Half Mexican and half Native American – with connections to the Ohkay Owingeh (Tewa), Hopi, and Navajo tribes – Phoenix College (PC) Instructional Services Coordinator Stephanie Madison admits to the difficulty of fitting in with both sides of her identity. “I never truly feel like I belong,” she said. “When I go to the reservation I think, Oh God, I’m the only Mexican here. At Food City, I’m the only Native American.” As a child, while her parents were at work, she often stayed with her Mexican nana who reinforced Stephanie’s two identities during the morning’s hair braiding ritual. “She asked if I wanted to be Mexican or Indian that day. If I wanted to be Mexican, she would give me one braid. If I wanted to be Indian, she would give me two braids,” Stephanie said, which further separated the identities in her mind and made her question why she couldn’t be both.
That feeling of not belonging is common among the 33.8 million people in the United States who, according to 2020 US census data, identify as Multiracial, up 276% from 2010, when 9 million people identified as Multiracial. The changes in the Multiracial population are attributed to a number of factors, including demographic changes since 2010, but also the improvements to the design of the two separate census questions for race and ethnicity, data processing, and coding, which enabled a more thorough and accurate depiction of how people prefer to self-identify (Census.gov). At Phoenix College, 326 students or 3.1% of our student population identify as two or more ethnicities.
According to Olivia Bobbitt in “Stages of Racial Identity Among Mulitracial Undergraduates,” biracial people may find it challenging to completely embrace either of their racial heritages. An undergraduate research project by Zoey Doto and Moin Syed at the University of Minnesota also suggests that multiracial people are frequently caught between two or more worlds with various cultures and traditions to learn from, making it difficult to develop a sense of belonging.
Stephanie’s own research for a capstone project as a Communications undergraduate focused on Biracial identities and being raised in a multicultural family. That feeling of being a “weird hybrid” often persists, even now, she said. For instance, when Stephanie was asked to be interviewed about her Native background or participate in an Indigenous women's panel for Native American History Month, she said, “I get impostor syndrome, because I'm not fully native.” She questions whether she has the credibility to speak on behalf of indigenous women.
One thing that helps Stephanie find her balance are the similarities between the two cultures. “Thankfully, the morals and values of my Mexican side and my Native side intersect,” she said. Her Hopi/Tewa side, which is a matriarchal society, feels similar to her Mexican side in the sense that “women are the ones holding everything together,” Stephanie said. She credits her mother, aunts, and grandmother for teaching her what she needed to know as a Native woman. “The women in my family have been such a huge influence. I am them and they are me,” she said. “Everything I do is a reflection of them.” Her Hopi/Tewa grandmother made sure Stephanie, who grew up in Phoenix, returned to the Hopi reservation to observe traditional ceremonies and know her worth as a woman in her household.
When Stephanie’s son, who is now fifteen years old, was born, she and her family honored the Hopi tradition of a naming ceremony, which normally happens the morning of the 20th day after the child is born. “It’s a big family gathering,” Stephanie said. “And a beautiful ceremony.” On the Navajo side, they hosted a laughing celebration. “The first person who makes the infant laugh is honored with a celebration,” explained Stephanie. “They hold a special place in my son’s life because they brought out his first laugh.” While Stephanie respects her native family and is grateful to be able to observe the culture and pass down these traditions, she also identifies as a Christian and does not partake in every ceremony. “That’s important to note. Yet, what I have observed and learned about native ceremonies is important for me to pass down to my son. I see the value in the morals that were passed down to me.”
Stephanie is also proud of her Mexican side. She is a fourth-generation American on her Mexican side. Her paternal great grandfather was born in Fort McDowell in 1895 while it was part of the Territory of New Mexico. Her paternal great grandmother, born in Phoenix on December 28, 1912, just after Arizona became a state, was the first American in the family. “We’re true Arizonans. When people ask what part of Mexico are you from I respond, ‘I don’t know, we’ve been here.’” Yet, her grandparents still went through the process of assimilation because segregation affected both African Americans and Hispanics in the Southwest.
Even though she changed her major “a bazillion times” during pursuit of her bachelor’s degree while a young mom, at one point she wanted to be a teacher. What stuck with her during those lessons is that students are more likely to be successful in class when they have a teacher of the same background. “Growing up, I never had a brown teacher. Everyone was white, except Mr. Dong, who was Chinese American.” In her education classes she thought, How cool would it be to make an impact on Hispanic kids and Native American ones too?
Now, Stephanie sees the value of her two demographics. For many Multiracial individuals their racial socialization and identity development contributes to their resilience. With 17 years of combined work experience on PC’s campus, currently coordinating the Student Success Specialist program, Stephanie finds being able to say to other Hispanic, Native, and Multiracial students, as well as working student moms, I identify with you, has impact. “I want to be able to make that connection with students to communicate, You're not alone.”
At Phoenix College, every individual brings a unique story that enriches our community. Whether you are faculty, staff, student, or alumni, your background adds to the tapestry of our collective experience. By sharing your story, you enrich us all. Check out PC’s Story Studio and respond to the Question of the Month or Share your Advice with new students. We’re eager to hear your perspective.
Phoenix College students Vania Araujo, Kevin Banuelos, Hannah Bolden, and Michelle Howell contributed to this story with their research, interview of Stephanie, and writing during their Achieving College Education (ACE) Fall 2023 ENG 102 class.