On a sunny morning during my junior year of high school I was taking the SAT, when I got to a question that left me stumped.
It basically asked, "What race are you?"
I scanned the boxes listed on the page.
African American? No.
Pacific Islander? No.
Hispanic? Well, kinda.
White? Sort of.
My mind raced. I checked Hispanic, but I felt like a fraud.
Over nine million Americans identify as multiracial. It took a standardized test for me to question if I was one of those nine million and sit down with my parents to talk about race.
My mom, Kim Chapman, is white, and my dad, Rick Gasca, is Mexican-American. My parents got divorced when I was three, and after that, my brother and I were raised by my mom and my grandma. When we would go visit my dad’s side of the family, everything was foreign to me. I felt like there was this entire side of myself that was foreign to me.
That’s why during the SAT, I hesitated to check the Hispanic box.
I never expected my mom to teach me about my Hispanic heritage, but I did blame my dad for this lost feeling inside of me. I decided to talk to him when he came up to visit.
I turned on my tape recorder. "What box do you think I should check? And why?" I asked him.
"I mean to me there’s no question that you should check Hispanic," he said. "I guess because I don’t see you as any different from me when I grew up.”
He didn’t see me as any different from him? How could he say that? We were raised in two completely different cultures. He told me that he has always identified as Mexican American or Hispanic because he "ate tortillas, and beans and rice and liked it." I, on the other hand, hated beans and rice as a kid. It was always a staple at Gasca family parties, so I was starving, but I also had no idea what anyone was talking about.
My dad could relate to that part, because he didn’t speak Spanish either. I had always assumed that he didn’t want to learn Spanish when he was growing up, and just wanted to assimilate. I was wrong. The truth is rooted in the reality of an immigrant family's experience.
“My dad would get up at 3 o’clock in the morning to start his job," my dad said. "When he came home at 3 in the afternoon, he would take a nap, and then get up, and if my mom was working a swing shift, which a lot of years she did, he would feed us and then it was football, basketball or baseball practice. And then we would come home, and then it was time for bed.”
There wasn't any time to learn Spanish, and my dad didn't learn to speak the language until recently.
At this point in the conversation with my dad, I was feeling pretty defeated. He was telling me that I could check the Hispanic box, but the more he talked to me, the less I felt like I could.
Talking to my dad made me realize how different we really are. We were in the living room, and at that point my mom came in. I asked her to join us.
"I want to talk to you about when you and dad got married,” I said.
My mom and my dad don’t talk much about the time before they were married. I know that for my mom’s family, her marrying someone who wasn’t white was a bit of a scandal. I wanted to know, did she ever think about having this conversation with her future children?
“I never thought about race," she told me. "I never thought about the fact that you guys would be biracial, that was not part of my consciousness. The first time that conversation came up with you, it was kind of a shock to me."
She started to choke up. "I felt like I had somehow failed you, because you didn’t feel like you fit in both places."
A big reason why I never felt like I fit in both places is because I know I look different from my mom and my dad. My ethnicity has always been a sort of guessing game for my classmates, my teachers and random people at the grocery store.
I have dark, curly brown hair and big brown eyes. I have this generic 'ethnic' look to me, and I started to associate being mistaken for Greek or Thai as not being Mexican enough.
I thought that if I looked like the perfect Mexican-American teenaged girl I had created in my head, then I would be justified in checking the Hispanic box.
But I didn’t feel that way. I felt like I was failing. I started to tell my dad, “I feel like I’m a bad…”
"Mexican?" he asked.
“No you’re not," he said. "You don’t have to feel bad. Being Hispanic, or checking that box, doesn’t mean you should have been riding a burro and waving a sarape.”
He had a point, but I was still so frustrated. There was still a part of me that did blame my dad, and he could tell.
“Please don’t blame it on me," he said. "It’s never too late. It’s something that we can learn together. I don’t look at my dad and say, 'Why didn’t you teach us?' It’s my responsibility, just like it is yours.”
I get that. I know that if I want to truly identify as Mexican-American I have to start putting in more of an effort, and I have to stop living in the past.
I thought that by having that conversation with my parents I would be able to wake up the next morning, look myself in the mirror, and proudly say that I’m Mexican American, that I am biracial.
But that didn’t happen. It still hasn’t happened. And I don’t know when it will happen, or if it will happen, or even if it does, if I’ll have an easier time checking that box.