no one wants to be mexican
Central America, South America, Story

At the Bottom of the Latin American Social Totem Pole: Being a Backpacking Latina

no one wants to be mexican

One of the little known aims of our semi-recent great Latin American adventure was to make a little more sense of my culture and who I am. I wanted to see mis raices, my roots, and the culture that I came from. Born of Mexican descent (well, actually, if you really want to get technical I’m also 25% white), I’m a second generation American. I came back even more confused than when I left. I’m still grasping to comprehend what happened. While I didn’t think it was possible to become more cynical about being Latina, I was proven wrong.

Traveling as a Latina from the United States has put me in a unique situation. When sitting down to talk to other travelers, I had things happen where I couldn’t relate to other “gringa” travelers. I was stuck. I was too Latina to be a “gringa” but pegged as one when traveling with my dearest pasty husband (Please note that being Latina does not necessarily mean Mexican.). At home I have always been too “white” to be Mexican and too Mexican to be white. I float in this very confusing sea in between the two, picking and choosing the cultural norms and traditions I want to have in my life.

Being more tan than other people has both its advantages and disadvantages. My blonde counterparts would be whistled at, wolf called, and a whole slew of other sexual innuendos thrown their way. I went under the radar, unnoticed. But when it came to needing to hitch rides back into town after hikes, we were put in an interesting situation. We couldn’t get a ride. We couldn’t get people to stop. While being blonde was exotic, they looked at me with distaste. “We have plenty of YOU here.”

***I should put an addendum here. I had no issues when I was in Mexico. Mexicans loved me. They took me in. It was only when I was in Panama, Guatemala, Argentina, etc., that I received the brunt of the abuse. 

Being of Mexican descent put me in an awkward situation as well. While Telemundo and Univision are cultural bastions based out of Mexico city, I found many people throughout Latin America with very strong reactions when finding out my roots. No one wants to be Mexican. We are at the bottom of the social totem pole of in Latin America. It was like I felt like I was back in the United States, neither place really wants me there. In Argentina I even had a woman smile and very condescendingly call my Mexican Spanish “cute” and pat me on the head. People would refuse to reply to my Mexican Spanish words, and instead, correcting me when I said them. Come on guys, you know what I’m saying. What is with all the snobbery?

I am not even going to tell you about the many times I got pulled out of the immigration and customs line to have my backpack checked thoroughly. At the Argentina border, coming from Bolivia, I got a snicker from the immigration officer who didn’t believe I was an American citizen. He looked at my passport carefully, top to bottom, to check for inconsistencies. It was only when Shaun told them that I was his wife that they stopped searching my bags for drugs and told me to get out of the way as I was taking up their time. After that border check our bus got pulled over and I was placed in line for a full cavity check. Shaun saved me once again.

I had people (outside Mexico) ask me if I wear sombreros, love tequila, and if I used the word “pinche” all the time. Locals would act out in stereotypical cadences and over exaggerated movements to show me what they thought Mexicans were like. I felt like I was explaining myself to a whole new demographic. Most of all, I was hearing the same racist rhetoric I heard at home, just in a new language.

You can imagine how confused I felt when I came home. A bit more lost, a bit more concerned, and a bit more of an identity crisis in tow. While I desired to learn more about my “culture” I realized that outside Mexico, I was just as much of a stranger.

It has taken me this long to even be able to talk about it. While I’ve only shared this dark secret with close friends and colleagues, they have convinced me to share my story. I want people to know that they aren’t alone.

48 thoughts on “At the Bottom of the Latin American Social Totem Pole: Being a Backpacking Latina”

  1. I feel ya Erica! Even when I go visit my grandmother in Mexico people can tell I don’t “belong” there even BEFORE I open my taco hole. My Spanish has become significantly better but it still needs loads of work. Much of Central/South America holds a certain animosity towards Mexicans in general because of the way Mexicans have been treating Central and South Americans. There is literally a slave trade going on. They have found houses filled with (often times badly abused/ tortured) Central/ South American slaves in Mexico. I have personally not seen racism in Mexico towards other Latinos (except maybe me hahahaaa) but my cousin who was attending a local University told me about some poor girl from El Salvador who was constantly being bullied for the lack of a better word. The same issue of Latino on Latino racism is more than evident in Spain as well. And don’t get me started on how badly the Native American Mexican population is treated by their slightly less indigenous people. I’ve had people “joke” about kidnapping me for money. I usually awkwardly laugh and move the conversation into a less threatening area. Unfortunately, racism is alive and well and apparently being a slightly different shade of tan is all it takes to trigger it. I refuse to let a few bad manzanas ruin the Latin America or Spain for me. I can’t speak for certain on the topic of Spain/ South and Central America as I’ve never actually been there but Mexico is wonderful. The food, the colors, the lay of the land, the people, did I mention the food? I by no means want to discourage anyone from going as it is a wonderful place to visit and the “bad” experiences are minimal. Most people are just curious about my accent. I tend to lie through my teeth and tell them I’m from Nuevo Laredo, MX if they won’t take that I’m from whatever area I happen to be in.

  2. Sucks that you get static on both sides of the border. I think Connie Hum ( has had similar experiences in Asia.

    Perhaps you could learn to see yourself as a bridge between the two? Help Mexicans learn about Americans and Americans learn about Mexicans – without fully claiming one, or the other, culture.

    You’re a mix – That’s a good thing.

    Until reading this post I never considered your ethnicity. I’m SpIrish (Spanish/Irish mix and 2nd gen) while my father flew the Irish flag outside our front door, my mother had Tango music playing more often than not. I grew up watching Hee Haw, Wild Kingdom Speed Racer, and carving pumpkins at Halloween. It never seemed weird to that meatloaf could be served with mashed potatoes as easily as with a side of Spanish rice. We were/are American.

    When I think of you, Erica, I only think female, brunette and a helluva a lot of fun.

    1. You are so sweet Maria. While I would love to blend in no matter where I go, I forget that I live in this awesome little liberal bubble known as Austin where I’m not given a second thought. It is so weird when I leave.

      I don’t ever have problems with Mexico. Only every other country in Latin America.

  3. Wow, what a rough situation to find yourself in. I can’t imagine how confusing and at times painful that might be from a cultural identity standpoint. Much different from your experience, but somewhat relevant; I do sometimes feel that in my field of traveling I don’t quite fall into the “typical backpacker traveler” category, nor do I identify with more typical “yachties”. I’m somewhere in between, but it’s an interesting position to be in and I focus on all the unique aspects I get to benefit from on either side. I mean, how great is it that you speak spanish at all (whether or not it is “cute mexican spanish”!? Let people judge; that’s their cross to bear.

    1. Seriously! While it is their cross to bear, I unfortunately have to get the brunt of their frustration with me. Ya know? I’m always the joke.

      It is weird to navigate between cultures though.

  4. Excellent piece. As a fellow woman of color, I think it’s sooooo important for us to share our stories. I don’t think many people realize just how different traveling is for us. As an African-American woman, I’ve definitely had my fair share of bullshit thrown at me abroad. You are gorgeous and strong and amazing and the world needs to see more of us women of color traveling and loving life!

    1. One of the stories that I remember the most is your post about the little girl that screamed “AFRICCCCCCCCAAAAAAAA!” at you at the store. But really, how is this not at the forefront of discussion? Are there not enough “ethnic” bloggers?

  5. Thanks for sharing this, it’s a perspective I’ve never heard before and it’s important to always be challenging your own views of things. I remember travelling through China with a friend of mine whp had Chinese heritage but could not speak any Mandarin. He found it highly frustrating to be treated like a local, but then somewhat scoffed at when showing he was a traveller. I hope you did find out at least a little bit more about your culture, even if it wasn’t what you expected.

    1. I did. I loved Mexico. It wasn’t Mexico that treated me badly. It was every country south of that lol. I was Latina but not the right kind for them.

  6. I met a woman a few weeks back who said exactly the same thing. She’d travelled to Mexico hoping to find ‘her people’ where she would fit in and feel at home. She said it was nice to see so many people who looked exactly like her but in the end it just felt weird.

    Thanks for sharing this Erica, I’m sure there are loads of people in the same situation who can relate.

    1. The thing is, I did find “my people” – in Mexico. I loved every minute. I love the food, the nature, the people. It is when I went to Argentina, Bolivia, Panama, etc. that they didn’t like me because I was Mexican. I was in Latin America but they strongly dislike Mexican Latinos.

  7. Thanks for sharing this Erica! I think you’ve mentioned before about the contrast between you as a traveler and all of the blond girls, but this goes much deeper. I can’t imagine what it must’ve been like for you to have to deal with some of these situations.

  8. Erica, it is no secret that this is something that I share with you and that has plagued me all my life. Your 25% white comes from me and my Michigan born father. Being 50/50 with a Mexican native mother, I was often mocked, on either side of the family, as the “half-breed.”

    When I won a scholarship to law school I was ridiculed by the Chicano Law Students Association (of which I was a member)because I had been awarded the scholarship because I wasn’t “really a Chicano.” When I asked them if it would have been different if my mom had been Bullis and my father been the Rivera, I got the stupid answer – “of course, you would then be a real Chicano.”

    Never let anyone else define who you are. You know your roots, who you came from, and the culture you embrace. I find it interesting that South Americans take that view of Mexicans. The world is full of idiots.

  9. We love you! Be loud and proud and never let anyone’s arrogance or ignorance change who you are. You are better than that.

    1. <3

      I try! I just had never had racism thrown in my face by people who look like... well, me. :P I'm not letting the man get to me. I'll always continue to be who I am. :D Thanks for dropping by. We miss you something fierce.

  10. I am so sorry to read about your experiences in South America and somewhat naively amazed to read that you were treated with such prejudice and bias. I have a hard time wrapping my mind around our human need to create hierarchies and to judge others’ accordingly. I am so glad that you decided to write about your experiences so as to bring awareness to the bias that exists and hopefully to feel less as though it’s a dark secret that needs to be kept!

    1. Oh Mary, it goes past that even when I’m at home (especially being a tattooed Latina in a conservative travel industry) so it wasn’t overly surprising. I was just taken back by how prevalent it was – ya know?

      But yes, it does seem like a dark secret – both there and at home! 😛 I try not to bring up ethnicity and race just because I do consider myself American over everything else, but it is really hard to avoid in situations like that.

  11. That’s a tough thing to deal with. I experienced some of that when I was in Spain because there were people that thought my “Cuban Spanish” wasn’t appropriate, and I also got that while I was in “Mexico” but I was never ridiculed or treated like a second class citizen. I think most people assumed I was a gringo who was trying to speak Spanish as opposed to a latino. I firmly believe it’s also because I’m a dude. I guess that’s the difference when your half german and half cuban, and you look a lot more like your caucasian half. It’s funny because I often find myself in conversation with other Americans that don’t realize just how racist and sexist hispanics really are towards each other. This post really sheds some light on that issue. It was good, and brave, of you to go ahead and write this.

    1. Oh yeah – being a minority woman brings a whole other side to it as well. My poor sister used to get teased with how dark she was. I think her golden brown skin is a gift but oh man, the words that came out of some people’s mouths when we were next to each other… She may have been the “cuter” one but I was saved from ridicule for being lighter.

  12. Immigration/culture in melting pots like the US really are in tiers… I am always slightly jealous of those stuck in “purgatory.” I wish I had Italian cousins or someone making fun of my being “white!” Nope, I am just white. 🙁 I found the rest of this very irritating and fascinating. “Cute”? UGH. How rude. I am surprised about Panama, which has been the only country ever to treat my Spanish with respect! No reaction, just replied. Not “good for you for trying,” and not just responding in English. So interesting…

  13. I cannot imagine what that must have felt like for you. To be somewhere, trying to identify, and finding those people you wish to identify with being condescending and jerks. I’m so sorry. While it isn’t the same, I felt kind of similar when I recently visited Israel. I’m not religious, but I identify strongly with the Israeli people and the struggles Jewish people have had to go through. But, when I was there, even without saying anything, people would come up to me, ask me about how “Jewish” I was and when I responded saying I wasn’t that religious, they looked so upset, like I had just told them I killed a puppy. I began to just keep my mouth shut and at the airport, when security questioned what synogauge I went to in the States, I pulled one from my youth instead of explaining anything.

  14. (Violence and Cancun aside) I don’t get why Mexico is at the bottom of the social totem pole. It’s such a lovely country with so much diversity and doesn’t get nearly the credit it should. I’m sorry you feel the way you do, both in the US and in Mexico. It shouldn’t be that way.

  15. Oh, yuck. Yuck, yuck, yuck. I know I should be thinking of something more profound to say but really, when it comes to racism, perhaps it doesn’t deserve an eloquent answer. Who the hell cares where someone is from or what colour their skin is. For the love of all humanity, why can’t everyone channel their energy into something more useful and that actually makes sense! Rant over (ish.)

    It’s just awful that you’re treated badly because of the way you look. Full stop.

    I’m not sure why it feels like a dark secret to you. They’re the ones in the wrong, not you.

    And it’s not even race related. Race, accent, gender, sexuality…argh it goes on and on.

    You belong where people appreciate you for being you. You don’t want to belong anywhere else.

    Oh I could go on – but for everyone’s benefit I’ll stop now!

    So glad you published this, so sorry you experienced it.

  16. This was a fascinating post. I do think everyone has their struggles. As a blonde haired, all American girl, I often have to struggle against the over-sexualized, “loose” stereotype that so many cultures seem to have adopted re: blonde haired, all American girls (thanks Britney.) There have been many times I’ve felt uncomfortable and even unsafe and wished I’d given into my mom’s pleas to chop off my hair and dye it brown!

    However the added element of feeling betrayed by people you hoped to be embraced by us heart wrenching. Here’s hoping we’re all working towards a kinder world.

  17. Interesting perspective Erica, one I had not imagined. I guess that I never stopped to think about it, perhaps because I am male and am usually tan because of the time I spend in the ocean! It is true though that no matter where you are you always get more attention if you are different from the locals, sometimes the good one, others not.

  18. Argh, that happens to me too. I don’t stand out because I’m not blonde. I’m not mexican enough here. I’m definitely American when I go abroad. And I get double checked over my husband when we go through airport security.

    My husband and I signed up for Global Entry. He was asked by the screener fairly normal questions, like “why do you want to be a part of the program?” The screener asked me: “what’s your country of origin?” and “what is your nationality?” I was like, ” ‘Murican” (which is probably the most american answer ever).

    But, it happens. And honestly, it’s because people don’t feel comfortable. Not with you, but with themselves.

    1. Ok I clicked before I was finished 😉 Anyway, so I’m now in Argentina and whenever I tell them I’m Jewish they answer “Oh than you HAVE TO GO to Once” (which is the neighbourhood where the Jewish people live). I’m here now 2 months and haven’t visited it yet haha. I also face the drugs thing although more on the street than at customs. “Oh you are Dutch? so you smoke a joint all the time?”.

      Well, nowadays I just laugh it away =)

  19. I was shocked by the prevalence of racism in Latin America, especially in Argentina (possibly because I stayed there the longest and observed their culture the most). Then again, I feel the same way when I drive one or two hours outside of Columbus, Ohio.

    I got the comments and stares being a gringa throughout much of my travels. It was a relief when I got to Buenos Aires, and people would come up to me speaking Spanish asking for directions because I looked like them. Yes, it made me feel like I fit in, but then I saw the other side.

    I cannot imagine what it would be like to be considered a lower class just because of the way I look. I’m glad you shared your experience.

    1. Argentina was by far the worst and is why Shaun and I disagree about liking the country. He loved it. He is white and they thought he was from there. Me on the other hand… read above cavity search.

  20. Thanks for sharing this story- I think it’s important to hear these kinds of perspectives on travel. I recently wrote about dealing with racism in a different part of Latin America:

    I am surprised to hear that Mexico is considered to be at the bottom of the Latin American totem pole. It’s one of the most genuinely friendly places I’ve traveled to and it has incredible culture and some of the best food in the world. Do to you think the ideas about Mexico in other parts of Latin America has something to do with the bad publicity from the drug war or because Mexico is not as Euro-centric? Or something else altogether?

    1. I think the issue is more complex than one thing or another. It runs the same course in the States when a person gets called “Mexican” when they are from Puerto Rico or elsewhere. The disdain and contempt that people hold when it happens is the same in Latin America. Why? I have no clue.

      I haven’t even touched how one Spanish girl thought I was a cleaning lady in a hostel I was at in Panama.

      1. Yeah, I’m sure it’s a combination of things and there are probably different reasons in Guatemala than in Argentina. Some people in my family had the same issue with people assuming they were hotel workers when we were in Namibia. In certain places, some people just can’t seem to believe that someone who passes as a local could actually be a traveler…

  21. Thanks for sharing that. I cant pretend to know what it is like but it does sound very confusing and annoying where neither side fully endorses you.

  22. Hey Erica, just stumbled upon this post/blog/world. It is sad how I so completely understand how you feel. Even just with reference to being a Ugandan whose been out of Uganda for a while and is now back. Feeling lost in the identities of the places you’ve lived – and never quite being able to fit in where ever. Its something that needed to be said… good job in speaking and good on the friends who got you to do so. 🙂

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