Don't tell me I'm 'not Hispanic enough' when you find out I benefit from affirmative action

“My parents don’t think you’re Hispanic enough to deserve the award," a classmate told me as we left the high school counselor's office. It was our senior year, and we had both just received the distinction of National Hispanic Scholar, certificates in hand. 

In the fall of my junior year of high school, I sat down to take the PSAT. With all of the emphasis put on college admissions tests, it would be an understatement to say that I was stressed. It was relieving to begin the test knowing all of the answers to part one — my basic information. First and last name, grade level, gender and race/ethnicity.

National Merit awards are based on PSAT scores and GPA. Additionally, to qualify to be a National Hispanic Scholar, you need to be "one-quarter" Hispanic/Latino. 

I come from a middle-class family and went to a good high school. When I received the NHS award, I had an internal struggle about whether the system I'm benefitting from is fair. The most glaring problem with distributing awards based on test scores is that wealthier people are more likely to benefit from them than people growing up in poorer communities. 

I can count on my hands the number of times people have made racist comments to me about my Mexican heritage, and beyond that, all of the times I was able to shrug them off.

However, since I received the distinction of National Hispanic Scholar based on my PSAT score, GPA and ethnicity, I’ve felt that it has been a point of contention more than anything else.

Since then, nearly every instance where someone has talked to me about the distinction, it's been in a condescending way. My best friends in high school even told me that I didn’t deserve it, because I wasn’t poor and didn't speak Spanish in the house. I didn’t have a good answer to this at the time.

Even last week, I had someone tell me they thought the National Hispanic award was a joke. “If I were Mexican, I would have gotten the award, too,” he said. While I’m not usually one to ask other people how they performed on tests, I made an exception in this case and asked what his score was. Interestingly enough, he wouldn’t have been a NHS — not even close.

These instances as well as many others have led me to ask myself if they’re right. Am I Hispanic enough? Do I really deserve the benefits my ethnicity has afforded me? To these questions my answers would be a resounding “Yes!” and “It’s complicated.”

I have been proud of my Mexican heritage my entire life. Hearing stories about the resiliency of my grandfather to get through school in a time when few Mexican-Americans did, or the strength of my great-grandmother to immigrate to the U.S. over 100 years ago warms my heart. When I bubbled in my name and gender on the PSAT, I was as sure about those answers as I was when I filled in that I am Hispanic.

As confident as I am today in my heritage, I still have complicated feelings about affirmative action and the NHS award itself. On one hand, I think that ethnicity should not be the only external factor in determining National Hispanic Scholars. The way things stand, those most likely to benefit from the awards are students that come from wealthier families, whereas poor test takers have the most to gain.

While for that reason I feel the system is not perfect, I do not think it is broken either. In a talk with writer Sherman Alexie, he told me that while he did benefit from affirmative action over individuals less fortunate than himself, it was because of these benefits that he was able to go on and make a difference. In his case, Alexie was able to drastically change conditions for Native Americans across the country. He told me, “It only takes one person.”

Overall, I am in support of affirmative action, but I think that changes need to be made to the system as it currently stands. Rather than attacking the beneficiaries of the current system, we need to focus our efforts on reforming current institutions. Instead of telling me that I’m undeserving of this award and making assumptions on views of affirmative action, let’s have an honest conversation about how we can best empower people to transform their communities. 

Related Links:

Affirmative action bake sales: Right message, wrong execution

'El Grito de Dolores' kicks off Hispanic Heritage Month at ASU West

Reach the columnist at or follow @benkingaz on Twitter.

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Editor’s note: The opinions presented in this column are the author’s and do not imply any endorsement from The State Press or its editors.

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