6 Asian-Latinx Women On What They Wish You Knew About Their Identity

"I cannot count the amount of times people have asked me questions like, ‘What are you?’"

by Janel Martinez and Mia Mercado
Originally Published: 
Courtesy of Erica Maria Cheung/Mekita Rivas/Erica Westley

While television shows, magazines and online media often provide a singular view of Latinx identity as an ethnicity, the term actually represents people of all different racial backgrounds. In addition to race, there are numerous factors that influence a person culturally such as nationality, customs, language(s) spoken, and where that person is raised. Those factors can also impact how others view their identity. In recent years, the broad diversity of Latinx folks has become a more mainstream topic of conversation, but there is one community that is often overlooked: People who identify as both Asian and Latinx.

6% of Latinx people self-identified as "two or more races" in the 2010 U.S. Census, notably higher than the 2.3% of non-Hispanic and non-Latinx people who said they were multiracial. (The Census does not have a breakdown of racial or ethnic demographic within the "two or more races" category, though .4% of Latinx people identify as Asian.) 6% of the population may seem small, but that comes out to over 3 million people. With Asian Americans and Latinx Americans being the fasting growing racial groups in the country, per a recent Pew Research Center report, that number has likely increased significantly.

While under-representation may make it seem like these identities are mutually exclusive, they are not, as is the case with people who claim other multiple-marginalized identities. The migration of Asian communities to Latin America dates back to before the 1800s. By the 1920s, Chinese immigrants who had settled in Mexico were the second largest immigrant group in the country after Spanish immigrants, according to Robert Chao Romero, assistant professor of Chicana and Chicano studies at UCLA. There is also considerable Chinese influence in Cuba, where laborers arrived to work on sugarcane fields, some as coerced indentured servants, according to the University of Miami. Additionally, Brazil has the largest Japanese population outside of Japan at over 1.5 million people, according to BBC.

The history of migration, colonization and immigration has shaped the way many Asian Latinxs identify, but this group of people still lacks mainstream representation. Here's what six Asian Latinx women want you to know about growing up with this identity.

Jessica Chia, Executive Beauty Editor at Allure

Being Puerto Rican, Chinese, and Mexican, Jessica Chia feels a kinship with other women who are Asian and Latina, but acknowledges everyone’s experience is different. Not growing up with her father, who is Singaporean Chinese, Chia says she connects much more strongly with the traditions of her Latina heritage.

“I think the most difficult thing for me growing up was knowing that I grew up raised by a Latina mother and other people constantly telling me how I should or shouldn't be based on their assumptions that I was primarily Asian, because they think I look primarily Asian," Chia tells Bustle. "Still today in NYC I constantly have to justify my Latina-ness to people, or explain why I speak Spanish and not Chinese. People constantly want to label me as Asian and only because that's what they see at first glance.”

Mekita Rivas, freelance journalist and creative consultant

As a person of Mexican and Filipina heritage, Mekita Rivas spent her childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood confronting her own definitions of what it means to be "Filipina enough" or "Mexican enough." In navigating her identity, she’s finally given herself permission to own who she is, fully.

“Growing up Asian Latina came with many feelings of exclusion. I grew up in the Midwest, in a part of the country that lacked a lot of cultural and racial diversity,” Rivas tells Bustle. “So that in and of itself was very isolating. But even among the two distinct groups — Asians and Latinos — I never felt like I truly belonged to either community. I wasn't Asian enough for the Asians or Latina enough for the Latinos. Those feelings of isolation were heightened by the fact that I've never been to the Philippines and I don't speak Spanish or Tagalog fluently. In many ways, I often felt like a fraud when claiming my heritage because it just wasn't something I felt truly connected to. After all, I grew up about as American as can be. But I also didn't fit in with white Americans for, well, obvious reasons.”

Celeste Winkel, marketing executive

“I grew up much closer to the Asian side of my family, which always left me more curious about my Latina side as I didn't have as clear of a connection,” says Celeste Winkel, who identifies as Chinese and Mexican. However, she says, “I was never Asian or Latina ‘enough.’ For the most part, I was thought of as ‘exotic’ among other races outside of my own.”

Erica Maria Cheung, writer and feminist scholar

Born and raised in Hong Kong until the age of 7, Erica Maria Cheung traveled to her mother’s hometown of Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, every summer until she moved to the United States. She says she was picked on in school for being Chinese.

“Truthfully, the discrimination I experienced in the U.S. was far more than I ever experienced in Hong Kong. Instead of taking refuge in my Mexicaness, I found myself calling upon my Chineseness as a coping mechanism for the bullying [...] As I grew older, confusion about my identity manifested in reactions to my racial ambiguity. I cannot count the amount of times people have asked me questions like, ‘What are you?’ ‘Do you identify more as Chinese or Mexican?,’ or said things like, ‘You don’t look Asian.’”

Maria Lau, photographer

“Growing up for me wasn’t so much about discrimination, as it was about feeling like an outsider,” Maria Lau, who is of Cuban-Chinese heritage, tells Bustle. “That you don’t fit in with the white kids, but you pass cause you’re light-skinned. People always white-washed my name: Maria would be Marie, or Lau would be Law. No one wanted to say my name properly, and I always raged against that. Even as a child, [I] would yell back I’m Maria not Marie, and my name is Lau not Law, it’s Chinese. Then people would be taken aback by this little girl with wild, curly hair [...] being real adamant about her name. I never let them take my name or my cultural identity away from me, [making it] into what was easy for them. They didn’t really know what to make of me, and I was so persistent in not being what they wanted me to be.”

Fabiana Chiu, arts administrator and community historian

Courtesy of Fabiana Chiu

“I arrived in the U.S. a full-fledged Latina, having never been to Asia (until recently.) But because I have some Asian features, some people here seemed confused when I told them I was from Peru,” says Fabiana Chiu, whose Chinese side of the family has been in Peru for six generations.

“Growing up in Peru, there were very few positive role models who looked like me on TV. People of Asian descent are sometimes vilified, the butt of jokes, infantilized, or exoticized. This goes not only for those of Asian descent but also for Afro-descendants and indigenous peoples [...] Although in Peru, no one ever questioned if I was from there, on the streets and in social circles people of Asian descent are often labeled as ‘el chino,’ ‘la china’ or ‘la chinita.’ It is often said that these are terms of endearment, not meant to offend. But I feel that these reveal, at least on the surface, that a person is being singled out because of her/his race and outward appearance, reducing a person to a single qualifier and not as an individual.”

These women are among many others who stand firm in who they are and are proud of the journey it took to get to where they are today. There is still much to learn about Latinidad and the various cultures that comprise this identity. But one thing is certain: no matter how you choose to identify, you don’t owe anyone an explanation. Your existence is enough.

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