Amanda Schroeder in conversation with fellow photography student, Jessica Magaña.
Senior Project Interviews . May 2017
University of Southern California
Jessica Magaña: …I grew up among Mexican traditions and culture, but I am not only Mexican. I was born in the United States of America, so I am American as well. At times, I felt like I didn’t belong fully to one nor the other. Have you ever experienced something similar?
Amanda Schroeder: I can absolutely relate to that. The feeling of not quite belonging to the cultures of my blood is essentially what I am exploring in my project this semester. My mother is Colombian-Mexican, born in Bogota, and moved to the United States with her family when she was only 6-years-old. Because she grew up here in California and married my German-American father, I did not grow up in a particularly Hispanic household nor was I able to learn Spanish through my mother. Thus, while I am connected to my Latina identity through passed-down traditions and recipes and family stories, I do not feel as though I truly know Colombian or Mexican culture… Or, rather, I do not feel like I truly belong to either. I am American. But what does that mean?
JM: I want to bring in your question, “what does [being American] mean?” Throughout the process of my project, I focused on interviewing folks who identify themselves as Mexican American… American is a subjective word, a subjective experience… To me it revolves around the idea of the land you live in, a mixture of cultures, a history you must acknowledge of rooted colonization, racism, and genocide while deconstructing and decolonizing, and a privilege that you must check yourself for at times. I did grow up speaking Spanish because both my parents immigrated to the United States in their early 20s and solely spoke Spanish. As they lived here in the U.S. longer, they began to understand the language more, but it was always difficult for them to fully immerse. Because I was only speaking Spanish at home and learned English in school, my Spanish didn’t develop formally. Side note: it’s so interesting to think about Spanish as a language as well since it was a language used to colonize México by the Spaniards. Language definitively plays a big role in culture, but it can also be a barrier. It unifies, but also separates. However, I don’t believe that language is the only indicator of a culture. I believe that not knowing a language should not be a factor in exclusion. Others don’t have the right to identify your belonging to a culture nor the right to exclude you from one.
AS: [That is] a very interesting point, that language unifies but also separates… You voice a big reason as to why I feel it necessary for myself to learn Spanish: isolation from a culture. Although I know enough of the language to get myself through most conversations, I often find myself resorting back to English when someone, such as my mother, speaks to me in Spanish. Although I understand quite a lot, and from an academic standpoint my speaking abilities are certainly advanced, I feel as though I am still at the beginning most level of being able to actually communicate in Spanish… Although I can speak the words, there is a whole trove of colloquialisms, cultural signifiers, etc within the language that I cannot understand without truly immersing myself in the community, and, of course, these unique language characteristics change from region to region. It is difficult to feel as though you belong, as I’m sure your parents experienced, when your foreign accent and inability to fully express yourself in a new language blatantly shine a massive spotlight on the fact that you are, in fact, “Other.” …You mentioned that although you grew up speaking Spanish you never developed the language formally. Because of this do you find yourself to be more comfortable or better able to express yourself in English? Because your parents’ native language is Spanish, do you ever feel limited in your communication with them? Or perhaps do you ever feel that there are aspects of your own life, values or experiences that are difficult for your parents to understand because you grew up here in the states rather than back in Mexico? [In other words,] what are the differences you have experienced between being Mexican-American as opposed to Mexican?
JM: …I completely agree with you in that language is much more intricate than simply being able to speak it. Granted, I do feel more comfortable expressing myself in English. There are times where I am trying to communicate a certain idea or a certain word in Spanish, that I often don’t know how and I get frustrated. For example, when I tried to interview my grandmother, there was such a gap in factors that it was difficult for me to get my point across without her misunderstanding what I was trying to communicate. …I use to lack the patience with my parents especially when it came to explaining more complex thoughts such as my career goals and what I’ve learnt in class, but as I am growing older and because I don’t live with them, seeing them less and less, I try my best to inform them and talk to them when I am in their presence. My parents grew up in a small pueblo in Mexico, never having the opportunity to go to middle school because they had to start working and helping around the ranch and house at a young age. Even though they understand the importance of an education and a career, hence why they migrated to the United States in hopes of giving their children a better future, it is difficult for them to understand fully the challenges, pressures, and time commitment that it holds. In no way am I saying that education is more of a challenge than anything they’ve ever had to overcome, but it’s just an aspect of my experience that is different. Vice versa, I never experienced having to drop out of school to solely work which comes with its own challenges as well, but my parents instilled those values of always working hard while growing up, inspiring me to succeed not simply for myself, but for them. …They have given me a privilege – the privilege of learning another language, the privilege of focusing on my growth, the privilege of experiencing multiple cultures – that others do not always have.
…Going back to México [to photograph for my project] was such an eye opener to the fact that I had become so distant from my family [there] because I was so focused on the American life. I noticed that my family in Mexico is definitely more close knit, taking the time to simply sit in the living room and talk, joke, eat, and watch television together. They place family foremost, while in the United States, we place work and professions at the foreground of the picture, so there’s more of an aspect of independence away from family in my personal experiences. Their priorities are different, not that one set of priorities is superior than the other. Since your mother was born in Bogotá, have you ever had the opportunity to visit Colombia or would you ever like to visit?
AS: It is interesting, and perhaps a bit comforting, for me to hear that you also experience embarrassment with your Spanish and insecurities in connecting with your Mexican family, even though you have grown up much closer to Mexican culture and Spanish language than I have. I feel as though our similar experiences, in spite of the differences in our upbringings, really highlight the strange and complex nature of the U.S. as this odd, sort of cultural in-between site where, as you mentioned before, we exist as both belonging and not-belonging to the cultures of our ancestry. In this site, understanding of our ancestral cultures comes not from place but from community, through which the values and traditions that are passed down to us become the signifiers of our parents’ cultures within our own identities. I agree with you, that one set of priorities – of values and way of life – is not superior to the other, it is simply different and that’s okay. Over the past few years, as my desire to dive deeper into the Latina side of my identity has grown stronger, I have felt increasingly overwhelmed and discouraged by how little I truly know of my mother’s culture. No, aside from a few brief trips to Mexico, I have not had the opportunity to travel to Latin America, which greatly weighs into my insecurities about belonging. The question I keep coming back to: is sharing blood with a people enough to understand their culture? I’d say no… blood does not guarantee understanding, but does that mean I do not belong? Of course, this is a very complex question and there are surely many ways to go about answering it. But in relation to my own identity, as I’ve worked through this project and shared conversation with you, I’ve begun to feel more comfortable with my position as a Latina-American. I may not have traveled to or spent significant time within the countries of my ethnicity, but through my family and as a southern-California native I have been around Latino cultures my whole life. Thus, perhaps, I am not as unfamiliar with Mexican or Colombian culture as I have convinced myself I am. I am coming to understand that one’s racial or biological identity does not necessarily define one’s cultural or even personal identity. Rather, these two sides of one’s identity share a very complex and fluid relationship. I hope that by pushing myself to set aside my insecurities and not attempting to claim any sort of innate understanding of the cultures of my blood I can continue to grow, strengthen and connect with my Latina roots. Do you feel as though your project this semester has helped you work through any of your own insecurities about your cultural identity as well?
JM: You’ve made such essential observations and critical conclusions. Throughout my project, I have gained such profound insight on the many experiences of others through the interviews and conversations I had with folks who identify as Mexican American. I found that in relation to one another, despite being separate entities, we all had similar thoughts, conflicts, questions, and means of coping with our identities. To understand oneself is a process of continuous searching. We are not taught about ourselves nor our cultural identity within our education system as youth. Instead, we are encouraged to assimilate, learn a narrative that negates other important voices, which I believe attributes to our own insecurities that develop and further deepen as adults. While around us, cultures are created into a caricaturization. Throughout my project, I visited particular spaces within Los Angeles communities such as La Placita Olvera and El Mercadito. One is commodified. One is more authentic. One thrives off of tourists. One thrives off of community interaction. Both are equally important in study. I purposefully have not identified the places on my photographs, which includes spaces in Mexico as well, because I am interested in the perceptions of the audience. Likewise, I am not specifying where some of the portraits were taken, yet there are context clues that I would like the viewers to engage with. Even though this project has indeed helped me work through some of my own insecurities and appreciate my Mexican heritage more deeply, this project will not end with this class, but has simply began as I hope to continue documenting, listening, and understanding others.
Medium format color film prints with audio/text video installation.
Advanced Photo Exhibition . University of Southern California . 2017