On Life As A Freckle-Faced, Redheaded, Mexican American From Southeast Los Angeles

Elementary school-aged Erick Galindo (middle) with his older brother, Paul (top) and younger brother, Manuel, on the driveway of their family home. (Courtesy Erick Galindo)

Over the next several months, we're hoping to hear your stories about how race and ethnicity shape your life and, hopefully, publish as many of these stories as we can, so that we can all keep on talking. We're calling this effort Race in LA. Click here for more information and details on how to participate.


I wish I could just tell people I'm from L.A. and that would be enough for them to understand that I come from one of the most culturally diverse regions in the entire world.

And that there's a nearly 50% chance I am of Latin American heritage.

Erick, around age 2, with his dad, Manuel, in their family's trailer park in Compton. (Courtesy Erick Galindo)

Which I am.

"I'm a freckle-faced, redheaded, Mexican American from Southeast Los Angeles whose parents hail from one of the most violent, drug-controlled regions of Mexico."

I use variations of that line a lot. Because I really want people to get me. Also, I want people to know I'm Mexican American.

My story is not unusual. Growing up, I watched my brown father looked down upon by white business owners, talked down to by teachers, and dressed down by police officers. I translated at the market, bank, hospital, everywhere for my fair-skinned mother who was raising five children. To this day she doesn't speak English — supposedly.


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My childhood was filled with Afro-Latino cousins, redheaded cousins, cousins with Asian heritage, brown cousins, all with roots from the same ranchos in Sinaloa, Sonora and Durango. I didn't know anything about what race they were. To me, they were — we were, I was — Mexican and I was American.

And while the rest of my life would be filled with questions about my race, appearance, heritage or where I learned to speak Spanish, I truly never once have questioned my identity or let anyone else define it.

Got my ass kicked for it though. Metaphorically. Literally. And probably at a detriment to my career.

No biggie. That's just how it goes sometimes.

Erick playing at preschool, age 4. (Courtesy Erick Galindo)

I grew up in a poor neighborhood, where I got beat up by gangsters for being too white and by bullies for being too Mexican. One day, my father pulled me aside and explained that looking like a chubby leprechaun might be making my childhood hell, but one day it would give me the chance to "blend in and go places" he never could.

But I don't want to blend in. I want the world to know where I come from.

It's important because I've lost count of how many times someone has said something racist around me because they think I am white. I was even once asked by someone to join a white power gang. That did not end well for either of us.

I also want people to see that Latin American folks are not a monolith. We don't look the same or sound the same, but we're proud of our combined cultures. And we can achieve great things, just like any other American.

Without ever denying my culture, I've worked hard to get into those rooms often reserved for powerful white people. They should know Latin folks can get there too. And my community should see themselves represented everywhere, even on public radio.

Baby Erick and his family on a trip to Disneyland. Pictured from left to right: Erick's aunt Teresa, grandmother Lore, mother Elvia and older brother Paul. (Courtesy Erick Galindo)

I carry this perspective every time I walk into a room. Sometimes I feel the weight of being judged as a person of color. Other times I feel awkward being seen as the only white guy in the room. It is through this lens that I tell stories. It is through this murky fog that I have fought to carve out my own American identity.

Still, I've never been quite Latino or even Chicano enough for some folks. That's why I dig the term "Latinx," a non-binary take on Latino or Latina. Of all the made-up words meant to describe me as a racial or ethnic being, Latinx seems to be the only one that is attempting inclusivity.

I'm sure the dudes that beat me up on the regular growing up in Paramount, Huntington Park, Downey and Compton would probably laugh at me for claiming Latinx. But they don't get to decide who I am.

Recently, I took a DNA test and I wondered, with all my red hair, if it was going to come back 100% Scottish elf or something. As it turns out, I'm roughly 9% African, 1% Asian, 49% European, 33% Indigenous, and 8% unknown.

I feel like that "unknown" part is Los Angeles.

I'm just an Angeleno.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Erick Galindo grew up in Southeast L.A. County. He chronicles life in Los Angeles for LAist in his Mis Ángeles column, a role he took on after serving as KPCC and LAist's immigrant communities reporter. Erick came to us last year from LA Taco, where he was the managing editor of a James Beard award-winning staff.