It is said that in other places people ask you where you are from, but in Chicago people ask what are you? That question is intended to size people up and to compartmentalize you into neat, formal, understandible racial categories; its easier that way, but when you cant answer that question so clearcut, you won't quite fit in, ever. That one question and the working around it's boundaries has formed my identity. It's hard to conflate my life into three or four experiences or events that helped my identity formation but I'll try.
I will start with my early years, my early identity was shaped by the family and where I grew up. I was born and raised in Chicago. Born as William Smiljanich II, or Smilyanich if you want to say the non Americanized way. Born to a Ukrainian/possible also, Scottish man, and Puerto Rican woman, and given a Serbian surname even though there is no Serbian blood in me, and with Serbian being white, i don't get much privilege with a last name like that. My parents knew each other for only three days before my mom left everything behind in Puerto Rico and took a chance on marrying a stranger in Chicago. My Ukrainian grandmother and Serbian grandfather did not welcome my mom into the family by mere fact that she was a Puerto Rican, who they judged as dirty and lazy people. My parents began a life together as an escape from their families and their dominance; they began their own family by rejecting or compromising their cultural upbringing (i never ate a pierogi and I do not speak spanish), as a way to survive as two totally different people. While others had the pleasure of distinct culture, distinct languages, and distinct cultural expectations, my parents left most of their cultural upbringing behind and I was left to guess, infer, and make up my own identity. In one way this was freedom, in another way this was a burden, but in my early years i became adept at being able to navigate between, within, and around various cultures to avoid looking stupid or feeling stupid. i don't think I ever asked my parents who I was until 6th grade.
By the time I was in 6th grade, the not knowing who i was began creating problems for me, kids started making clearer distinctions for me, based on racial categories they already knew they fit into. They would ask me what i was and I couldn't answer. One day I asked my dad, but he replied, why do you care? Tell em your white. i dont think i asked my mom, but since she spoke Spanish to my aunt, I assumed i was Spanish. I distinctly remember riding the school bus and telling a kid that I was something like Russian, because my last name sounded Russian. I also remember leaving out the Spanish part because I was ashamed. I had felt that being Russian was somewhat better than someone who was Spanish, but that proved to be a false assumption after the kid called me a commie. I think I internalized some kind of shame about being of Puerto Rican decent because of the stereotypes and racist remarks my family had made about Latinos throughout my childhood.
When I got to high school, I had somehow come to this belief that as a teenager in Chicago, it wasn't cool to be called white. I was going to a school with kids from all races, classes, and places from across the city and world. In my mind it became clear that in order to relate to others I needed to embrace my "otherness". So I decided to explore my Puerto Rican roots. This proved short lived because of the micro aggressions on the part of some Puerto Ricans, the only ones who I felt could give me the credibility and acceptance I needed at that point in time. One day, was on the Addison bus, and a girl from my earth science class gets on with her friend. Her friend sits on a seat covered in rain water from an open window, i snickered, she turns around and says, "Shut the f#@& up, whiteboy!" I countered that I wasn't white, but Puerto Rican like her. Her friend said she knew me from class, that indeed, I was, half Puerto Rican. The girl counters, "Well, he don't look like no Puerto Rican". And so it was, over and over, I didn't look Puerto Rican, I wasn't Puerto Rican because I was half, I didn't speak Spanish, I didn't dress Puerto Rican. Soon enough I could never measure up to being Puerto Rican, so throughout high school and in college i found affinity with the misfits, with those who felt oppressed by and who rejected the rules and mores of their own culture, those that were raised in mixed families, those that were culture shocked in the dominant American society. And though I found solace in-between racial and cultural categories, I still wished i fit into those easy categories.
My last major identity forming experience began a year and a half ago. I had heard of African American studies, Latino Studies, and Asian American studies, but I wondered if there was such a
thing as mixed studies, so I googled it, and sure enough there was such a thing. Finally, I thought, something that could speak to my experience in writing. On the website I found a list of experiences that people of mixed race/ethnicity live through, and I related to them. I found a bill of rights for people of mixed race/ethnicity, and it empowered me. I found books and I cried because they put words to feelings and emotions I experienced but didn't have vocabulary or language for. I also found a conference called Critical Mixed Race Studies at DePaul last November, i showed up to a breakout session for mixed Latinos and found people who validated my experience. This is a new
phase in my identity formation, but the one thing I have learned through my experiences is that my identity can be fluid. This has allowed me to accept myself better. My existence challenges the notion of monoracial categories. My identity points beyond race, yet does not work to undermine or forget historical injustices and pain caused by man made racial categories which are stupid, but still have real effects. My identity reveals a legacy of privilege I can more easily buy into, but within that identity I also have a legacy of not having access to privilege, making it easier for me to recognize the folly of buying into it. My racial composition and my position in the world are realities which I alone may determine. I do not expect to be told what I should consider myself, so today i will claim I'm a Chicagoan, a Puerto Rican, a Ukrainian American, a Ukrianorican, a Latino, a white Hispanic, a Latino of Mixed Ancestry, a multiethnic person, a both/and. The great thing about recognizing the fluidity of my cultural identity is that things can and will change. i am on a journey, just like all of you, to fully come to grips with who God created us as.