Native South American, how do I check off?

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Mar 18, 2022
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Long story short, my mom is mestizo and we live with my Indigenous grandmother who cooks Indigenous food and taught us some of the language. I did extensive research on our tribe back in the home country (coming to an undergrad journal near you in 2 months) recording some of our legends and oral histories. It's always been a big part of our lives, especially because my grandma was forced off her homeland during the civil war that impacted Indigenous communities the most. I always check off Hispanic/Latino and sometimes they'll have (includes South and Central American Indian) when it comes time to check off the little box. When the little box has those parentheses I will say yes.

A little rude, but I do look like my background (ethnically ambiguous tbh cause my dad is Arab) and if you look at my grandmother there is zero doubt that we have an Indigenous background (pin-straight black hair, tall, wears traditional skirts). Over there the ethnicity/race markers are very different, especially because so much of the population is Indigenous, also our tribe does not register, because also literacy is a big challenge there, something in my grandmother that pushed me to try for medical school in the first place to better serve people like her.

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South Americans are not generally considered UiM. There are so few South Americans of indigenous origin that medical school response is difficult to predict. I know of no population of indigenous S Americans in the US. Heck, they're even rare in S America. Nevertheless, you will add diversity and Spanish language skills are always appreciated.
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I have a similar background to you, but with limited engagement with my indigenous background since immigrating to the US. I've always selected Hispanic/Latino, and get more detailed where possible (in AMCAS I selected my specific nationality, for example), but I don't select any indigenous designation as it does not reflect my current cultural/ethnic experience (and, I regard 'Hispanic/Latino' as ambiguous/inclusivce enough for my purposes). It's all self-reported, in good faith. Ultimately, if you feel connected and engaged with that aspect of your heritage/background, no one can tell you how you choose to 'check off.'

However, I do think it's fair game for interviewers/adcoms to ask if/how your particular background influenced your journey and continue to shape your professional goals, if you discuss your background beyond the checkbox in your app. Going through this cycle, my background was largely discussed in the context of how it led to my interest in medicine and influenced my research/outreach activites, as well as how it influenced my pre-med experience.

I say check off what you feel is true to you--doing so won't give you any advantage/disadvantage. In my perspective as an applicant, I felt that the 'diversity advantage' only really materialized because it was such a big part of my 'why medicine' narrative and decision to pursue XYZ activities. So if you choose to make it a bigger part of your application, just make sure you feel comfortable owning it as part of your journey!