Ignacio Martinez Is Digging Deeper

Smartsheet's Ignacio Martinez on the hidden complexities of his Identidad

Several terms are used to describe people who are of Hispanic/Latino origin or descent. Examples include Latinx, Latine, Chicano, Mexican, Afro-Latino, South-American, etc. Which term(s) do you use to describe yourself?

“If you had asked me that question six months ago, I would have given you a very definitive answer. Why? Because six months ago I actually had an answer, one that took a long time to figure out and formulate. And I got great satisfaction giving that answer when asked, probably because it took me so long to find.

As Ricky Ricardo said, “I have some ’splainin’ to do.” I was born in the US in the state of New Mexico. My father was born in Mexico and came to the US with his family, who became citizens when he was only five years old. The fact that my dad was born in Mexico and I was technically first-generation was lost on me when I was young. You see, my mother was white, of French Canadian descent. She was from a family that had resided in Boston for many generations, and her maiden name was Cote. Growing up, all I knew was that I was American, did the Pledge of Allegiance each day at school, watched American cartoons, ate American food, and didn’t speak any Spanish in the house at all. My dad was a chemistry PhD graduate student: he eventually secured a position with the US National Labs, and carried a cool briefcase.

Everything seemed American, other than my Spanish name—but then, there were a lot of other kids with Spanish names, who enjoyed the same American stuff I did and didn’t speak Spanish either.

I first became aware of my “Hispanicness” when I was probably five or six. My dad hosted other Hispanic graduate students and coworkers at the house, and while I don’t remember a lot, I do remember two things. First, I remember that the chemistry and physics graduate students spent a lot of time and effort figuring out how to work the tap on a beer keg. Second, I recall hearing long debates about ethnicity—arguments about the meaning of words like Latino, Hispanic, and Chicano; discussions about who could legitimately be called a Chicano; and all associated arguments, from regional heritage to food differences. I gathered that I was somehow one of those three words, and a part of this discussion.

That was also the age I realized that my grandparents on my dad’s side only spoke Spanish, because they were from Mexico and had come to the US later in life. Spending summers with my grandparents helped me learn Spanish as a second language—yes, as weird as it sounds, the guy with the Spanish name had to learn to speak Spanish. Thus, growing up I settled on thinking of my heritage as half-Mexican American, or Hispanic and half-white.

This answer served me well for decades. I learned to like it, explain it, even embrace it. I would explain to my gringo friends how they had appropriated my people’s foods, the food of my forefathers. The chocolate they so enjoyed, the avocados and corn they ate—my friends would not have had any of those foods were it not for my people. And yes, I pointed out that the Aztec blood in my veins probably gave me the ability to remove their hearts while still beating, should the need arise. I coupled that with the fact that my mom could trace her family’s ancestry back to the early 1700s—her family had been living in the US long before most. 

My world changed about six months ago when one of my boys urged our family to do genetic heritage testing. I thought it would confirm what I had already figured out about my heritage. Boy was I wrong. The results came back showing that nearly all of my heritage was Spanish, mostly from South Central Spain and partly from the Basque region of Northern Spain and Southern France. I scratched my head and realized I had to do some digging.  

It turns out that on my mother’s side, the French Canadian heritage I had always heard about was actually my grandfather’s Basque heritage. My grandmother, who I had always thought was white, was actually Spanish. This explained the lower than expected amount of French Canadian heritage in my genetic tests. On my father’s side, I learned that my grandfather was actually born in the New Mexico territory prior to New Mexico becoming a state in 1912—and that his father, my great-grandfather, took the family to Mexico during the Great Depression, where there were (ironically) better work opportunities. After growing up in Mexico, my grandfather met and married my grandmother. They had kids, and that’s where the story I knew picked up. What I didn’t know was that both my grandfather and grandmother on my dad’s side—and my grandmother on my mom’s side—were from very old Spanish families that settled in what would eventually become the United States shortly after the Spanish conquistadors came up the Rio Grande Valley.

This turned my world upside down. I threw my old story out the window and began to think about what my heritage actually is, what term really applies. Frankly, I don’t know if any one term applies when one is Spanish and Basque by way of Boston and Mexico. Am I of American, Mexican, or European decent? On top of that, my ancestors on both sides were on this continent before the pilgrims—am I of a displaced people? I love Spanish, French, and Mexican cuisines—is that OK, or am I engaging in cultural appropriation? If I am, which one am I appropriating? What flag should I wave during soccer matches—Mexico’s, FC Barcelona’s, or Real Madrid’s? To further compound matters, I’m married to a Scottish woman, which has begun a debate about who is more Old World.

Figuring all this out will take time.”