My first experience with failure, or the one that I can remember, happened in second grade. My teacher, Mrs. Murphy, was a stern older woman who looked somewhat like Barbara Bush—incidentally the first lady at the time. Our classroom had a reading corner, where she would sit in the middle and order her students to wrap around her in a half-circle. But on this fall day, she wasn’t reading. She instead quizzed us on our middle names, which were printed out on a roster in front of her. Around me, Lynns, Lees, and Maries let themselves be known. When she got to me, I was silent, because I had no idea what my middle name was. I’m not sure I even knew middle names existed. She shook her head at me and said she never met a 7-year-old who didn’t know her full name. Unfamiliar with the sting of failure in public, I began to cry. I was still crying when I got home, still crying as my mother explained to me that my middle name was Astorga Jaramillo.
I remember thinking this wasn’t entirely fair. My middle name had 16 letters and didn’t even have an English pronunciation. My mom was born in Mexico, and it’s customary there to tie the maiden name to the married name (my great grandmother, for instance, is Eleuteria Chavez de Astorga). My mother’s birth dad wasn’t in the picture, and she was later adopted by her mother’s second husband, Flavio Jaramillo. Recognizing that American names tend to be much shorter, she cheated and condensed her maiden name to Astorga Jaramillo, which became my middle name.
This wasn’t the only time my cultural background would clash with Mrs. Murphy’s second grade class. Around Halloween, my mother made a piñata for me to take to school; it didn’t occur to her to check with the teacher for approval before sending her child to school with a papier-mâché donkey and baseball bat in tow. Mrs. Murphy had set up a game of darts to play at the Halloween party, but everyone in my class just wanted to hit the piñata. I could tell she was frustrated, so I went over and threw bat darts all by myself. I remember always having a sharp sense of empathy.
Feeling so deeply has occasionally made existing in the world difficult. For many people who consider themselves liberal, the election of Donald Trump was deeply upsetting. But for me, it was something more. In 2016, my father, who neither my mother or I had spoken to since he walked out without explanation in 2010, filed for divorce. One day, I saw some of his divorce paperwork and noticed that each time I was mentioned, my father and his lawyer referred to me as “Susan Ann Kemp,” which hit me when I read it like a sucker-punch. I understand that Astorga Jaramillo may seem long, but my father had 30 years to learn it prior to the dissolution of his marriage.
I was 31 years old, an adult by every known measurement of the word, but felt the insecurity of a child following my parents’ divorce and the 2016 presidential election. Talk of the wall, which I was never quite sure how literally to take, dominated social and political discourse. Former Mexican president Vicente Fox Quesada tweeted, “Sean Spicer, I’ve said this to @realDonaldTrump and now I’ll tell you: Mexico is not going to pay for that fucking wall. #FuckingWall”
I retweeted it. Shortly after, I changed my Twitter name from Susan Kemp to Susan Astorga Kemp. I felt compelled to show solidarity with a culture—my culture—that was being attacked in an unfathomably personal way. Maybe I felt so shaken by the election because I hadn’t faced the same racism my mother had until that point. I wonder now how often people’s acceptance of me came accidentally, a byproduct of my passing as white.
Taking ownership of my full name had been complicated by the great White Awakening that began years before. In the period in 2014 following the Ferguson unrest, white liberals started to consider racial profiling and systemic racism as real threats to democracy, a reality people of color already knew. White allies were encouraged to listen when people of color talked. But I soon noticed that white women included me in their collective “we,” and that it wasn’t just some people, but most people, who read me as white.
This was jarring: My entire life both of my parents always affirmed my identity as being biracial. On standardized tests, I selected “two or more races” when available, and when not, just checked both Caucasian and Hispanic regardless of the instructions to pick one. When I realized people saw me as white, it almost physically hurt—but I felt that I wasn’t allowed to hurt, that I wasn’t brown enough to hurt. When people perceived me as white, I felt that they were saying I wasn’t my mother’s daughter and I wasn’t my grandmother’s granddaughter. But those two women are my heroes.
My mother had to sell my childhood home shortly after the divorce; she couldn’t afford to buy my father’s half out. I lived an hour away, but for the Christmas holiday, I came to the house and laid on air mattresses in the living room with her. That week, I began to explore ancestry sites, but found them frustrating and not entirely useful for family lines that stem from poor Mexican farmers. In a time when I felt betrayed by my father and my country, it became vital for me to reclaim my Astorga identity.
My grandmother, Clotilde (Cleo) Astorga Jaramillo grew up in Torreón, Mexico. When her uncle’s farm went under, she started working as a maid at age eight. Later, she would work as a housekeeper for an Eastern European couple, who brought her and my mother (then six) along when they moved to the United States in 1958. What my grandma accomplished is a marvel. (Who goes from being a maid at eight to owning a home and putting a shelter over the heads of three children?) My mother is similarly hardworking. She served in the U.S. Air Force, then worked more than 20 years at USPS. She sometimes worked 60 to 70 hours a week in a manual labor job to help cover my living expenses while I was in college. Their strength is and has always been my inspiration to keep going.
Understanding your place in the world isn’t straightforward when you’re mixed race. I didn’t make it to adulthood unscathed. I remember, as a teenager, a classmate venting about Mexicans taking all the customer-service jobs, not knowing I was Mexican. This was in a state where a quarter of the population is Hispanic. I think the most painful impressions I have of racism, though, come from viewing my mother, a dark-skinned Mexican woman, deal with the world. While I was growing up, she was instinctually distrustful of white cops, white repairmen, and white politicians. It was traumatic for my mom, at age 6, to enter a society where some people actively hated her. Maybe that’s why after the divorce, she opted to keep Kemp as her last name. Her instinct has always been to bring as little attention to herself as possible.
But I’m a product of a different generation, and I wanted my identity back. When I announced I was now going by Susan Astorga Kemp on Facebook, things went slightly less than smooth. My cousin didn’t know why I was dropping the Jaramillo. The reason is simple: My mother always told me that she never felt like her adoptive father was a father to her in the same way that he was a father to his by-birth children. She also felt abandoned by her real father, a feeling anyone who doesn’t know their birth father is prone to encountering. Flavio Jaramillo, my mother’s adoptive father, died in the 1970s from cancer, so all we have are stories of him. My cousin insists he loved my mother deeply. My mother is on the autism spectrum, so I find it totally possible that she wasn’t able to perceive the full range of his feelings. Still, I kept my name to just Susan Astorga Kemp.
I still have anxiety in knowing that Americans aren’t traditionally accepting of extraordinarily long names. Whenever a Latinx person uses their full name in a sitcom, it’s a punchline. It’s used to buy into the stereotype of Latina as boisterous loudmouth, as if a long name is symbolic of thinking so much of yourself that you’re willing to take up more space. As our culture’s definition of race shifts, I continue to find my identity as a biracial woman somewhat elusive. Current definitions of race don’t work well for the Latinx community. My mom always told me there are white Hispanics, black Hispanics, and brown Hispanics—that despite skin color, these people share a culture. I may look white, but I am Mexican. My last name is Kemp, but I’m also an Astorga.