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Fighting for acceptance as an Iranian/Latino American

Identity Politics



Hey, where are you from? No. Where are you REALLY from?

I can't tell you how often I've been asked this question, in this format in some way, shape, or form. Sometimes it's asked out of genuine, friendly curiosity and I'm happy to oblige. Sometimes it's asked with a hint of malice. Then sometimes I'm asked why I have to identify as half-this and half-that instead of just being American?

Take a trip back in time with me.

It's the early '90s. I'm into Nirvana, plaid shirts, and chain wallets. I play varsity soccer. Cliché, I know. I remember getting off the bus one day at Ledford High in Thomasville, N.C. and noticing a truck that had apparently been following us the whole time. The reason the truck was noticeable is because the two young men inside were yelling at me. They called me a "wet back" and told me to go back to Puerto Rico. They told me to come over to their truck so they could kick my ass. The verbal attack continued as the crowd dispersed. The bus driver left. They got out of the truck and I took off running to a friend's house and hid there until they left.

In high school, I wanted nothing more than to be just like everyone else. With a last name like Akhyari, I was always alphabetically at the beginning of the class which meant every semester and every year, new teachers would call my name first. Some of them were as anxious as I was and inevitably, they would butcher my last name and any desire to blend in with the "Smiths" and "Johnsons" of the world vanished for me. I wanted so badly to dye my hair blonde. I thought blue eyes were beautiful. I hated my black hair, dark skin, and brown eyes. I wanted to be "American." I wanted to be white.

Fast forward to 2017. I still have a few people tell me to go back to Iran if I have a different world view. On one side, I hear people, with the president of the United States in their corner, saying how dangerous people from the Middle East are. They cheer their banishment. They cheer for walls designed to keep out bad hombres. My skin color and my ethnic background are a big deal for some people. It is a reason to hate me. On the other side, I am heckled for recognizing my ethnic background and jeered for not abandoning it and calling myself American.

Do you see the rock and the hard place? Within this group of people who all have a problem with my cultural identity are some that want me to throw it away in order to be a real American. Then there are those who refuse to let me forget it because I am a potential terrorist ... or drug mule.

Not much has changed since high school, except that I am no longer a scared and ashamed teenager. I've gotten older. Has the world changed at all? Are we just in an eternal cycle where every generation reinvents the wheel? Do we ever make real progress toward peace and understanding or do we just rediscover the fears and judgments of every previous generation?

I wonder what school is like these days. I can recall learning about the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria, the heroics of Christopher Columbus and the mastery of Alexander the Great. I remember the fond story of the first Thanksgiving and doing little crafts to commemorate the event. I didn't think much of the lack of information at the time. I didn't get real facts about Native Americans until college. You don't know what you don't know. As an adult, though, I know that not everyone considers Columbus a hero. Some consider him the original vector of a plague. I know most Persians don't consider Alexander great. I know there were children being told to go back to Mexico after the election and I don't see an end to the cycle.

Then I think about a school I was in recently. As I walked down a hallway I noticed an informational map of Iran on the wall outside a classroom. I immediately became anxious. After conducting my business, I went back to get a closer look to see what kind of information was there. It identified various regions of Iran. I was pleasantly surprised to see that it didn't show the oil reserves and the suspected locations of nuclear weapons facilities. It described the climates of the regions, agricultural facts, and important places in regards to world history.

This laminated piece of paper taped on the concrete wall was a beacon of hope. At least for these kids, Iran and her people might not be defined solely by filtered news feeds; terrorists who want to kill Americans. For children to learn about Iran in a general sense in the same way they might learn about Kentucky's State Bird was a warm breeze on a chilly February night; a most welcome sign of a future thaw. Perhaps we will see the warming of hearts as well. It may not seem like much, but for a little half-Iranian, half-Tico American boy getting harassed at the bus stop, this looked like a good place to take shelter.

A quick question, though: Where are you from? No. Where are you REALLY from?

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