“Are you really Hispanic?”: Filmmaking and Ethnic Identity

My last name is Elmer, my father’s last name. He is of French, German, and Irish descent. He tells me he remembers as a boy listening to his grandmothers speak French to each other, while his relatives swapped out potato salad recipes on Texas ranches with strong names like “Voss” hanging from iron entry way fences.

My mother is of Mexican descent, with our families traced back further to Spain some three hundred years ago. There might be a little Italian thrown in there, judging on a few of the names we can see on the family tree, but this was a long time ago. I still have distant cousins in Mexico, but most of our family’s history of the last 75 years has been in “the Valley” of South Texas near the border.

This varied ancestry, culture, and ethnicity combination is nothing unique. Humans have been mixing for as long as we’ve had sex drives and mobility, but personal identification with certain regions as defined by geopolitical boundaries, languages, culture, seems to be something Americans are more into than most, I would hazard to guess.

Road leading to my family’s 100+ ranch, “Los Braziles” (courtesy my Tía Dori)

Whenever I’ve been asked about my ethnicity, through government surveys, school applications, or just general chit chat with friends, I’ll identify with being Hispanic first, then follow with the collage of my father’s background.  I’ll explain why shortly, but suffice it to say that people get the French-German-Irish part, but many don’t get the Hispanic part at all.

Flash back to 2003. I had moved to Austin less than a year ago. I was excited to be going back to college after a long hiatus, and was starting classes at Austin Community College. One day, I saw a sign for a Hispanic Students Association meeting and decided to go. I reached out to the student leader, who was excited to have me join. That night, there was a professor speaking with the group. He spoke mostly Spanish as he introduced himself. My Spanish fluctuates from bad to okay, and I had a very hard time keeping up. Then, he asked for introductions. My name “Nicole Elmer” stood out like a splotch of red paint on a wedding dress. The students around me had last names like Tovar, Garcia, Muñoz, De los Santos. While the students did not seem to care that I was an “Elmer,” the professor did. He stopped the introductions and asked me directly: “Are you really Hispanic?” My heart dropped. I did not answer, but stayed in a dark mood the rest of the meeting. I never attended the group again, even after the student leader tried to invite me back several times.

It took me many years to think about this question “Are you really Hispanic?” Was I a false Hispanic? What if my last name was Ruíz? Would that change the game, even if nothing else about me did? What if I were blonde and had blue eyes and spoke fluent Spanish or Portuguese and no other language? Would that make me “Hispanic?” It took a pretty rigorous few years of liberal arts classes at UT – Austin  (before hopping into film production) where I really began to look at ethnic and racial issues, and who is calling who what and when, and more importantly why. It’s a complicated situation, y’all. And like many of our human-created categories of identification, it is as fluid as any liquid that’s ever existed, and maybe even more so. Here’s a personal example:

When I was growing up, my mother always tried to instill more “ethnic pride” in me. But I lived in a pretty racist town, and whites and Hispanics did not mix. That put me in a strange place, since I was both. I opted for being “white.” My first and last name allowed me to fit into the white group of students without question, which was more affluent, and I even took it further to try dying my hair blonde (it did not work) and staying away from the sun so I would not tan. I never told anyone about my mom’s side of my ancestry. When anyone asked, I was always “French, German, and Irish.” My Mexican roots disappeared. Stupid, I know, but I was thirteen and replying to the peer pressure around me. It wasn’t until I was 16 and more or less over the social structure of middle and high school, that I stopped caring about that shit, and just looked how ever I was meant to look (a theater nerd), and mentioned all of my ancestral identities if asked.

So, what does this have to do with filmmaking?

My second feature as a director, What’s the Use?, will be making its festival premiere at the Cine Las Americas 18th International Film Festival. My first feature as a writer/director, In the Shadow (Devolver Digital Films), a surreal psychological thriller set in Puerto Rico, made its Texas premiere here in 2012. From the Cine Las Americas website: “The festival showcases contemporary films from the US, Canada, Latin America (North Central, South America, and the Caribbean) and the Iberian Peninsula.” The festival also supports the work of Latino/Latina and Hispanic filmmakers, which is how I identify myself.

But I imagine someone going to see What’s the Use?, where Spanish is spoken for probably 20 seconds, shot mostly in Austin by “Nicole Elmer,” and this viewer thinking “Why is this film representative of Hispanic culture?” Or even worse: “You, Nicole Elmer, a white girl with a name like yours, who can’t even speak Spanish fluently,…are you really a Hispanic filmmaker?”

A still from “What’s the Use?”

Since ethnicity isn’t like math, the answer is purely subjective. It boils down to what the viewer thinks being Hispanic is, or what any ethnic identity is. It’s not the same for each of the current racial categories. Here in the States, the “one drop rule” makes someone “Black” or “Native American,” even if that African American or Native American ancestor is from generations back. But Hispanic and Latino identity always seems to need to be more obvious and current. One needs to have a last name of Marquez, or speak Spanish fluently for example, or have certain stereotypical physical features like dark hair and eyes.

Let me first say this upfront: I do not discredit my father’s ancestry, any more than I can claim my mother’s. I am also everything that he is. But, I identify with being Mexican-American primarily because my affiliation with South Texas Mexican-American culture is stronger than with that of my father’s various cultural experiences. I spent more time with my mother’s immense family in the Valley, than I did with my father’s family not too far north of them.  I have so many memories of visiting my great grandmother’s ranch, Los Braziles, for the Barerra family reunions, being surrounded by my tall relatives, with their hair dark as ink, all hunched over tamales, barbecue, and cold beer, speaking Spanish, mixed with English. I remember my grandmother speaking Spanish to her neighbors when they came for a visit, and making pan de polvo, even if no one was getting married. We still make tamales for Christmas every year. I remember walking under pecan trees to Tía Manuela’s house that smelled like powder and dogs, and going through her jewelry box just to look at her rhinestone brooches. I still call some of my relatives “Tío” or “Tía.” I remember long mornings in Catholic churches smelling of melting wax, staring at the strange body of a crucified Christ, wondering if the Communion wafer tasted like a Saltine cracker, and if the priest really drank blood. I remember huge weddings where mariachis played for hours. I remember when my dad told me about the time when my mom brought him to meet the family, and he was nervous about being a gringo, and the rite of passage they presented to him was to whack the head off some poor chicken with a cleaver, in order to make chicken stock. Obviously he was successful or I might not be here writing this.

Flowers and a cow on Los Braziles ranch.

My identity with this culture is not through the language I speak. And it’s certainly not my name. Dare I bring up that overused Shakespeare quote about the rose smelling just as sweet, even if you call it something else? Well, I guess I just did.

Next time, I talk about the creative limitations of identifying with an ethnic group when you are an artist, and how white artists get can away with a lot more creatively speaking. And yes, with a last name like “Elmer,” where people just automatically assume I am a white girl, I can offer some perspective of both sides of the issue.