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Uniting my roots into one identity

Posted on Dec. 8, 2006

Hispanic, Irish, Japanese, African-American, American Indian, Caucasian – everyone has had to pick one or any of the other 20 options before in their lifetime. SATs, college applications and even MySpace provide check boxes to give us a label. Ethnicity is, and will probably always be, a complex and touchy issue. Especially in the melting pot that has become the United States, finding a check box that suits you can be difficult. Like many, I can fill out several check boxes: Mexican-American, Italian, Caucasian and other. To be somewhat exact, I am 50 percent Mexican-American, 25 percent Italian and the other 25 percent what I like to call “American mutt.” Knowing these backgrounds, I guess you can say I look the part; however, my Mexican heritage always seems to throw people off.

This background comes from my mother’s side, also known as the Garcia side. Sure we have our share of Mexican food at family gatherings, but the roots to our culture pretty much end there. My full-blooded Mexican mother cannot speak a word of Spanish.

Her mother thought it was better my mother and her three siblings be raised speaking English. My grandmother did not want to face any discrimination; and at the time in the 1950s and ‘60s speaking Spanish at school was discouraged.

It’s a shame changes in time and cultural expectations have prevented my grandmother’s next generation to have barely any knowledge or cultural bond.

On the opposite side, I have known and recognized myself as an Italian for as long as I can remember. My father’s mother, Antoinette, was born in Italy and brought to the United States at just a few weeks old. The food, traditions and even some of the language has become embedded in the family.

My different tendency to each heritage has always boggled my mind. This divergence preaches loud that discrimination does not just affect that generation, but has a ripple effect on the family tree.

Brown thick hair, light brown eyes, tan skin and a classic name like Nicole Knight has always confused people on “what I am.” I’ll show up for an interview in-person after previous phone conversation and people are surprised I am the same Nicole Knight. Some have even admitted to me that they expected me to be a blonde-hair, blue-eyed gal.

Knight, which may have distant roots back to England, came out of my grandfather’s side, who were born and breed out of Arkansas. The Knight side is definitely all-American; we even opened the first hamburger stand named “Mama Knight’s” in the early 1900s in Arkansas.

It wasn’t until high school that I truly identify my ethnicity. Primarily Dutch, my high school was founded and still hosted a plethora of dairy farmers’ children. Growing up with phrases like, “If you ain’t Dutch, you ain’t much,” my Mexican-Italian features stood out against the platinum blondes with crystal blue eyes.

Even coming to the University of La Verne opened my eyes to a wider spectrum of diversity – which can say a great deal considering ULV is not the most diversified school in Southern California.

No matter what part of me I identify with – my character is still the same. Although ethnicity seems to count for a large part of self-identity and worth today, I believe it’s just another life experience that shapes our moral fiber. Knowing where we came from accounts for such an important part of self recognition and understanding. The only shame is that differences and discrimination can stifle a person’s pursuit of their roots. Our ethnic background, whether first generation or mixture of cultures, makes us unique and binds us at the same time.

Nicole Knight, a senior journalism major, is editor in chief of the Campus Times. She can be reached by e-mail at nknight@ulv.edu.