INSIDE Chico State
0 April 13, 2000
Volume 30 Number 17
  A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico
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Conversations on Diversity

Kevin Johnson Answers the Question: "How Did You Get to be a Mexican?"

Kevin Johnson
Kevin Johnson (Photo BA)

Kevin Johnson lives in the Anglo world of his father and the Chicano world of his mother. As an applicant for a teaching position at the UC, Davis law school, he checked the Hispanic/Chicano box on the application form. The interviewing professor looked at his name, looked at Johnson, and asked, "How did you get to be a Mexican? " The question became the title of Johnson's book about his life and experiences as a person of two worlds.

Johnson, associate dean of the UC, Davis law school, was in Chico for Cesar Chavez Day March 31. His interests are immigration law, civil rights, and critical race theory. His visit was sponsored by Multicultural and Gender Studies, the Humanities Center, and Associated Students. At noon, he met with students and faculty from CSU, Chico and from Chico High School's MECHA as part of the Conversation on Diversity series.

The law's failure to protect Mexican-American civil rights for a large part of our history made people ashamed of being Mexican because they felt powerless. "If they were Mexican, they were going to be punished," Johnson said. "There was no protection. At the same time, there was, and still is, pressure to assimilate, to become more American." Under these circumstances, they might as well pretend that they aren't Mexicans.

Johnson's mother and grandmother did just that, telling the children that they were Spanish, not Mexican. "The idea was that they were whiter and different from the 'Mexicans and those other people,'" said Johnson. The myth was taught to Johnson and his brothers, but as they grew older they began to question their mother. After all, they spent summers visiting relatives in Mexico and never saw or met any Spaniards. As a UC, Berkeley student taking Chicano Studies classes, Johnson began to make sense of his background and his mother's need to protect her family.

Johnson hadn't planned to write about his personal experiences until a colleague encouraged him. He had lived in a hostile Anglo community during high school. He had endured the Harvard Law School experience as one of the few minority students. Given his name and light skin tones, he had the choice of whether or not to self-identify as Chicano. Johnson saw the psychological toll that hiding her identity took on his mother, and he refused to hide his identity. His hope for his children is that they never have to hide theirs. The combination of legal changes and organizational efforts like those of Cesar Chavez can make that hope a reality. -- BA

 

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