The Name Game: Latinidad y Yo

by Dominic Schnabel

Last names are hard, mine no exception. Schnabel. I have heard it butchered in every which way possible. Extra emphasis on the “a”, “bell” instead of “bull,” even adding in a few “p’s” and “k’s” for extra enunciation. Those familiar with the name’s German origin must think that I bleed beer and schnitzel due to how German my last name is. Yet that isn’t the whole truth. I am German, yes. But it is probably only a small shot in the European genetic cocktail that I inherited from my mother. In fact, I am way more Irish in heritage than I am German, which usually becomes clearer once I tell people my middle name is Delaney. Interestingly enough, Dominic Delaney Schnabel, though it rolls off the tongue effortlessly, was not the name I was given at birth. For the first few months of my life I was under a completely different alias.

Once my sister was born, she inherited a lot of my things. She got the same high chair I once used, the same crib, even same car seat. As a young child I remember looking at said car seat and seeing a name etched in black sharpie. “Dominic Francis Tavarez”. After some probing I realized that this was my name, or former one to be clear. Like most things told to a young child the information went well over my little head. I was pretty sure no other kid my age was “cool” enough to have two names! It was not until I was older that I really began to take notice of the more striking differences between myself and others.

When we are young, I suppose it is usual to not be keenly aware of the differences between ourselves and others. My family seemed just like everyone else. Two kids. Two parents. A dog. We went to church on Sundays. We were living the quote unquote typical American life. Every year my school published a directory of all the students with their associated home phone numbers, addresses and parents listed. Little did I know that some of my classmates actually read these entries. Around the 2nd or 3rd grade, some of my peers began to question who my parents were. “It says that your parents are Frank and David! Which one is your mom?” To which I would explain that I had a mom! She just didn’t live with me. Frank and David were my dads! But not my only dads. I had another dad, he was named Marshall. It just became a tad overwhelming to explain this whirlwind of familial connections to every person that questioned. Through these mild playground interrogations, I began to notice that my family was a bit different, at least more so than I originally believed. I suppose it is worth a brief overview to provide context.

I was born April 1st, 1997 as Dominic Francis Tavarez. For the first few months of my life I lived with my birth parents, but it soon became clear that they were not fit to care for an infant. After a bit of legal proceedings, my uncle, Frank offered to take me into custody, along with his partner David. After about a year in their care, the adoption was finalized and my name was changed to Dominic Delaney Schnabel, Delaney being Frank’s last name and Schnabel being David’s. That is the most abridged version of the story I can give. And let me tell you, being raised by two dads is another story on its own. However, being adopted itself presented some unique challenges. I always run through the “what-ifs”. What if I was raised by my birth parents? Would I still be where I am today? How would life in East Los Angeles compare to my suburban upbringing? What about if I was raised in a “real” Mexican household? In fact, questions regarding my own racial identification have plagued me for quite some time, as I continue to grapple with the question “Am I Latinx enough?”

Now for a brief detour: I always loved Lilo and Stitch. I was obsessed at a young age with the various “experiments” that each had their own unique abilities, from being a lava spewing monster to a flexible circus menace. Though when I reflect upon my love for the show, one quote from the blue little alien, Stitch, always sticks out. “Ohana means family, and family means nobody gets left behind or forgotten.” In context, the quote was supposed to refer to Stitch’s extended family of over 600 other monsters plus his adoptive family of Lilo/Nali. Despite the fact that they did not all look the same, act the same or even come from the same background, they were still family. I’ve always had a rather similar view towards my definition of “family.” When my parents took me to “family functions” I was almost never around people that shared my heritage or even looked like me. The closest extended family members were David’s that lived in Long Beach the bore no relation to me at all though they certainly were diverse from Filipino to African-American to German. Though I never considered the stark differences between our appearances. They were family to me and they treated me like such. I was always accepted and loved as their own. For a few years, my nuclear family would journey over to Indianapolis, Indiana to visit Grandma and Grandpa Schnabel. They were always so excited to see us, and my sister and I were showered in the usual gifts that only grandparents seem to know how to provide, again despite having no blood relation to us at all. Having a family to call my own was never a problem, despite none of them sharing all that much with me besides the occasional last name.

Much like my blissful ignorance about my family being the same as others, I never was concerned about race. My father, Frank, raised me with a strong love for my Irish heritage. Every year he would bake Irish Soda Bread for my class on Saint Patrick’s Day and he even led a class on Irish Heritage during our World Heritage Day. I was also aware of my slight German heritage. But beyond that, my ethnicity didn’t matter to me. I just wasn’t able to connect the dots. But one day when I was around 11 or 12, my biological father was visiting and began telling me stories of his family immigrating from Mexico and settling down in Los Angeles. I did not have many connections to that side of my family so it struck me a bit upside the head. Then things began to piece themselves together in a manner that would envy any upper-division logic class. My biological father, related to me, has Mexican heritage, therefore I too must be Mexican. I was Irish. No I was Mexican. Wait, I was both. How could this be? I didn’t look like the other Mexican students at my school. These thoughts raced through my young adolescent head but I soon became overjoyed with the prospect of “being” Mexican in a token sense. My childhood mind equated it to finding that extra present behind the tree on Christmas morning. I was Mexican dammit, and everyone needed to know.

“Did you know that I am part Mexican” became my go-to factoid to drop during enlightening middle school discussions. I became obsessed with the idea of being Mexicano. I purchased a Team Mexico Soccer Jersey and even changed my Facebook profile description to read “Vivia la independencia.” I did pretty much every stereotypical item in the book just to shove my Mexican Pride in other people’s faces. Despite my immediate acceptance of my newfound heritage, others were a bit quick to cast doubt on my race.

“You’re way too pale”
“But you have Green eyes?”
“I’ve seen your Dad. What are you talking about, white boy?”

I went to great lengths to try and gain an acceptance from others in regards to my own racial identity. But how would I prove it to them? I couldn’t just easily show them my family picture. Neither of my adoptive dads had a drop of Mexican blood. And I didn’t’ want to detail my life story as to why I no longer lived with my biological father. Why did I have to explain my identity? As I aged into high school, my race became a running gag within my friend group. Whenever I was broadly labeled as a “white person” I would proudly correct the “offender” by informing them that I was actually “half Mexican.” Overtime my close friends began to match my response with a few lighthearted groans and eye rolls. But this presented a very hard questions for me to grapple with. For an intents and purposes, I was white. I looked it. My nuclear family was completely white. I had no Spanish background. I might have lived in Los Angeles County but I was in the predominantly white suburb of Claremont. My dad couldn’t make mole if he tried. I had never been to a quinceanera. No abuelitas. No fiestas. Soy Mexicano? Si o no?

Just as others doubted my heritage, I began to not see myself as Mexican. I was an imposter. I often heard Latinx students describe themselves as “coconuts,” a term they used to make reference to their “appearance” of being of Latin descent yet their personal disconnect from being Latinx. If they felt like coconuts I felt like a Golden Oreo, simply white on white. In a sense, I gave up on my Latinx heritage. But I knew deep down that I had Mexican blood. In my freshman year of college, I managed to get a genetic analysis done and it provided me with an estimate about my genetic heritage, to which it estimated I had about 45% Latin American/Spanish heritage. At the time, it was validating. Finally, if people wouldn’t listen at least science was confirming my background. Though as I began to ponder these results further, they began to only symbolize my feelings towards being Latinx. I was Latinx, genetically. I was not Latinx in any other way. I lacked the background. I don’t look the part. I was not raised the part. Heck, beyond my biological father I had no connection to my Latin heritage. From that point, I gave up on being Latinx, it would never be for me.

Until this summer. On a rather warm Southern California day, I journeyed out to my mailbox and found a letter addressed to me from my biological father. I remember being taken aback as he never sent mail. Nobody was home at the time so I busted open the letter and found pictures and documents from the “Tavarez” bloodline. One of the bulkier items in the envelope was a 3 paged letter written by my paternal grandfather. In it, he provided an outline on the migration of his family from Aguascalientes, Mexico to Los Angeles, California. He detailed the small hardships that he experienced as a Hispanic in the United States and his desire to provide a good life for his children. It was as if I finally had the connection to my heritage that I wanted. In a way it felt validating, more than any genetic test could provide. I realized that I was living out what my grandfather could only have imagined. To have a wonderful family, go to a good school and be happy. It made me proud of my grandfather I never met. He had such a desire to provide for his family that made my being here even a possibility. When I looked at the accompanying pictures of him, I could see not only myself but also the face of thousands of immigrants like him, that journey to the US in hopes of a better future. As cliché as it may seem, reading the note linked me to my heritage. I could be proud of my background no matter what. It was not up to anyone else to define what being Latinx meant. I am Latinx, dammit, and nobody needs to know. I don’t need anyone’s validation but my own. I am proud of my background.