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Same Same Different: Write Your Own Narrative

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person holding a box bursting with flowers in front of their head
Arnold Hong for Michigan Radio

I·den·ti·ty /???den(t)?d?/

Noun: The fact of being who or what a person or thing is.

What shapes your identity? Your upbringing and experiences? The things you’ve learned about yourself and the world around you? The stuff people tell you about yourself?

And what happens when you decide to choose how you identify — to write your own narrative?

Ernesto Mireles is a husband, father, organizer, and teacher. He identifies as Chicano. He says growing up, his home was "a miraculous rainbow of humanity." His mom's white, his dad's Mexican, and his stepdad's black, and Mireles says he was given a lot of latitude to define himself.

“My identification as a Chicano is completely my choice,” he said. “It’s my choice that I have a PhD in Chicano studies, that I’ve spent my life organizing in the Chicano community. Those are choices that I made — because I didn’t have to do that.”

Morénike Giwa Onaiwu is a mom, writer, advocate, researcher, and self-proclaimed Steven Universe fan. She also identifies as an autistic woman.

“Growing up I wasn’t aware that I was autistic,” she said. “It was something that I learned in adulthood after my two youngest children were diagnosed.”

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We all have facets that make up who we are. But what do those layers, those identifiers mean to you?

Mireles views identity as contextual, as environmental. He says people often see identity as a diagnosis, but to him it's much more nuanced than that. 

“Culture and identity are things that we construct every day through our experiences and through our lives,” he said. “There is no box that we need to cram ourselves into. There is enough space within any of these words. There’s enough latitude within any of these ideas for us to be who we are.”

Onaiwu said her autism diagnosis caused her to think a lot about identity-first language.

“I am an autistic person, not a person with autism,” she said. “Because it isn’t a problem. It is a disability, but it isn’t this wrong, deficient thing.”

She said she also realized how important it was to embrace her identity as an autistic person for her children. “I openly identify as autistic not because people have to do that, but because I need to be a visible demonstration," Onaiwu said. Instead of trying to hide her disability, she now owns it.

"I don't have to speak the way that other people speak. I don't have to move the way that other people move. I don't have to suppress myself and be in emotional and physical pain so that I can hide who I am. If they don't like, screw it. I'm going to be me." 

The ways Onaiwu and Mireles identify have influenced the work they do. Mireles is working on a documentaryabout the fight to get a Xicano studies program going at Michigan State University. And Onaiwu wrote an anthology about living as an autistic person of color titled "All The Weight of our Dreams."

Listen to host Bryce Huffman’s full conversation with Mireles and Onaiwu in episode 4 of Same Same Different from Michigan Radio on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen.

What has shaped your identity? We want to hear from you. Join us in our Facebook group.

About the artist: Arnold Hong is a Detroit based illustrator and recent graduate from the College for Creative Studies. Arnold’s work merges elements of linear narrative with abstract concepts to create graphically stylized editorial illustrations.

More of his work can be seen at artofarnold.com or @arnold.hong

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Paulette is a digital media reporter and producer for Michigan Public. She started as a newsroom intern at the station in 2014 and has taken on various roles in that time, including filling in as an on-air host.