When I was a kid, my parents would spend weekend mornings in our sunken ’70s living room listening to music on the hi-fi and reading The Arizona Republic. As my two older brothers, my older sister, and I all tried to sleep in, my folks would drink coffee and chat, sometimes listening to Johnny Mathis, Nat King Cole, or the Carpenters. Often, though, they’d wake us up with what my siblings and I derisively called, “that MEX-ican music.”
I’m fifth-generation American. When people ask me what my heritage is, I usually say George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. If I’m trying to be cool and modern, I’ll add Alexander Hamilton. I grew up in a middle-class family in a pleasant, safe Phoenix neighborhood, pool in the backyard, basketball hoop in the driveway. We walked to school, rode our bikes, and got ice cream from the ice cream man.
My parents grew up in a tiny, one-streetlight town in the San Luis Valley of Colorado where the population was mostly Mexican, but the white folks had all the money and power. My dad used to tell a story about when he was a kid, my grandfather taking the family to the movies and being told by the usher that they were sitting on the wrong side of the theater because of their skin color. My grandfather proudly collected his brood and left. My parents, Helen Salazar and Raymond Sanchez, both grew up in the valley, going to school and earning money by working at local farms picking peas or potatoes. They were both very smart and ambitious, and when they fell in love, they decided that they wanted their family to be brought up somewhere else. They wanted their children to have a college education and every advantage.
My parents landed in Phoenix, had professional careers, and built a wonderful life for us. My parents went from living in a tiny town to bringing up their family in one of the top-ten most populated cities in the nation. We went to terrific, progressive schools. Most importantly, we always knew that we were loved. One thing, though, my folks decided not to teach us kids to speak Spanish. They didn’t want us to be different from the other kids. They understood the difference between how “Americans” get treated in this country, and how “Mexicans” get treated. They wanted us to be both, but lean on the American side.
For years in my life, I downplayed my Mexican-American roots. In my defense, I didn’t grow up around a lot of other Mexicans. Besides my family, there weren’t that many in my school; I only remember the Bustemontes and the Enriquez family down the street. My best friends were white dudes, Jay Davies and Cory Wright. There was a green-eyed girl named Jennifer who I went from kindergarten through high school with, who told me senior year, “Oh my God, I just realized that you’re Mexican!”
It wasn’t that I hid or was ashamed of being Mexican; I just didn’t feel like I related to Mexicans, even though I’m related to Mexicans—duh! In my own family, I felt like I didn’t fit in: My parents were both mathematicians, my brothers and sisters excelled in academics and sports, and I was a chubby, nelly singer and performer with allergies. I was in the Phoenix Boys Choir and even sang for the National Christmas Tree lighting and met President Carter! I imagined myself to be a sophisticate, with more cosmopolitan tastes than the mariachi music my parents liked. I was never exposed to Mexican artists or authors, and I wasn’t interested in them.
In my 20s as a young aspiring actor in New York, I enjoyed being culturally ambiguous. Some people thought I looked Jewish or Middle Eastern, some thought Italian, some just used the generic “Hispanic” (is there a country called Hispania?). If pushed, I’d claim Latino (so much sexier sounding than Hispanic), but I rarely would claim Mexican unless it was specifically on a casting breakdown. I experienced the kind of racism specific to the entertainment industry. It seemed they didn’t know what to do with a funny little dark guy who was more Michael J. Fox than Esai Morales. Casting people assumed that I spoke Spanish. I didn’t quite look like a gang member or a drug dealer, and although actual drug dealers thought I looked like a cop (I had a colorful youth), casting people didn’t. A director once joked, “You’re about as ethnic as Disney.”
Like a lot of actors, I found that my career was mostly waiting tables. I worked at high-end hotels and restaurants (I am cosmopolitan, after all). Sometimes when I would apply for a job, highfalutin managers would say to me that they only hired Mexicans to be busboys, and I’d counter by saying, “I’m not Mexican; I’m an American,” as if the latter negated the former.
A few years ago, I was a guest at a holiday dinner party with a friend’s family. It was a rather large Southern gathering, and I was seated next to an in-law, Alice. As the turkey and corn casserole were being passed, Alice went on and on about how many Mexicans have been infiltrating the town, and how the Mexicans were driving down housing prices, and how Mexicans were bringing more violence to the city. I looked at her and let her talk. Then she stopped herself, looked at me, and said, “Well, not like you. You’re not one of those Mexicans.”
I’ve found myself in similar conversations from time to time, and it always baffles me. As if because I don’t have an accent or I’m not in a gang or I’m not an undocumented immigrant, or whatever other racial stereotype, perhaps I’m not like Mexicans. But I am.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve realized that the best things about me are because of my Mexican-ness. If I am creative, if I am funny, if I am passionate, if I am spiritual, if I am a hard worker, if I am expressive, if I am musical, if I can dance, if I am loving, if I’m a good cook, it’s all an extension of my family. Not to mention that I can get a good tan and have fabulous hair.
When Trump was elected president in 2016, I started putting forth “Mexican-American” as part of my self-description. I am offended and insulted by him on so many levels. He has and continues to belittle Mexican people (remember “bad hombres”?), he is in charge of the Border Patrol that continues to put immigrant families in cages and separates children from their parents, he still promotes that ridiculously expensive and useless freaking border wall, and he fosters ideas that seek to limit and control all people of color. He and his cronies want to take away hard-fought-for protections for the LGBTQ+ community, and they want to dissolve the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), which would threaten the lives of so many people living with HIV. I find it vital that people who know me in my humble roles as a writer and creator, as well as colleagues and friends, recognize me as being a queer man living with HIV who is Mexican-American. Not only do I think it’s vital, I consider it a political act for me to identify that way.
Today, I claim all of me. I am a Judy Garland–adoring, showtune-singing, Colin-Firth-should-be-my-boyfriend, man-loving queer; a person who’s lived through an AIDS diagnosis; a singer; a writer; an actor; a producer; and I’m a proud Chicano who makes killer enchiladas.
And on certain weekends, when I’m feeling particularly lonesome for my family, especially my Dad, who passed away a few years back, I listen to some of “that MEX-ican music.” The Trio Los Panchos are my favorite. That music instantly connects me to my family, my Mexican community, and mostly, to the best parts of myself.