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Latino identity, beyond the labels

Locals share personal stories about their place in city

Latinos in the U.S. don’t fit neatly into any one box. Diverse backgrounds, language skills, religion and skin color make it difficult for everyone — from politicians to advertisers across the country — to wrap their heads around the Latino experience.

Chicano, Tejano, Hispanic? There is no single Latino experience in Austin, either.

In the first installment of Austin Gente, a new video and story series that explores what it means to be Latino in the U.S. in the midst of a changing cultural landscape, we dive into the lives of three local Latinos who share their personal identity stories and how they fit or don’t fit into life in Austin. Each Austinite brings a unique point of view, and, despite having different experiences and backgrounds, makes up a part of the diverse and complex Latino reality.

Between worlds

Veteran spray can artist and native Austinite Nathan “Sloke One” Nordstrom constantly navigates between two worlds but never perfectly fits into either. He’s half Mexican and half Swedish and has grown used to curious people asking him, “What are you?”

“You know there’s one thing I can’t stand is when I have to fill out a form and answer whether I’m Caucasian or Hispanic,” he says. “I’m both.”

Nordstrom grew up on the west side of Austin, which he said turned off the largely Latino graffiti writers who made it difficult for him to be a part of that scene as a teenager. What they didn’t know was that Nordstrom grew up with modest means in University of Texas student housing and was Latino like them.

“But what are you going to do, sit there and explain it to them?” he says. “No, (in school) you’re already labeled by where you live and labeled by skin color. That’s just the way it works.” As a kid, he was called racial slurs for being both white and Latino.

“I think a lot of my youth was spent confused about my identity,” he says. But he dealt with it through art and skateboarding.

“In graffiti, no one really knew your identity,” he says. “Your identity didn’t matter, it was the work that mattered. Your work is a statement or declaration of who you are. I am Sloke, and this is my style. That’s what graffiti is to me.”

Over the years, Nordstrom has taught spray can art at the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center as well as the Dougherty Arts Center. His artwork has been featured in museums, numerous publications, documentaries and galleries around the world.

“I identify myself as a human being on this planet who likes to paint and who grew up in Austin,” he says.

Gritos of joy

Austinite Ire’ne Lara Silva grew up in a family of migrant farm worker truck drivers. She lived in motel rooms or temporary rental houses with her family, which followed the harvest season throughout New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas hauling onions, sugar cane and rice.

When Silva started school, she started losing her Spanish. But at 12, she fell in love with traditional Mexican folk music called ranchera. Through the music, she reconnected with the language. During a ranchera song, the singers often belt out “gritos,” a scream that comes from the depths of a singer to convey joy, anger or despair.

Throwing gritos is often seen as a “macho thing,” Silva says. The first time her mom heard her throw one, she warned her not to do it in front of her father. But during her brother’s wedding, her brother asked her to throw a grito at the party and she couldn’t say no. She did it, and her father came running toward her.

“Así se hace, mija,” he said. “That’s how it’s done, my girl.”

Silva, now an award-winning poet who recently released a collection of short stories, “Flesh to Bone,” also teaches aspiring writers how to belt out their own screams.

“If I can pull a grito out of you, then you can figure out where it’s coming from and channel that when writing a poem,” she says. “I find comfort in the grito. For me, throwing gritos feels free.”

Language of love

Multidisciplinary artist Leticia Rodriguez Garza earlier this month released her Spanish-language EP, “Sagüita al Bate,” but Rodriguez Garza isn’t fluent in Spanish. Singing in the language of her roots connects her with not only her Latino culture but also her family.

Her late aunt, Eva Garza, considered one of the first internationally recorded bilingual artists to cross over in the U.S., also sang in Spanish. Her aunt recorded about 200 songs, which Rodriguez Garza now reinterprets. Eva Garza also appeared in more than 20 films during the 1940s and 1950s.

Rodriguez Garza, who grew up in a Houston neighborhood with few people of color, says her parents were punished for speaking Spanish as children, so the language wasn’t passed down to her generation. “I grew up feeling like a coconut, ” she says, referring to a term used when someone feels brown on the outside and white on the inside.

Rodriguez Garza now bridges cultures through her art, from one-woman shows to music. Before she decides to sing a song, Rodriguez Garza consults the English/Spanish dictionary or translates online and talks to her mother or other Spanish speakers about the meaning of the songs.

“Singing in English would just be too easy,” she says.

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