Mario Villalobos

Tools of the Trade


  • Journal

Growing up, I never felt like I fit into any group. To paraphrase Miguel, I felt like I was too white for the Mexicans and not white enough for the white people. I felt like I always had to push myself to prove myself to either group, from how I behaved around them to what languages I spoke.

When I was around ten, one of my white friends asked a group of us over to his house. This friend had everything. His room was full of expensive lego models, books, and video game consoles. He had all the cool N64 games, and I was jealous because I didn’t. His fridge and pantry had all the expensive snacks that my mom would never buy because we couldn’t afford them. Outside, he had a big yard with a trampoline and a pool. I remember playing with them throughout the whole day and feeling both lucky and out of place. When it was time to go home, we went to find his mom at her office. She was a children’s book author, and she had a computer with dozens and dozens of reams of printer paper stacked up all over. My friend had told her that I spoke Spanish, and on the drive home she asked me many translation questions that I dutifully answered. How do you say this? How do you say that? I remember feeling so ashamed when I told where I lived because I lived in an apartment building where they lived in a beautiful big house. The next year, my friend moved away, and I never saw him again.

By the time I went to high school, my friends were mostly Mexican and other people of color. In classes, I sat next to them while the white people sat next to each other. I don’t think this was a conscious decision by any of us, but this pattern stayed consistent throughout my four years in school. But by this point in my life, I started to become my own person. Where my friends took Spanish class, I took French. Where my friends took regular college prep classes, I took AP courses. At home, my mom would speak to me in Spanish, but I would answer back in English. At school, my friends would speak to each other in Spanglish, and I would speak to them in English. There was one time when a friend asked me over to his house. Because I spoke English to him when he spoke to me in Spanish, his mom spoke to me in English and not in Spanish. She wasn’t fluent in it at all, but she tried anyway. When my friend told her that I knew Spanish, she gave me a look I’ve seen so many Mexican people give white people that I felt ashamed. I started to speak to her in Spanish, but it came out broken and slow because I had stopped speaking Spanish around the time I started hanging out with those white friends years before.

When I’m around white people, I feel like I blend in easily with them because of how I look, but there’s this gap in our experiences and upbringing that I know is there but they don’t. That chasm is huge here in Montana. I often feel out of place and disingenuous when around my friends and co-workers, but when I speak up about my culture and heritage, I feel this pushback from them that feels dangerously close to racism. When my co-worker started throwing out the n-word so nonchalantly the other day and asked me why black people can say it but white people can’t, all these feelings about race and my place in the world bubbled up again, and I’ve been battling with them ever since. I feel insecure when I speak up for people of color because of how I look but also confident because of my upbringing and experiences growing up Mexican and being Mexican.

A few years ago, I took one of those DNA tests to see what ethnicities I was composed of, and I remember feeling relieved when the results came back and said that I was 44% Mexican, 27% Portuguese, 12% Spanish, 5% Italian, and 12% a mixture of other ethnicities. These results affirmed my identity both to me and to the world. White people have a privilege that other people don’t, and before they acknowledge that, we’re always going to have a problem. For me at least, I know where I stand and now other people do, too.