Being Latin American in London (and Beyond)

I missed the communal support that came with being a ‘majority-minority’ back home.

In the weeks leading up to my arrival in the UK, I was sure I understood, at least on some level, what life would be like as a Mexican-American person abroad. I made lighthearted jokes about my ‘vanishing half’, almost certain it would be my American side fading into obscurity, and ready to emphasize my Latin American identity as I prepared to settle into London life.

“I’ll tell them I’m here to learn English,” I once joked with my mom while packing my suitcase. Then I put on a Mexican accent, my best impression of my voice as a little girl before I entered the American school system. “I’m from Ciudad Juárez, anyway.”

As it turns out, I was wrong.

I was severely underprepared for the shock that would come when I left my “majority-minority” community. In London, I finally feel the weight of isolation that comes with minority status. Most days, I feel more homesick than ever before.

I was raised in El Paso, Texas, a city along the borderland of the United States and Mexico. Across that imaginary borderline lies Ciudad Juárez in the Mexican state of Chihuahua. Juárez is home for lots of my family⁠—grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles⁠—and it’s like a second home for me. Growing up, I spent countless weekends across the border, surrounded by my big, Mexican family who were always just a short car ride and checkpoint away. 

A population census for 2020/2021 will tell you about 82% of El Paso is Hispanic, and about 94% of those people are Mexican, like me. Even though I was raised in the United States, I was never far from a community of people like me, tying me to my culture, speaking the languages I spoke, sharing experiences I’d had. 

I felt a little awkward, checking “Other” over and over again.

I am Mexican. I consider myself Mexican as much as I consider myself American. I have two birth certificates, two passports, and I’m a citizen of both countries. 

The shock of alienation I would feel in the UK did not come just once or twice, but in lots of little waves⁠—tiny moments. 

It started with enrollment. Among dozens of surveys and forms to fill out for Queen Mary registration, there were no options for me to mark my ethnicity properly. I wasn’t used to that. I was familiar with the internal struggle of an ethnic identity crisis, but I’d never come face-to-face with it on such an administrative level. I felt a little awkward, checking “Other” over and over again. 

And of course, I came face-to-face with it again after I arrived. I remember one of the first things I had to do was register with a doctor. 

ETHNICITY? asks a box on the GP registration form. I stare at it for a long time, and the analogue clock ticks incessantly on the waiting room wall. It’s an easy enough question, but I’m still nervous, thinking twice, then three, then four times about my answer.

Hispanic/Latino, I write.

But when I hand the clipboard back to the nurse, I see her frown in confusion when she gets to that dreaded ETHNICITY box.

“Is that Italian?” she asks, pointing out where I’ve scribbled Latino. Immediately I feel embarrassed, at fault for trying to answer as authentically as I could. 

Italy… Latino. I can see how she had made the comparison. I feel amused despite my confusion because I can’t figure out how else I’m supposed to feel in this situation. It’d never happened before.

“No,” I say, “I’m, uh, Mexican.”

But the nurse couldn’t care less. “Where is your passport from?”

That’s another tricky question because I have two. One, of course, is my passport, issued by the authority of the United States government. The second is what I’d call mi pasaporte, granted to me as a citizen of Los Estados Unidos Mexicanos⁠—the Mexican United States.

But I know there is a logical answer here. I was let into the UK as an American citizen, carrying a dark blue passport printed in English, so I say, “United States,” and watch as the nurse nods and scratches out Hispanic to write AMERICAN.

Other times were less administrative.

“But you’re not Mexican!” the old man across the table is telling me. He is smiling, lighthearted. He’s also Dutch, and a stranger. I’m here for dinner because he knows my aunt. She is Mexican. Born and raised, authentic through and through.

“Yes, I am.”

“No, you’re American. You’ve never lived in Mexico.”

If I’d had more time to think about it at the moment, maybe I would have mentioned that I was raised speaking Spanish, or that as a child, I used to dream of Los Reyes Magos as much as Santa Claus, and I would lay awake to wait for El Raton Perez as much as The Tooth Fairy. Maybe I could have mentioned that at birthday parties, I grew up singing “Las Mañanitas” and rarely “Happy

Birthday”, or that to this day I drink Chocolate Abuelita tablets when it gets cold, or that pan chimbo from Chiapas and tamales de chipilín are among my favourite things to eat.

I say nothing. I worry that maybe he has a point.

My aunt comes to my rescue. She says my parents are Mexican⁠—that I carry the culture by existing. The man just laughs, flippant, and I laugh too because I know he means well. He wasn’t trying to offend me. He was genuinely curious. 

But it’s weirdly invalidating.

Am I really Mexican?

While I’m away from home, celebrations of Mexico feel like a distant memory, but there are still gems to be found…

It’s a question I’ve asked myself a long time and still ask myself often. What’s Mexican enough? What’s American enough? What am I? Where do I fit? How can I be myself when I can’t even fill out a form at the doctor’s office properly?

I thought coming to a place where I was one of very few Latin Americans, it would be easier to embrace my identity and feel visible. But since I’ve been in London,  I’ve found it more challenging than ever to celebrate my Mexican culture. 

But it’s not all bleak. I find glimmers of hope and celebration in places like La Tiendita, an authentic Mexican grocery in London, and Sweet Nibble Bakery, specializing in treats like conchas and pan de muerto

While I’m away from home, celebrations of Mexico feel few and far between, but there are still gems to be found, and the Latin American community in London (and beyond!) continues to grow and thrive, even if it is happening under the radar of the mainstream.

Later my mom sends me a picture on WhatsApp: three paper bags of Tamales Lupita, my favourite spot in El Paso for tamales. And apparently, their promotional material says, “the Mexican food capital of the world.” 

Photo by Amparo Rosales
Photo by Amparo Rosales

I look at the logo on the bags, at the Mexico and Texas flags waving happily side-by-side, and I think about the contents of the bag: some of the best food I’ve ever had in my life shared during some of the most comforting moments with family.  I ache for the authentic comfort food of home, for the Feliz Nochebuena!s shouted on Christmas Eve through half-chewed bites of masa

I’m happy to celebrate myself and other Latin Americans while I’m in London, but I’m also looking forward to the day I arrive back home in El Paso, and then in Juárez, to revel in the authenticity of my experience as a Mexican-American person, and to eat Tamales Lupita with my family.

I decide to text my mom back. 

“Save some for me!”

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