On paper, Cecilia is an ordinary Latina. She was born and raised in Peru, given a common Latin Catholic name, and raised speaking Spanish. Her eyes and hair are long and dark, and yet when Cecilia—now a University of Texas at Austin student—attends a Latino sponsored party, she is the only one who fails to receive the standard greeting. Instead of cheek kisses and Spanish, she gets a hand shake and English.
Cecilia is set apart by the fact that she is Chinese. Her dark eyes are almond shaped, and her long dark hair bears the characteristically sleek and straight look possessed by most Asians. When she speaks Spanish, people do a double take, sometimes a triple take, and others just stare. It doesn’t take long for the aforementioned party hosts to recognize their blunder, and accept her as their own, but Cecilia is tired of having to explain herself to everyone she meets.
“I tell them I’m Asian,” she says, “but it’s just because I don’t want them to ask me my whole background…I explain this probably once a day every day, so I just don’t want to go over the process again, you know?”
To further complicate Cecilia’s identity conundrum, she has recently obtained her American citizenship, making her a dual citizen of both Peru and America. Though she is undoubtedly Chinese by race, her ethnicity is hazy.
“I feel like I’m everything” she says, and pauses “except American, because I just became an American citizen.”
She clarifies further that her inability to connect with the American ethnicity stems from the fact that she feels it has been mixed to the point of having no original, or set culture. But Cecilia emphatically asserts that she feels only a distant connection to the Asian community, and it is the Latino community where she feels most at home.
“Since I grew up in [the Latino] culture I feel like we can talk about the same things and when I’m joking around with them they understand that I’m joking and they don’t take it personally,” says Cecilia.
Cecilia’s situation, though unusual in the US, is not uncommon in Peru. In the 1850s Peru welcomed massive waves of Chinese immigrants who would ultimately replace the existing slave labor and create a lasting influence on the Peruvian culture along with the Japanese, and other Asian immigrant groups. In fact, Cecilia tells me, there are so many Asians in Peru that various Asian words have entered the Peruvian vernacular. “Minpao” for instance is the Chinese word for bread. Peruvians use it instead of the Spanish, “pan.” “Chifa,” the Chinese word for eat has come to mean Chinese Restaurant to Peruvians. “Vamos al chifa,” or “let’s go to the Chinese restaurant” is a common phrase on account of the frequency with which one encounters such restaurants, especially in the city of Lima where Cecilia grew up.
But Asian influence extends beyond the cultural, and goes so far as to influence government and public policy. From 1990 to 2000 Alberto Fujimori, of Japanese descent, served as President of Peru. His legacy is one of equal praise and criticism, but he maintained a constant majority approval rating throughout his presidency. Positively known for eradicating terrorism within the country, and returning Peru to a state of economic stability, he created a right wing political movement known as Fujimorism that is focused around these issues. This movement continues today, and is carried out by his daughter Keiko, herself a congresswoman and presidential contender, proving that Asian influence and tolerance in Peru remains strong.
Mixture of Cultures
Knowing this, it becomes obvious that the face of Latin America is not always the one we recognize. Returning again to Cecilia, we are presented with the makings of an important case for the Latina identity. She suggests that the qualifications for being Latina do not rest solely on the shoulders of race, but instead fall within the bounds of ethnicity and culture. Though she feels that she is Asian, Peruvian, and American, each of these labels has its limitations in identifying Cecilia. However, none can deny her a place among Latinas.