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Lithium Mexi-Armen-Ican: what it means to be multicultural in America

Dec. 13, 2019
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Multicultural (adjective): relating to or constituting several cultural or ethnic groups within a society. 

What about when you’re multicultural by definition, but not in practice? What about when your American life has removed you from who your blood determined you to be?

I’ve never felt like I belonged to a culture. Of course, I’ll say what I am when prompted. I’ll say that I’m Mexican and Armenian—and subsequently, that I know I don’t look like either and that I know my last name sounds white. I’ve never been ashamed of the places I come from, but I’ve never been able to embrace them either. And for a long time, my attitude about this cultural conundrum was that I could settle for not having a culture. I could shy away from conversations about Armenia because I knew I didn’t look Armenian, and I could feign ignorance toward conversations in Spanish or about Mexico because I didn’t feel Mexican. 

Recently, the countries from which my family hails were thrust into the political limelight, via the ongoing immigration crisis at the Mexican border and the passed resolution recognizing the Armenian Genocide in the U.S. House of Representatives. As much as I didn’t want to be impacted by my ancestry entering the political sphere, there’s something about heritage that transcends feelings and intentions. As soon as there was something to research regarding my countries and their relationship with America, I forced myself to get involved. 

It was tricky at first, learning about everything that’s happening at the Mexican border. I’d been somewhat aware of the contentions about immigrants coming into America illegally and legally and under asylum, but it took something stronger than headlines and social media activism to awaken me from my ignorant slumber: my grandma. I remember the moment I realized how serious the immigration crisis was. My grandma called me over to watch a segment of the 4 o’clock news in Spanish. At first I thought she was using the news as a way to get me to practice the language, but soon enough we were sitting there, transfixed. There was something infinitely saddening about sitting next to my immigrant grandmother, who felt lucky and guilty knowing she’d somehow made it to America and they wouldn’t. That’s why I knew I needed to care. It wasn’t a question of how Mexican I was anymore, it was a question of whether I was going to educate myself on an issue impacting real people, people that I share blood with no less. The more I could find out about Mexico and the border, the closer I could be to the people there.

The same thing happened when I caught news of the Armenian Genocide being recognized in the House. One Instagram story after the next bombarded my vision, each more ecstatic than the next. Naturally, I was thrilled too, until I found myself questioning if it was appropriate for me to be celebrating. Was I Armenian enough to post about it on my Instagram story? Was I Armenian enough to have the right to care? I refrained from posting, but I didn’t stop myself from researching. Researching led to questioning, and questioning led to connecting. Something special happened in that moment. Not only did I learn more about why the resolution was passed and what it meant, but I learned more about Armenia. As insignificant as it seemed, the information I acquired on my own made me feel that much more connected to my heritage. 

Educating myself on Armenia and Mexico introduced me to practicing modern multiculturalism. It might be difficult for me to learn all my family’s secret recipes or inherit all the stories and clothing and customs of generations past, but it isn’t difficult to read about what’s going on in my country and world—it really is the least that I can do. My definition of multiculturalism has always been very rigid; because I knew so little about each culture, I completely felt like a false Mexican and a false Armenian. I still think there’s some truth to that. But I’ve also come to believe that being bicultural in America can be about engaging in the happenings of where you come from and being willing to share that knowledge. It’s about balance. There’s a give and take between being educated and politically active, as well as learning about cultural customs and traditions, and to me, being multicultural in modern times means both. 

I found a testament to this balance a few weeks ago. Part of the curriculum for my AP Spanish class is learning about Spanish-speaking countries and their cultures, and my Spanish teacher stressed the importance of being bicultural or multicultural in America. “Puedes preservar la cultura de sus padres porque es parte de su persona. Definitivamente es posible ser multicultural, es excelente,” he said. You can preserve the culture of your parents because it’s part of who you are—it’s definitely possible to be multicultural, it’s excellent to embrace that. As I sat scribbling down his words, I knew their full meaning wouldn’t hit me until after the fact. I read over his words again after class, and again and again after that, internalizing the gravity of remembering where I come from. 

To me, his words meant that hailing from two beautiful, rich cultures didn’t have to be about how Mexican I look or how much I know about Armenia—it could be about how much I want to learn and how proud I am to come from there. And I can be proud by following politics and injecting myself into the bloodstream of the media however I can. The culture question has always been a hard one for me, and perhaps it always will be, but it’s a question I don’t want to shy away from anymore. Maybe I am a Mexi-Armen-Ican who doesn’t look it or speak it or know it, but I can’t change who I am. And I think I’ve finally reached a point in my life where I’m not only okay with talking about where I come from, but where I’m okay with embracing it.

Photo of Lila Sanchez