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How does your race and/or ethnicity shape your life and experiences? We want to hear your stories.

When You’re Seen As Too ‘White’ In High School, And Too Brown In College

Lionel Mares, standing, with his mother, Maria Angelica Mares, and the children of family friends at his graduation from Cal State Northridge. His mother passed away in 2020.
Lionel Mares, standing, with his mother, Maria Angelica Mares, and the children of family friends. His mother passed away in 2020.
(Courtesy of Lionel Mares)
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I was born and raised in the San Fernando Valley, the son of parents from Jalisco, Mexico. And throughout my lived experience, I have felt out of place.

How To Participate
  • Since June 2020, we've asked for your stories about how race and ethnicity shape your life and and published as many of these stories as we can. We call this year-long effort Race in LA. Click here for more information and details on how to participate.

My family is your typical Mexican immigrant family. My parents spoke very little English, and we spoke Spanish at home. In school in Sun Valley, I was enrolled in English-only courses — no bilingual classes — so I struggled with my Spanish growing up. I had difficulty pronouncing Spanish words. My mother would correct me whenever I made a mistake.

My mother would encourage me to speak proper Spanish and to embrace my identity and culture. We ate traditional Mexican food at home and when eating out. My family encouraged me to be proud of my heritage.

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Lionel in the 4th or 5th grade at Montague Elementary School, when he won a Student of the Month award.
Lionel in the 4th or 5th grade at Montague Elementary School, when he won a Student of the Month award.
(Courtesy of Lionel Mares)

Outside of home, though, I only spoke English and very little Spanish, since I didn’t speak it well. I struggled with speaking both languages, actually — with no chance to speak it at home, my English was not great, either.

But when I spoke Spanish, many people would ask me why my Spanish wasn’t perfect. I would explain to them that I had difficulty speaking it. But many saw me as a “pocho” because I spoke English and lacked fluency in Spanish.

As a kid, I hung out with childhood friends who were neighbors on my block. We would bike around the block and hang out. But as I got older, I started to realize that I did not fit in with the other kids.

Many of my classmates, also the children of Mexican immigrants like me, didn’t view me as part of the group. By the time I was in middle school and high school, I was seen as too “white” by my peers. They didn’t think I was Mexican enough.

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Not only did I not speak Spanish well enough, but I dressed differently. I wore Vans shoes and shorts and a T-shirt, resembling members of my then-favorite punk rock band, Blink-182. I didn’t listen to hip-hop, pop and rap music like most of my peers did; my taste in music was rock and alternative. I recall an instance when a classmate told me that I was “white-wash.”

Lionel on the City Hall steps in 2016 in Vans and flannel, much as he dressed back in the day.
Lionel on the City Hall steps in 2016 in Vans and flannel, much as he dressed back in the day.
(Courtesy of Lionel Mares)

Other students bullied and ridiculed me for being “different” and non-conforming. Many of my peers dressed in baggy clothing and got themselves into trouble. Because they embraced hip-hop culture and I didn’t, it made me stand out. But I kept being myself. I tried to stay positive.

I had conversations with my mother about my struggles at school, and how difficult it was for me to feel wanted. I felt conflicted about my identity and where I fit into society. I recall having conversations about this during meetings with my teacher, counselor and mom at school several times. They told me to keep moving forward, so I did.

But school really was hard: There was even an instance when a white former teacher called me a “peanut head,” an insult referring to someone as foolish or stupid, in front of the class. I felt humiliated.

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So I pretty much kept to myself for the duration, from elementary to high school. Gradually, I learned to accept myself for who I was. I stopped hanging around the same peers and went my own way. I charted my own path in life. I studied and worked hard on my own. I persisted and became self-reliant.

Learning And Growing

Things began to change for me inside when I finished high school and attended community college. At first I attended L.A. Valley College and Mission College, and eventually transferred to California State University, Northridge.

It was not until I got into college that I really started to blossom and flourish. I became self-aware and started to speak up more often. I spent many hours in the library, reading and digesting information that I learned in my classes. At first, I wasn’t sure what major I wanted to get into. But then I remembered how I was bullied and ostracized as a child and teen for not fitting in, and I became interested in social sciences, particularly in sociology.

csun_front.jpg
The library at California State University, Northridge.
((Photo via Cal State Northridge/Facebook))
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I chose sociology as my major because I wanted to better understand society and culture. I learned about human interaction and socialization. I learned that children are socialized at a young age by their parents and peers. Socialization is the process of how people learn societal norms, beliefs, and values.

Children and adolescents form social groups or “cliques” based on shared interests, values and beliefs; those who do not conform to their social norms are excluded. When I tried to join these social groups, I was excluded because I was perceived as different. This is why as a child and teen, when I was not accepted for who I was, I felt left out.

And a strange thing happened: In college, I experienced a different kind of not fitting in.

As I became more educated and aware of human interactions, I still was not taken seriously by some. Many white people would give me this odd look whenever I would speak about things like American history, politics, and social issues. It felt like they were surprised to see and hear someone who is Hispanic speak in an articulate manner.

I remember one time when I went to the campus library to check out a book on public administration. As I spoke to the librarian, she seemed surprised to see a young Latino being knowledgeable about American history and government. She didn’t question me, but she was speechless. She kept staring at me for a while.

I still felt out of place, too Mexican for some people, and yet still not Mexican enough. Once when I was attending community college, a student organizer with MEChA called me “white-wash” (again!) because of how I looked and dressed, while at the same time, white people would see me as foreign, an alien.

'A Sense Of Accomplishment'

But as I matured, I started to assert myself, and I would not allow anyone to push me around. I continued to speak up for myself. I finished community college with an associate's degree in sociology and transferred to CSUN, where I continued my studies in social sciences and eventually graduated in May 2016. I felt a sense of accomplishment. Now, I am finishing up graduate school.

Lionel in 2011 during a visit to NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.
Lionel in 2011 during a visit to NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.
(Courtesy of Lionel Mares)

The knowledge that I received opened my eyes, and made me realize that I had the potential to grow and be somebody. Fast-forward to the present, as I’m preparing to graduate next year with my master’s degree in public administration, with a focus on public sector management.

Many people still seem surprised to know that I am capable of thinking for myself, and doing for myself. I am able to hold a conversation and share what I’ve learned, from history to politics and science. Sometimes people still look amazed — perhaps because they don't expect a young Latino to be well-informed on a host of topics. Even liberal whites are not so innocent when it comes to this kind of implicit bias.

My hope is to pursue a career in public administration. I want to be able to uplift my community and to be an active force for social change. I want to be accepted for who I am and what I am capable of. I want to mentor and educate others, especially kids. I want to be able to help others believe that they, too, can be successful despite the difficulties.

What I’ve learned in life is that we can learn to live in harmony with others and within ourselves. As a young Latino, I value both being American and Latino. I love Mexican food and culture, and I’ve learned to adapt to both cultures that I am a part of. I also value being from an immigrant family and being a first-generation college student. I love being myself, because it’s who I am.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
  • Lionel Mares is a Master’s of Public Administration graduate student at California State University, Northridge. He has an undergraduate degree in sociology. He is a public servant and has worked in local government as an administrative clerk for the City of Los Angeles, and for the Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk. He volunteers for the Sierra Club and for Everyone In, advocating for just housing and homelessness policies in Los Angeles. “Whenever I can,” he says, “I take up volunteer opportunities to help my community.” In his free time he goes to the gym, hikes in Griffith Park, and goes to the library.