I like to consider myself American. However, not in the white-girl image that Hollywood has long portrayed to audiences. I'm a tan girl with long, dark brown hair.
This story is part of an LAist series called Being American. It’s inspired by the success of our year-long Race In LA series, in which Angelenos shared personal stories about how our race and/or ethnicity shapes our lived experience.
I am a Mexican American, the daughter of two Mexican immigrants from Oaxaca. I was born in Monterey Park and raised in L.A.’s Koreatown.
Growing up in Koreatown was the most incredible privilege. I adored the mix of cultures. Countless Korean and Latin American businesses surrounded me.
There were so many options to choose from where to eat! On one block, you had street vendors selling Mexican food like tamales, atole, champurrado, tortas, nicuatole, and more.
There was a Salvadoran bakery and restaurant that would sell quesadilla, the sweet Salvadoran pound cake, and pupusas. Not in the mood for Central American food? Just head down two a few more blocks, and Korean barbecue restaurants and supermarkets would greet you with wide open arms as the delicious aroma of Korean cuisine filled your nose.
Tlayudas con jjajangmyeon
At home, since my parents are from Oaxaca, we ate traditional Oaxacan cuisine, like memelas, mole, molotes, and tlayudas. We embraced our Mexican culture, and I spoke purely Spanish with my parents and other relatives.
Through my friends, I was exposed to Korean culture. I went to school in Koreatown my entire elementary through high school years. Most of my friends were first-born children of immigrants, like me. Families like ours were the norm: in the 90005 ZIP code at the heart of Koreatown, more than half the residents are foreign-born, according to Census Reporter, 53% of them born in Latin America, and 44% in Asia.
My friends at school taught me a bit of Hangul, and introduced me to traditional Korean dishes like jjajangmyeon and bibimbap. I learned how to play gonggi, the classic game of tossing and catching colorful plastic “stones.” Together we would attend the annual L.A. Korean Festival, and enjoy the parade and booths exhibiting Korean merchandise, from beauty products to dishware to clothes — and of course, food.
During the evening we would enjoy the dance performances. We always had a great time.
It was perfect, having Mexican culture at home and Korean culture with my friends. I loved growing up surrounded by both cultures. I felt like I belonged.
However, things at school were different.
'Who’s got broad and bright stars?'
The concept of being an “American” began for me in kindergarten, when I was 5 years old. I still vividly recall the crisp September air of that Monday morning, the first day of school.
My teacher told my classmates and me to start making our way to the auditorium to pledge our respect for our nation’s flag. Naturally, as little kids, we were confused.
Respect for the flag? What flag? I had never seen the American flag in person, and I wasn’t sure what this meant.
I had never seen my parents or anyone I knew salute the American flag. As my classmates and I lined up in front of the big stars and stripes in the auditorium, our teacher told us to place our right hands over our hearts.
The first graders and second graders got straight into it, chanting the words of the Pledge of Allegiance as though it came naturally, while we kindergartners just looked at each other. Many of us were first-generation U.S.-born kids, our parents immigrants from Mexico, South Korea, and other parts of the world, who didn’t speak English at home. We had no idea what we were supposed to say.
So we did the most logical thing — mumble along with the rest of the students.
I remember thinking that the lyric “Whose broad stripes and bright stars” was “Who’s got broad and bright stars?”
And I struggled with saying the word “perilous,” since I had never heard that word. So I would say “Through the paralysis fight.”
Trying to fit in
Just like that, every Monday morning, our teachers would line us all up and make us recite the Pledge of Allegiance.
It took me a month to finally memorize all the words, but boy, was I proud when I finally memorized it. Pledging my allegiance to the red-stripe, blue- and white-star flag made me feel a sense of belonging, especially since by then, everyone in the entire room knew it.
As I grew up, I would keep seeking that sense of belonging. I would try to "fit in" with the dominant racial and cultural standards that my school and American popular media would impose on me throughout my elementary school years.
For me, America was my little Mexican-Korean community in Koreatown. It was what I understood. But as I grew up and became more exposed to pop culture on the radio and television, much of which revolved around white suburban images, it made me want to blend in with what I thought “American” was.
I would watch MTV videos, listen to the popular songs on the radio, and be active on my computer. I received the message that Paris Hilton and Britney Spears were the definition of what a true American girl looked like, though I didn’t see any neighbors or friends in my community who looked or dressed anything like Paris Hilton or Britney Spears.
I would read magazines like Bop, Teen Vogue, Tiger Beat, and Teen People to try and get ideas as to how to dress like an appropriate American teen, even though I never saw myself represented.
At home, my parents would blast songs from Antonio Aguilar, Marcela Gandara, and other famous Mexican artists. Meanwhile, at school, I would freak out over the shuffle dance with my friends and the latest album from Katy Perry. It was like I was growing up in two different worlds.
I remember one time my mom took me to this Saturday event where a book fair was happening, and for lunch I took out my classic torta with a small Ziploc bag of chapulines, small grasshoppers cooked to crisps and bathed in lemon and salt — a very popular lunch in Oaxaca.
All the rest of the kids pulled out popular lunch items I’d see advertised: Lunchables, McDonalds, and hot dogs. I can still recall how sad I felt being the odd one out — all the other kids had their “American” lunch while I had a weird one. Just when I thought I was getting the hang of the culture, I was back to square one.
The star-spangled challenge
When I was in fifth grade, my teacher had my class sing the national anthem. Again, more than half of my children-of-immigrants Koreatown class didn’t know it, including me.
I had never seen my teacher so disappointed in us. How, she asked, could we call ourselves Americans if we didn't even know our country's national anthem? I remember being perplexed. Wasn't the Pledge of Allegiance enough? And was she really saying I was not American enough for not knowing the Star-Spangled Banner? I wondered, how much more stuff did I have to learn to consider myself American?
For an entire month, my fifth-grade teacher would play the national anthem every Friday and make us memorize it. She printed out sheets containing all the lyrics and would quiz us.
There was only one student in the entire class who knew the lyrics word for word. During a break, one of my friends and I asked her how she learned the anthem. She rolled her eyes and said her father had taken her to football and baseball games ever since she was young, and she would sing it with him — as though everyone’s father took them to football and baseball games regularly.
One of my friends shrugged after she left. Of course this kid knew the anthem, she said: “I mean, she’s white, what did you expect?”
“I’ve never been to any kind of game before,” another friend said.
We were all raised here, my two Korean American friends and I. But whether it was the national anthem or football games, these traditions weren’t a part of our lives.
Koreatown = America
Even though I’m thankful to my teachers for those hours of lessons — since to this day I have the Pledge of Allegiance and Star-Spangled Banner engraved in my memory — looking back at my one teacher's comment questioning our being American still irks me.
Was I really not American enough for not knowing the national anthem? Or for snacking on gimbap and chapulines instead of Lunchables, or never having been to a football game?
I know what being American is. I have countless friends who were born outside this country, but adopted it as their own. Chicanos and Chicanas like me speak English as their second language. So do my friends whose families came from South Korea.
We all call this nation home.
America is my community of Koreatown, where Mexico and Central America meet South Korea. The street vendors selling their delicious tacos, tamales and pupusas. The Korean seniors who are up at the crack of dawn setting up their badminton nets at Seoul International Park. The small local shops next to the trendy karaoke or Korean barbecue spots.
All of the immigrants who came together to find a home and place in this community, and shaped Koreatown to be what it is today.
Koreatown is my definition of American.
Litzy Martinez is a senior at California State University Northridge with an emphasis in journalism. Raised by two fanatical road-trippers, Litzy is always busy looking forward to her next adventure. Upon graduation in spring 2023, she is unsure if she’ll pursue a master’s degree or hop into the next chapter of her life.
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