Reflections from EFP Fellow Elena Huisman

Elena Huisman is a student at the University of Michigan, and was a EFP Fellow this Summer with the National Environmental Education Foundation (NEEF)

Identity. It’s personal, yet others use it to judge, create perceptions, and solidify stereotypes. I’ve struggled with my identity since leaving my hometown to attend college. 

I am a Texas-born Mexican-American, Tejana. The more time I’ve spend outside of Texas, away from my roots, my family, and the language I grew up around, the less I identify as a Chicana, Latina, or Hispanic. Growing up in a rural town outside of Austin, Texas I was one of the few students who was of Hispanic origin, and my mother was one of the only people in our town who was bilingual. It was easy to identify as Latina. Everyone knew my mom made the best rice, beans, and homemade tortillas this side of the Rio Grande, and I even spent summers in Mexico with family. There was no fooling anyone—I was a Tejana.

When I left Texas for college I quickly realized people didn’t assume I was Latina, like they had in grade school. Even my name, although difficult to pronounce, didn’t clue people into my heritage. It was then I found myself convincing people of my Mexican heritage. Often times they would attempt to pronounce my name, look up from the paper quizzically, and inquire, “Where is your name from?”, and I would politely respond, “It is of Spanish origin” and wait for shock to set it. I would then go on to explain that I am half Mexican, but favor my father’s genes, he is 3rd generation German-American from Iowa.



Elena’s childhood home in Driftwood, Texas

For every new place I’ve lived, people I’ve met, new jobs I’ve had, I always have to explain my heritage and why I had such an ‘ethnic’ first and middle name, but an Anglo last name. Or why I didn’t look Mexican. 

The more time I spend away from the borderland I call home, the less I identify as Chicana. I do not eat homemade tamales, celebrate Día de los Muertos, and rarely do I speak Spanish. Ever since I can remember I’ve feared losing my Mexican heritage. Whether it was through marrying someone with a different background or not celebrating the traditions I grew up with. 

I recently connected with a woman, at the EGA Retreat, whose son is in a similar boat as me, half Latino half ‘American’. And she put the onus on me to ensure I continue my cultural practices despite living 2,000 miles away from home. The conversations I had with her were so meaningful and eye opening. I can’t make any promises, but I’d like to start reintegrating my Mexican culture back into my life. 

When I first started brainstorming what I’d write for this blog, my first instinct was to turn to academic literature (graduate school’s lasting effects) to see if others have experience similar challenges, and surprisingly there is A LOT out there. I resonated most with Jessica Vasquez’s piece titled, “Blurred Boarders for Some but not ‘Others’: Racialization, ‘Flexible Ethnicity,’ Gender and Third-Generation Mexican American Identity”. Vasquez explores the social and cultural position of third-generation Mexican Americans, much like myself straddling cultures, boarders, and race. The phrase “Flexible ethnicity”, used by Vasquez, illustrates how I’ve, unknowingly, navigated life. “Flexible ethnicity refers to the ability to deftly and effectively navigate different racial terrains and be considered an ‘insider’ in more than one racial or ethnic group” (46). I struggle with when or if I should identify as Hispanic—especially during this years’ election—where racial tensions and hate towards immigrants is ingrained in the political rhetoric. But having that option to not identify as Hispanic is a privilege I don’t take lightly. In staying true to myself and the traditions my parents worked so hard to instill in me, I know now that I cannot shy away from who I am and what I stand for. 

The opportunity to participate in the Environmental Fellows Program alongside an incredibly strong and diverse group of people has been an honor and a huge growing experience for me. In addition to being part of a wonderful cohort of fellows I was also fortunate to have amazing mentors at the National Environmental Education Foundation. Through formal meetings, informal conversations, and daily walks I grew professionally and personally throughout the summer. Meeting other environmentalist from all walks of life and for the first time identify as a Latina Environmentalist has been the highlight of my fellowship.