In an increasingly multiracial America, identity is a fluid thing

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If there’s any part of town that’s solidly Latino, it’s where Walter Thompson Hernandez grew up, in Huntington Park.

The city, on the southeast fringe of Los Angeles, is 97 percent Latino. Thompson-Hernandez was raised there by his mother, an immigrant from Jalisco, in what he describes as a very Mexican household.

"Quinceaneras, Vicente Fernandez, chilaquiles — those were very prominent fixtures in my upbringing," said Thompson-Hernandez, now a graduate-student researcher at the University of Southern California.

But he was different: “I saw myself as Mexican, but I stood out. I was always the tallest kid, had the curliest hair, the darkest skin,” he said.

His father was African-American, born in Oakland. His parents were estranged when he was very young. His mother always told him about his mixed heritage. But it didn't really hit him until they moved to the Palms neighborhood of L.A., on the Westside.

"When we moved to the Westside, most of my friends were African-American," Thompson-Hernandez said. "In a way, I sort of longed to identify that part of my heritage. So all my friends were black. I would spend countless hours, sleepovers at their house. So I came into this black identity by experiencing blackness with my friends."

In his early 20s, he reconnected with his father and his father's side of the family. It was around that time that he first heard the term "blaxican," for black and Mexican. It resonated — and he ran with it.

Thompson-Hernandez began documenting the experiences of fellow blaxicans from around Los Angeles two years ago as a graduate student at Stanford. He collected people's stories and shared their photos on Instagram. Photos from his project went on display Feb. 13 at the Avenue 50 Studio in Highland Park and will be exhibited through March 5.

Thompson-Hernandez says his "Blaxicans of L.A." project has helped him make sense of who he is and the two worlds he moves between.

"I always thought I was alone, feeling like I wasn’t black enough or Mexican enough," he said. "What this project has done for me is allowed me to see that I was never alone.”

An evolving, often fluid identity is familiar territory for a growing number of Americans as the U.S. population becomes increasingly mixed. The U.S. Census counted 9 million people who described themselves as multiracial in 2010.

But last year, the Pew Research Center estimated the number of multiracial Americans is almost twice that, approximately 16.9 million people, or close to 7 percent of the population. Researchers asked questions about people’s family history, and found that many who identified as one race in fact had a parent or grandparent of another race.

This is because racial identity can depend on where one was raised, on family dynamics, and on how the rest of the world sees you, said Richard Morin, one of the Pew report's authors.

“A big factor is how they were raised, their exposure within the family and within the broader community," Morin said. "It’s interesting that in many instances people have changed their racial identification as they’ve gotten older.”

This evolving dance with race and identity is a familiar theme for Los Angeles actor and playwright Fanshen Cox. She produces a one-woman show called "One Drop of Love," which she performs around the country. Her father is a Jamaican immigrant. Her mother is Native American and Danish.

Cox remembers how some black relatives and friends in Washington, D.C., identified her as a child: "In D.C., which is where I was born, I was 'red bone' and 'high yellow.'”

These terms labeled her as a light-skinned black person and set her at a distance — closer to white, as she describes it. Then her family moved to liberal Cambridge, Massachusetts.

“In Cambridge, I’m 'other.' Then I learn 'mulatto,' and I’m like, 'OK, then I’ll try that on for a little while,'" Cox said. "'Biracial' was very popular there."

Then she went to college. For the first time, Cox says she felt accepted by fellow black students as one of them. It was also in college that she learned about the so-called "one drop" rule — an old, discriminatory social rule that classified anyone with sub-Saharan African ancestry as black. Cox says she channeled her anger into her identity.

“I grew the relaxer out of my hair, started listening to a lot of Public Enemy and snapping my gum, rolling my eyes at all the white people...I performed race," she said. "I can see it that way now."

But the sense of belonging she got in college came to a screeching halt when Cox joined the Peace Corps and traveled to West Africa.

"And the minute I get to West Africa and tell everybody, 'Hey, brothers and sisters, I’m black!' They say. 'No, no you’re not, you’re white,'" Cox said, laughing at her younger self.

All of this was necessary in her personal evolution, said Cox, who now describes herself  simply as "a cultural mixed woman searching for racial answers.” As many multicultural Americans do, she still code-switches between cultures, depending on who she might be with.

"But it's organic ... it's what naturally comes out, and it feels good," Cox said. "At the time, it was definitely over-exaggeration ... but it was just what I needed to do, because I was not looking on the outside the way I was feeling on the inside."

Giving people a space to share stories like these is what author Heidi Durrow set out to do in 2008, when she began organizing multiracial writers, filmmakers and others for a storytelling festival that's now known as Mixed Remixed. Once a year in Los Angeles, attendees come together for workshops and panels, and to creatively share their own personal stories about identity.

"When we talk abut these things — our experience — it allows other people to talk about it," said Durrow, who grew up as the child of a black American military father and a Danish mother, who met while his father was stationed in Europe.

"What does it actually mean for someone to grow up half Asian and half Mexican, or half black and half Filipino? Those are the stories that I really want to hear," Durrow said. "It's really exciting because when they tell you those very specific stories, more and more people enter the story as well, because they find their own complication. And they find their connection."

At some point in the not-too-distant future, having a complex racial and cultural family history will be more or less the norm in the United States, said Pew's Morin. The 2010 Census showed a 32 percent increase from 2000 in the number of people who identified as having two or more racial backgrounds. The population of multiracial children grew even more, by 50 percent.

"More and more people will acknowledge and embrace their multiracial identity," Morin said. "The bottom line is that America is a diverse country. It's probably a lot more diverse than we think, but its not as diverse as it will be."

So how might these future generations identify? One good example is the Smith-Kang family in the San Fernando Valley.

Sonia Smith-Kang (back row right) poses with her multiracial, multicultural family. She is Mexican-black and her husband is Korean.
Sonia Smith-Kang (back row right) poses with her multiracial, multicultural family. She is Mexican-black and her husband is Korean. Sonia Smith Kang

“They definitely identify (as) the black, the Korean, the Latina — and mixed," Sonia Smith-Kang, who is of black and Mexican descent, said in describing the kids she's raising with her Korean-American husband. "It’s almost like you have a fourth (category) — an extra, if it makes sense. So they get to experience each one individually. Then they can bring it all together at the same time.”

From this household, a clothing line was born: Smith-Kang is the founder of a children's clothing line, Mixed Up Clothing. Think shirts festooned with Mexican Dia de Los Muertos designs, or dresses made from African prints.

Smith-Kang sees the clothes as icebreakers, a way to get people talking about their own cultural and racial identity.

"I use Mixed Up Clothing as a vehicle to teach," Smith-Kang. "I want to learn about different cultures that I've put on the clothes, and I want others to learn about different cultures."

Like Thompson-Hernandez and Cox, Smith-Kang says her own identity is fluid as she moves between cultures. When people ask about her background, “I go back and forth," she said. "I’ll say I’m black and Mexican, or I’ll say ‘blaxican,’ or Afro-Latina. It can vary from day to day.”

As she sees it, that's perfectly OK.

"I think that is one of the cool things about identity — its mine," Smith-Kang said. "And I’m able to self-identify. It’s not me trying to convince you who I am. It’s who I am.”

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