I will never forget the moment. His name was Justin and he wore a lot of black clothing and Anti-Flag (the band) shirts and torn up skater shoes. We lived in the same neighborhood and skateboarded together*. None of this matters, really. It just feels nice to recall this image after what he told me one random day at a random moment: “You have sideburns. You’re a girl.”
I remember being completely stunned into silence. Embarrassed, mostly. Up until this moment, I always noticed the peach fuzz that seemed a little “extra” on the side, but ignored it. Justin’s cruel comment sent me on a spiral of doubt and shame in how I saw myself each time I looked in the mirror. So, what does an adolescent tenth-grader do in this case? She shaves ’em off.
That’s right. I was mortified to the point of altering my appearance. Friends, I took a razor to those little hairs and swore them off. This was all done years after I began shaving my “hairy” arms in middle school after similar comments. I felt like baby Grinch when he shaved — empowered, but mortally wounded on the inside.
I’m telling you all this at the ripe age of twenty-nine because I recognize how I robbed myself of a small portion of my identity as a Mexican woman. My little hairs, though thick, were representative of who I am. And if my hair was any indication of the self-shame I wore, I’m curious if would it have been any different for me had I gone through life with the last name I was born with: Sanchez.
When I was young, my mom and a step-dad (different than the one I have now), opted to have my last name changed to his last name “Jones.” Suddenly, I was a Jones living in Texas and not a Sanchez, much to my dad’s dismay. (Lest I stray, I cannot even begin to express his disappointment in my nonexistent Spanish-speaking skills.)
In a Sociology class on race and ethnicity, I learned we carry so much of our identity in our name. Whether you’re Heather O’Donnell or Deepa Iyer or Breanna Sanchez, our roots can begin with our given names. This especially applies when it comes to resume building and job applications.
I thought about this the most as we discussed identity in names in class. What success, if any, would have I had if Breanna Sanchez showed up on a submitted job application and not Breanna Jones? What would the assumption be? Would they assume I’m bilingual? Or that I have a heavy accent? Or that I immigrated here and I am green card status? This may all seem ridiculous, but they are not off-base. These Mexican stereotypes flood media, and if we pay attention, we will see just how pervasive they are. I would have most likely been another resume tossed to the side, never given a chance.
And that’s just with the last name Sanchez.
I should probably point out that I no longer shave my sideburns. I don’t even remember when I stopped. I am sure I realized how silly it had been that Justin, of all people, made a comment about my appearance. I probably understood shallow guys didn’t mind a girl with some Latin in her. (This proved true.)
I’m now a Sweeney, which is what happens when you marry an Irish dude. This, however, doesn’t mean I still don’t think about or even miss being a Sanchez. Especially during this time of racial tensions. I feel like I missed something when I became a Jones** and, in this case, was swallowed up in a dominant White culture. It wasn’t until much later — on my own accord — that I learned the depths and history of my family tree from Mexico and Native American culture.
So, here I am. A little fuzzy and proud of every inch of who I am and have become. I hope to one day carry this truth forward with our son or daughter as they begin to understand the beauty of their race, ethnicity, and heritage.
*My attempt at skateboarding was short-lived, but man was I cool!
**Not to say that Jones is necessarily assigned to only White culture.