The beautiful complexity of being Asian Latino
“You have this whole other culture that’s a part of you. It’s an elite club where so few of us exist.”
Growing up as a Chinese Mexican person, I lived much of my life thinking I was the only one. This belief was exacerbated by many of the Hispanic people I grew up with in Texas, who would look at me or my mother in disbelief at how good our Spanish was. Then there was the derogatory word “chino,” a dismissive and hurtful identifier some Spanish-speaking people use to refer to anyone who looks Asian. For a long time, I was hesitant to claim my Latinidad because I knew people would question it, so I simply began to identify as Asian American — even though it wasn’t the identity that most accurately reflected my truth.
Then came TikTok. The app — which has become something of a gathering place for countless communities, from ADHD TikTok to sobriety TikTok, Earth Tok, and Farm Tok — has led me to so many other Asian Latinos who speak openly about their identities. They’ve helped me realize that so many of us are connected by feelings of deep invalidation, but also a beautiful complexity. We’re classic examples of W.E.B. Du Bois' notion of “double consciousness,” or the idea that we’re constantly forced to perceive our own existence through the lens of other people. But in the past few years, I’ve realized that living in a constant state of twoness can be a good thing: Coming from two cultures that are deeply spiritual, community-oriented, and have bomb food is actually fun as hell.
So many of us are connected by feelings of deep invalidation, but also a beautiful complexity.
Asian and Hispanic people are two of the fastest-growing ethnic minorities; and from 2010 to 2019, the population of Asian Latinos in most states doubled, according to The Los Angeles Times, and it’s expected to continue growing. And in the past couple of years, platforms like TikTok, as well as the Stop Asian Hate movement and the increased visibility of Latino culture by way of high-profile stars like Bad Bunny, have opened the door for more intersectional conversations about Latinidad.
Just as Asian people and Latino people are not monoliths, neither are Asian Latinos. To illustrate that — and celebrate our diversity and complexity — I reached out to other Asian Latinos who live at some intersection of these movements and asked what it was like growing up Asian Latino, how they feel about their identities now, and what they want other people to know. (These interviews have been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.)
Coming from two cultures that are deeply spiritual, community-oriented, and have bomb food is actually fun as hell.
Kiki Gao, Chinese Mexican, 35, Dallas
When I was younger, my sense of identity as someone who’s Chinese and Mexican felt like a diluted mix of both cultures. When I traveled to China, people treated me like a foreigner because I did not use local slang, nor could I read Chinese. It was not until I was older that I realized the uniqueness of this opportunity, because I can pick and choose which aspects of each culture to integrate into my identity — almost like knowing more languages so I have more words with which to express myself.
People are definitely curious about my racial and ethnic identity. I look Chinese, but Latin culture has a huge influence on me in the way I talk and carry myself. If people have a preconceived notion of a “quiet Asian woman,” it’s usually broken once they talk to me and want to learn about how I have two totally different cultures in my background. I want to encourage people to ask questions. Often, people shy away from asking questions due to fear of being insensitive. However, from my point of view, their desire to learn about me shows genuine interest based on good intentions, and I am happy to share anything they would like to know.
Brenden Perez, Taiwanese Mexican, 23, Chicago
Growing up, people always challenged my racial and ethnic identity, mostly coming for my Latinidad. I was what many would call a “no sabo,” meaning I was a Mexican/Latino who did not speak Spanish — and a lot of other kids excluded me from certain things because of that. They would call me el chinito, and sometimes Asian slurs; I was always othered when it came to fitting in with Latinos.
My advice for other Asian Latinos is please don’t neglect one side of your heritage and culture because you’re embarrassed or ashamed. Our foods, languages, and customs from both sides are equally important. I wish I started learning my Taiwanese grandmother's native tongue at a younger age, but I am just now catching up on it, and I know it means the world to my grandma that I want to get to know and understand her home. Validate both sides of your family and hold on to them; there’s a lot of people to learn from!
I was told more than once to go back to my “real” country. But I am not from China; I am Chinese Peruvian. I speak Spanish, not Chinese, and I consider China as part of my soul but not my motherland. - Nilton Ma
Nilton Ma, Chinese Peruvian, 33, New York City
For many years growing up in Peru, I tried to connect with my Chinese roots, but even though I was outwardly very similar to members of the Chinese community, I was very different on the inside. I wondered, “What was it to be Chinese? What could I do other than be Chinese?” In Peru, the smallest of physical differences turned you into an outsider — and for me, that meant I didn’t feel Peruvian enough. At school, everybody called me “chino” in reference to my appearance. In early adulthood, I was told more than once by other Peruvians to go back to my “real” country. But I am not from China; I am Chinese Peruvian. I speak Spanish, not Chinese, and I consider China as part of my soul but not my motherland.
I wish people understood that the color of our skin, the preferences we have, and the way we live don't make us less Latino. We all came from different parts of the world at different periods of time, and we will keep moving. I am a proud Chinese Peruvian, and a proud Latino making my way in the big city of New York.
Michizane Cruz Matsuki, Puerto Rican Japanese, 9, New York
The thing I love most about being Asian Latino is that I always eat the best food. My mom makes the best pizza empanadas, and I love sushi. I want to be able to speak to my family in Puerto Rico and Japan, but it is challenging trying to learn two totally different languages.
People sometimes don't know my two backgrounds and ask me "what I am." When I tell them I am Puerto Rican and Japanese, they say it’s a "cool mix." I wish people knew more about the holidays I celebrate in both of my cultures — like Three Kings Day for Puerto Rico and Boys/Girls Day in Japan.
I would tell a younger Asian Latino person that it’s important to learn about your culture, to eat the food of your people, and to practice speaking your native language — because I have to practice more!
Ximena N. Beltran Quan Kiu, Chinese Mexican, 35, Chicago and Albuquerque
There’s more of us than you think, and our experiences are very diverse. There’s no “right” or “wrong” way to be Asian Latino; there’s just a spectrum, because identity and history aren’t linear. There’s an incredible piece of art in Albuquerque called Mundos de Mestizaje (meaning mixed worlds) that challenged my own belief of who I am and where I come from. The more I look into “who I am,” and “how I identify,” the more I realize my world is bigger than being Mexican, Chinese, Latino, or Asian.
People made fun of my ethnicity and culture when I was a teen. I didn’t have the knowledge or words to express myself. I do now: Their ignorance is embarrassing. - Ximena N. Beltran Quan Kiu
If there’s advice I would give to a young Asian Latino person growing up now, it would be to listen to Bad Bunny [in his song, El Apagón] when he says “Todos quieren ser latino / Pero les falta sazón,” [meaning, “Everyone wants to be Latino / But they lack flavor”]. Now double down on that, because you have this whole other culture that’s a part of you. It’s an elite club where so few of us exist. Qué orgullo.
People made fun of my ethnicity and culture when I was a teen. I didn’t have the knowledge or words to express myself. I do now: Their ignorance is embarrassing. I can look back at the time and laugh, because I thought it was so incredible that I had such a unique ethnic/racial makeup. Because of that mindset, I never allowed someone’s limited worldview to affect me. I hope you don’t either. That belief, that self-love, has protected me from whatever animosity gets thrown my way. Never shrink yourself to be more digestible. Let ‘em choke.