By Teresa R. Funke
When I was growing up in Boise, Idaho, our state had the largest population of ethnic Basques living outside of Spain. I grew up surrounded by the Basque culture, and people often asked if I were Basque.
It was a logical question. With my dark hair and eyes and my light skin, I was more likely to be Basque than I was to be my true ethnicity, Mexican. But I also wonder now if there wasn’t a touch of racism in that question. Most of the Mexicans and Mexican-Americans who lived in or around Boise were migrant workers (at least that’s what most Boiseans thought), while the Basque families were working quite visibly in professions like education and the law. Because my Mexican mother was a teacher, and I definitely passed as white, maybe it seemed more likely I would be Basque, though I never thought this then.
I was always quick to set people straight. “Actually, I’m half-Mexican,” I’d say with great pride. My grandmother who helped raise me immigrated from Mexico in the 1920s with her brother and sister. They started successful grocery stores in San Antonio and sent for the rest of the family. My grandfather was Mexican-American, born in Texas. He moved the family to Idaho when my mother was three. For the first time in her life, my grandmother experienced real prejudice, and she immediately instructed her children to integrate and to stop speaking Spanish. Hence, the language was lost to my mother and me.
Growing up, I didn’t know many other Mexican-American families. We lived in a working-class white neighborhood and nearly all of my friends and classmates were white. Yet I sought out the Mexican culture wherever I could find it. How I wanted to embrace that side of me and feel connected!
When my husband and I moved to Fort Collins in 1992, we experienced very little culture shock. Fort Collins was a lot like Boise, including a lack of diversity. After a few months here, I asked a new friend, “Why doesn’t anyone here ask me if I’m Basque?” To which she replied, “What’s a Basque?” I was shocked.
White people still asked about my ethnic identity (Mexican people more often recognized me as one of their own), but the question was framed more as, “So what are you?” I’ve never taken offense at that question. Being half-Mexican, a quarter Irish and a quarter German and Dutch, I know I have a unique look, and I’ve always been happy to talk about my heritage. But without my extended family around, I felt even more disconnected from the Mexican culture.
And then slowly I started to get involved with events at the local libraries, the Museo de Las Tres Colonias and the Northside Aztlan Community Center, and was able to start to connect with Mexican and Mexican-American people. I started getting invited to speak or write about my experiences as a Latina author, which filled me with pride. I was even able to arrange book donations of my World War II stories to organizations that work with Hispanic families. It feels good to be able to reclaim a little of my ties to my family’s heritage.
Fort Collins has grown a lot since we moved here 27 years ago, and I’m glad to see a more diverse population starting to arrive. I’m also glad to see the open displays of welcome in our city for refugees, immigrants and visitors from other countries. Those welcomes remind me that my grandmother came to this country for the same reason most immigrants do. She wanted a better life for herself and her children. And thanks to her bravery and sacrifice, we have that.
Teresa R. Funke is the author of Bursts of Brilliance for a Creative Life. She has also written seven award-winning novels set in World War II, a popular blog and numerous articles, essays and short stories. She is an entrepreneur, speaker, consultant and community catalyst. Please visit www.teresafunke.com or www.burstsofbrilliance.com.
Editor’s note: According to 2018 Census figures, Fort Collins’ population is 89% white, 1.6% Black or African American, 0.8% American Indian or Alaska Native, 3.1% Asian, 0.1% Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander, 3.6% Two or More Races and 11.8% Hispanic or Latino. Poudre School District and Colorado State University freshman populations show higher percentages of diversity.
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Mention the Diverse Fort Collins Book Group at Old Firehouse Books for 20% off the paperback of The House of Broken Angels by Luis Alberto Urrea, and join us on Oct. 27 at Wolverine Farm Letterpress & Publick House for a discussion one week before the author visits for Fort Collins Reads!