was somewhat lacking when I began kindergarten, but there weren’t a lot of choices back in the days before bilingual education and “multiculturalism.” You either “assimilated” or you fought the dominant culture to the death. In my junior high school, a much more mixed environment, I came across Latino kids who embarked upon the latter; they were cholos who followed older siblings or parents and wore the uniform of an ethnic rebel (dickeys, hairnets) and lived a life at odds not just with white society but also with Mother Mexico. I always envied them; however troubled their lives, their style was way cool.

I, on the other hand, did everything I could to assimilate. My father, the son of Mexican immigrants, was crucial in that regard. He, too, had eschewed the cholo way of life. That his parents had made enough money to move into a middle-class neighborhood is not an unimportant detail. By living among The Other, it was much easier to become conversant in The Other’s language and perspective. Acculturation is usually as much an economic rite of passage as a cultural one.

I experienced “race” pretty much the way my father did when he was growing up, since he, too, was often the odd one among his classmates. I had to endure the occasional wetback jokes, but I stubbornly remained an assimilationist. I came to speak an accentless English, just as my father did. In fact, I was so good at mimicking the language that I sort of became the Rich Little of my class. By junior high, I was imitating John Wayne and Richard Nixon about as well as a kid with Mexican looks could.

Hollywood helped me, and hindered me, all along the way. I’ll never forget when, in the late ‘60s, the film version of “West Side Story” aired on network TV for the first time. Of course, I fell in love with Natalie Wood’s Maria, which placed me firmly in white-kid Tony’s shoes. I arrived at school the next day not thinking of having to fight the Jets--hell, I was a Jet, and a white girl named Wendy was, in fantasy, my Natalie Wood. Only in hindsight can I see the irony of a brown kid who thought he was white, and who desired a white classmate standing in for a white woman playing a Puerto Rican.

That morning at Franklin Elementary, all the kids arrived snapping their fingers, whistling and talking darkly of a “rumble” after school. I walked out of class after the afternoon bell rang and heard a pre-pubescent voice screech: “SHARK!” I looked around, but, of course, everyone was looking at me. There wasn’t any physical harm to the game, but I can point to the experience as the moment in which a schizophrenic consciousness began to grow in me.

Just about every character I saw on TV and in the movies was white, except for a handful of minor roles for blacks, Asians and Mexicans. (“Latinos” from South or Central America--like my mom, who was born in El Salvador--simply didn’t exist back then, except, of course, for the Lisbon-born Brazilian star, Carmen Miranda.) I viewed things from a white perspective, but there was something Faustian about my love affair with Hollywood’s whiteness. Sooner or later, the Mexican character appeared on the screen, almost always a stereotype, a jester whose jokes were at his own expense. This was always most obvious in the western genre, my father’s favorite.

I bought the video of John Ford’s “Three Godfathers” the other day to screen again the image of myself that I saw in my youth. The film is a simple Christ-child parable in which Mexican film legend Pedro Armendariz plays John Wayne’s sidekick. I don’t know if Ford prodded Armendariz to play a howling caricature of a Mexican or if Armendariz found the stereotype of his character through the Method, but his ethnicity becomes the comic foil for the film.

As a kid, I laughed at Armendariz’s antics (howling like a cantina character, overemoting everything), and I laugh today. I laugh at myself. It is a strange experience: You are disembodied as you laugh at the Image that represents you on the screen. Your consciousness splits and, in a desperate attempt to survive the humiliation, identifies with the subjectivity of the culture that made the film, no longer with the objectified body that once belonged to you. Lose your body as a kid a few hundred times and a reservoir of pain and rage starts to build up inside.

My first experiences of being relegated to the “outsider” role resulted from my early romantic failures. In the 10th grade, I had a terrible crush on a blond-haired, blue-eyed girl named Nancy. Her best friend, Lisa, was the object of desire of every straight boy at Marshall High.

Like Nancy was to Lisa, I was an underling to one Michael Delaney, who had remarkable green eyes and a “cute” (as the girls said) freckled face beneath a mop of jet-black hair. A curious thing about Michael--he was Irish Mexican. Clearly, his looks leaned toward his Irish father. But Michael’s mom had bequeathed him quite a bit of the maternal culture.

At any rate, Michael fell for Lisa and I for Nancy. He was French-kissing Lisa in the hallway within a matter of days. I, on the other hand, held marathon telephone sessions with Nancy, playing the “friend.” Michael soon advised me to take the plunge or risk being stuck in the platonic forever. So one night after school, he and I walked to our favorite phone booths down at the Mayfair Market. Heart pounding, I dialed Nancy’s number to ask her to go steady.

Through my first 16 years, I’d done everything I could to become white, from plucking a five-string banjo to buying Beach Boys albums. I went to the beach often--always to the “white” beach at Santa Monica, staying away from the pier, where the Mexicans hung out. But after a long day in the sun, I’d come home and notice my skin, which was no longer just brown but verging

on chocolate. I remember standing in the shower with a bar of

Irish Spring soap, scrubbing as hard as I could, hoping to soften the darkness.

Nancy never came out and said she wouldn’t date a Mexican; indeed, the thought may never have crossed her mind. And yet, I hadn’t stopped to notice that there wasn’t a single interracial couple on campus, except for a few Anglo-Asian pairings. Actually, it didn’t dawn on me that the race issue even existed until long after the sting of Nancy’s rejection had faded. It was the 12th grade, and I had another crush, on a girl whose name I can’t remember. I’ll call her Cybill because, I swear, she was the Cybill Shepherd of John Marshall High, with silky blond hair, perfect teeth and a magnificent body.

I waited the entire year to get the nerve to speak to her. It was at the last dance of the spring. I crossed the gymnasium in slow motion, my body feeling strangely light. She stood on the other side of the midcourt line, bathed in pulsating disco oranges and reds, surrounded by her entourage of girls. I don’t think she saw me until I was a yard away and I asked her to dance. She stared at me, expressionless for a moment, and then, loud enough for her lackeys to hear, she said, “With you?” To this day, I cannot ask a girl who is not my date to dance.

I looked around the dance floor with new eyes: Mexicans danced with Mexicans, blacks with blacks, whites with whites. Who the hell did I think I was?


mestizo (mes te zo) n., pl. mestizos or mestizoes. A person of mixed racial ancestry, especially of mixed European and Native American ancestry.

It was only a matter of time before I turned away from my whiteness and became the ethnic rebel. A civil war had broken out in my mother’s El Salvador, a cause that I became quite involved in. In my early 20s, I traveled incessantly through Mexico and Central America. I relearned Spanish, penned anti-gringo manifestoes, and, of course, started dating Latinas.

And Hollywood, bless its liberal soul, was right there for me. Oliver Stone romanced the revolution with “Salvador,” Gene Hackman discovered the terrible truth in Nicaragua (“Under Fire”) and even Jack Lemmon had a run-in with the fascists in South America (“Missing”). Yeah, sure, all the movies told the story through gringo eyes, but at least the story was being told--my story.

My story?

The irony of the first 25 years of my life was that I, a kid born to a Mexican father and a Salvadoran mother, was convinced that I was white, and later, I, the erstwhile white kid, renounced gringo-ness to become Latino. Both fantasies, beautiful lies, Hollywood constructs. The truth was that I was always both, the dreaded ambiguity that Hollywood hates.

Some years ago, I wrote a poem that included the line, “I am much more than two,” aping, of course, our bawdy bard, Whitman (“I am large, I contain multitudes”). And thus began what I see as the third phase of my cultural maturation, in which I’m exploring the interconnectedness of it all.

I can celebrate what I feel to be my cultural success--I’ve taken the far-flung pieces of myself and fashioned an identity beyond that ridiculous, fraying old border between the United States and Mexico, that line so important to the nativists. I am not the “melting pot,” nor do I feel myself to be the “chunky stew.” I am both Cowboy and Indian.

But my “success” is still marked by anxiety, a white noise that disturbs whatever raceless utopia I might imagine. I feel an uneasy tension between all the colors, hating and loving them all, perceiving and speaking from one and many perspectives simultaneously. The key word here is “tension”: Nothing as yet has been resolved. My body is both real and unreal, its color both confining and liberating.

The Hollywood kid in me still yearns for the happy ending. And there are clear signs that some fundamental things are changing. My family was quite the anomaly when I was growing up in Silver Lake. But my neighborhood has grown increasingly mixed. The new immigrants move in alongside the old; Mexico and Central America move into black, white and Asian enclaves. It is a demographic change taking place all over the United States.

Last spring I undertook a journey across the United States to research the phenomenon of Mexican migration and its impact on both the “‘native” and “foreign” culture. The trip was my first foray into the “heartland” of America. As I drove through the plains of East Texas toward Texarkana on I-30, an old fear rose up in me. Would the good ol’ boys see me as some kind of “fuhr-erner?”

My cultural survival strategy in Texas, Arkansas, Kentucky, North Carolina, Illinois, Missouri and Wisconsin was the same as it has been all these years: When in Rome, talk like the Romans. Language is a powerful thing, something I learned intuitively back in elementary school. Speaking the dominant culture’s language the “right way” doesn’t completely erase race, but it comes close, at least for the basics of human interaction. With accents gleaned from the likes of John Wayne, James Dean and even Billy Bob Thornton, I got along well enough.

At times, I felt, or imagined I felt, that old joy of being colorless again. And then I’d be back, smack in the middle of America’s segregation-integration wars. In Texas, some poor white guys straight out of the pen complained about “the niggers.” A black street-maintenance worker in Arkansas protested the sneakiness of latter-day white racism. And the Mexicans, who are all over the map on matters of race, spoke schizophrenically of desiring white girls and hating white bosses and sympathizing with blacks and considering blacks just a bunch of welfare freeloaders.

In the end, my journey showed me that playing the Cowboy wasn’t enough, that the Indian was just as important. Mestizo, that culture chameleon born centuries before Boy George, is the essence of my role. Among the Dominicans of Washington, D.C., the Nigerians of New York City, and the descendants of Scandinavians in the upper Midwest, I discovered parts of myself that were both new and old. The mestizo in me needs to embrace--appropriate, I mean--every influence it encounters, not to recall that I was “conquered” but that I survived. The Indian wears a cowboy hat but is no less the Indian for that fact; the Indian is ever-becoming. It’s probably the greatest lesson my father ever taught me--even if I had to laugh at Pedro Armendariz to get it.

Today, l live in the Mojave Desert, a place where mostly poor people of every color come “to forget,” in some way or another, where they came from. Kind of like immigrants. Me, I remember where I came from all too well out here. In the black, brown, yellow and white faces, I see Silver Lake and Venice Beach and El Salvador and Mexico. And more than ever before, I feel at home. For that’s the redemption for someone who’s played the role of the outsider for so many years: If you’re an exile long enough, eventually you’ll be at home wherever you are.