About the Feature
Photo by Rafael Saldaña
I wasn’t allowed to claim the thing I felt and
I didn’t feel the thing I was supposed to claim.
—Cristina Henríquez, The Book of Unknown Americans
I am Hispanic when I roll those rr’s, pero I didn’t learn this tongue temblor from mi mamá, nor did she learn it from her mother, nor did my grandmother learn it from her grandmother, who raised her, who was married to a Villista, who died hablando. Mi hispanidad only comes around when I speak Spanish—with the Cuban mom of twins, with my Puerto Rican coworker, with the men at the taco truck in the next town over.
When mi mamá visited me in Virginia two years ago, instead of going to the international food section with its stereotypical offerings (let’s face it: everyone likes tortillas), I suggested we drive to la tienda latina to obtain taco ingredients. Los hispanohablantes congregated there for a taste of la tierra. When we opened la tienda door, I tried to name the distinct smells of the breads and the spices and the fresh meats and the cheeses. Naming la comida mexicana from memory pleased me, like pulling on a zipper, each interlocking tooth a word pair—canela, cinnamon!—that pulled together my English and mi español. The woman at the register nodded at us, her closed lips stretching into a shy smile. It was the same smile I gave to people whose language I did not fully comprehend. A diffident hello.
To the right of the door, all the spices I used in my own kitchen hung in cellophane packages on a pegboard wall. In the (American) grocery store, I had to search for cumin and chili powder in a sea of caraway and curry. If I couldn’t find a spice in the designated spice section (for example, adobo, a must-have in every Mexican kitchen), I had to run over to the Hispanic section to see if the store considered adobo a special, foreign seasoning. Here, in la tienda, there was no misunderstanding.
The shelves in the refrigerated cases held white wheels of queso fresco and cotija—for garnishing sopas and corn cobs and pollo asado—and juices by Jumex. The coconut juice flashed its pearly flakes, suspended in frosty liquid like piñata confetti. I could feel the cashier’s gaze as we opened the refrigerator doors to read each drink label, the ingredients all in Spanish, and guess at the words we didn’t know. Beyond the sweet and milky lay the meats: chorizo for los huevos, lengua for cheap taco meat, and tripe for the menudo mi abuelo used to make when mi mamá was young and for the menudo I am too squeamish to make. We ran our fingers over packages of tortilla chips and galletas Marías—the spell of the double l—and then chicharrónes and Ibarra chocolate, more rolling rr’s.
We spotted our dessert next to the register: el pan covered in cracked pink icing and shaped like la concha; flat pan made of concentric circles and bent to look like una oreja; oven-dark pan shaped like a pig, los marranitos, the favorites of mi mamá. El pan dulce is nothing like American sweet bread, with its shiny, sugary glaze or moist, chocolatey center. No, este pan has the texture of a scone, dense and dry. Just enough sweetness to crave a siesta.
At the register, the woman smiled without speaking. She looked as if she were deliberating—by overhearing the lilt on our lenguas—whether we held within us palabras sweet and familiar and home. My mom said nothing as she laid our items on the counter. The cashier typed the prices into her keypad, and I knew that the silence would soon break open. I ran through translations of responses in my head:
Do you have change? ¿Tiene usted cambio?
Do you take credit cards? ¿Toma usted tarjetas de crédito?
Thank you! Have a good day! ¡Gracias! ¡Que tenga un buen día!
With the last tap on her calculator, she looked at the numbers, and I ran through los números, hoping that the total was less than fifteen. Beyond fifteen, my comprehension was not fluent. All hope of belonging would be gone in a single, translating pause.
She chose: “Doce diecisiete, por favor.”
My mom understood twelve, so she handed her twenty and the woman asked, “¿Tiene usted dos centavos?”
After a pause, my mom smiled at her, ears reddening, and then looked at me.
“She’s wondering if you have two pennies. I think she’s low.”
“Oh!” My mom worked two pennies out of her wallet and handed them over.
More silent smiles.
The woman knew we were Hispanic from the upswing sound of our ll’s and the effortless ronroneo of our rr’s. Our cheekbones were high enough, my mom’s skin dark enough, our eyes round enough for the woman to try Spanish in hope that our mamás had taught us those y’s and rolls. My mom disappointed the woman. She knew three words—hola, gato, and baño—and the numbers one through fifteen. In these moments when language isn’t shared, my mom says she feels both shame and belonging. It’s a feeling we look-alikes know well. My mom looks like she belongs but lacks the uniform: the language. Some Spanish speakers respond with “Ay! Why you don’t learn?” Others, like the cashier, smile shyly and nod.
But how can my mom—who is browner, curlier, curvier than me—not be Hispanic while I—white, thin, and trim—can be?
* * *
Tengo una pregunta para ti:
I am a retrograde Hispanic, but Hispanic still. ¿Sí?
* * *
I am White when I pass as White. My skin ranges between a creamy beige like my dad’s and a subtle olive, depending on the amount of time I spend outside. My hair is dark, but fine like a baby’s and hardly wavy. My eyes are light, almost hazel in the sun. My accent is western American; we think of ourselves as accentless. If I never say anything—never mention mi abuelo or mi mamá, never reach out with my Spanish tongue to other hispanohablantes—I live as a White woman and few people question me. I pass and my life is made easier by passing. It’s only when I come out that this might change. Even still, while my mouth talks of being una hispanohablante, my skin and accent speak a different language. My skin and accent make most people I encounter feel at ease—I am one of majority America. My skin and accent. They call me a liar.
* * *
I am Mexican when I attempt to rebuild the culture of mis antepasados. The word itself—ante / pasado—is an invitation: in the face of / the past. Perhaps despite what has passed, the washing and wringing out of difference. Despite time, despite death, I rebuild.
My ancestors’ voices resonated in the stories of mi abuelo, as if his voice were the last echoes of a gong struck generations ago. When I asked mi abuelo about his childhood, he usually wound up talking about his mother, Virginia. He talked, his voice like rustling leaves, like creaking branches, about the beaded bracelets she made. Chaquiras, he called the beads, bending his pointer finger to his thumb as if holding small diamonds to the light. When he finished talking about her, he exhaled as if part of her were lost every time he spoke of her. He saved one of her bracelets, and he still had it somewhere when he died, but I have never found it. Descanse en paz, Abuelito.
One year ago, I began researching the origin of chaquiras and Mexican beaded jewelry. It had been a year since mi abuelo had passed, and something about his passing—the broken physical connection to Mexico, to language—prompted me to explore our shared history. I had seen beaded bracelets in the street stalls of Puerto Vallarta and Cancún—strips of beaded patterns, ten to thirty beads wide, displaying flowers, chevrons, and indigenous spiritual patterns that included animals such as deer or eagles. I had even made a few bracelets using a bead loom my mom gave me for Christmas when I was twelve. I made one and a half bracelets before I realized I hated wearing bracelets. Back then, I thought seed bead bracelets were a culture-less craft.
Mexican artisans call the beads “Huichol beads” or “chaquiras.” After mi abuelo died, after I realized I never asked him where he had hidden Virginia’s bracelet, I tried looking for places to buy chaquiras online. Maybe I’d try again to make a bracelet. Maybe I’d learn to enjoy wearing bracelets. But my online search revealed options only loosely connected to chaquiras:
I searched: “Buy chaquiras.”
Google answered: “Chaquiras on Etsy.” Images of bracelets for sale materialized.
Search: “Buy Huichol beads.”
Google: “Huichol beaded bracelets on eBay.” I just wanted the beads, un-braceleted.
Search: “Buy Mexican beads.” Maybe Google was too lazy for specifics.
Google: “Buy Mexican crazy lace agate round beads on Etsy.”
Only a search by their English name gave me what I needed.
Search: “Buy seed beads.”
Google: “Seed beads at wholesale prices.” The first link displayed hanks of chaquiras in every possible color. Buying the beads from an American retailer under an English name felt like a necessary annoyance, like wearing a cast or going to the gym. There was no other way.
For reasons related to cost and access to materials, most chaquiras today are made of plastic. But in Durango, Nayarit, or Jalisco, chaquiras can be shaped from shells, bones, seeds, glass, or clay. Almost perfectly round, as small as the head of the pins mi abuela stuck in her tomato-shaped pin cushion. The more I researched chaquiras, the more intricate the art became. First, bracelets and earrings. Then I discovered that Huichol artisans mixed beeswax and Vaseline to make a sticky adhesive, which they used to affix chaquiras onto gourds, bowls, and masks. Huichol art.
Six months after I discovered Huichol bead art, I traveled to Zapopan, Jalisco, to see it and to roll the beads between my fingers, to hold them to the light. I had hoped to feel a special connection to this type of art, to intuit those ancient vibrations of hands—hands that share blood with my hands—and fingers threading and placing beads in patterns such as trees and ladders. In Zapopan, I visited el Museo de Arte Huichol Wixárika, the name the Huichol people gave themselves. Inside, I could not take photos, so all I have is my memory. Of passing through a bamboo curtain into a cave-like darkness. Of beaded belts, necklaces, and bowls in glass display cases. Of ugly, white mannequins arranged to resemble “a day in the life of a Huichol.” What I remember most was the gift shop, where Huichol art exploded. I could take one piece home with me in my carry-on. There were masks, bowls, boxes, chickens, jaguars—all decorated with beads that I could feel in my palms. I bought a bowl the size of half a softball and lingered as long as I could before it was time to leave. And like mi abuelo and his stories, the museum fell into memory. All I have is a bowl. But it is something I can touch, something that is mine. A physical tether to a people who might share my blood.
I bought chaquiras—I’m sorry, seed beads—and beeswax online and, since it was early fall when I decided to rebuild mi mexicanidad, I bought a Styrofoam skull from the Halloween section of the craft store. At home, I smothered homemade putty (a sticky solution of melted beeswax and petroleum jelly) onto the skull and attempted to affix the chaquiras to the Styrofoam using a sewing needle. Traditionally, artisans used a cactus spike, but I lacked any sizable cacti. All I could find were plastic beads, a needle, and Styrofoam, and the finished product could only be an American knockoff of an ancestral art. Even if I had glass beads, a cactus spike, and a gourd bowl, my third-generation hands were still making an art three times removed from the original. I can reenact, can learn what my cultural body already knows, can learn mi mexicanidad as I go. But am I Mexican when my hands are sticky with wax, when plastic beads bounce into the corners of mi casa, forgotten until found by the cat?
The sticky skull now sits in my basement, half-completed like the bracelet. I find myself wondering if the death of my grandparents’ traditions happened this way, in incomplete acts, in out-of-sight storage.
In the box of keepsakes my grandchildren keep will be a half-finished bracelet, a half-finished skull, and a photo of a loaf of pan de muerto. Will they call me Abuela, too? Will they pass on a Mexico so many times removed?
I want to live in Mexico City.
I want to listen to mariachi in Jalisco and buy maracas.
I want to wear embroidered camisas made by abuelas
and siesta in the afternoon.
I want to drink tequila from Tequila
and feel it inside me.
I make tortillas with real lard and a comal
and feel nothing.
When my parents first met,
my dad’s parents asked if my mom ate lizards and if she had a green card.
Do you love spicy food?
And can you teach us how to salsa?
Do you eat cricket tacos?
And do you mow lawns and whack weeds and bleed hot sauce?
“Tacos galore!” said Raymond Elizondo, mi abuelo, in a video interview about his childhood.
* * *
I am White when I flip through my sister’s wedding photos. Pause: a photo of me standing with my sister beneath the rippling leaves of the ancient oak tree in our backyard. Next to her, I am visibly, unquestionably White. She, with her cedar skin, curly black hair, and a nose indígena, would never be mistaken for White, even though she, like me, is only half Mexican. When I look at these photos, my white skin frustrates me. It doesn’t reflect la mexicanidad that runs through my blood.
Flip. Flip. Pause: a photo of my whole family beneath that same oak. I stand near my dad and the similarities are undeniable. I have his deep-set, hooded eyes and his straight nose. I also have his obsession with to-do lists, his tendency to feel productive only when his hands are moving, and his love for American paint horses. We travel the same: always go go go. We eat the same and rarely gain weight: three burgers in a week, why not? We fought and fought and fought when I was a teenager only to find that we were fighting reflections of each other. I cannot hate—I cannot even dislike—the color that comes from my father.
* * *
I am Chicana when I walk along Olvera Street, ducking under the awnings of pop-up kiosks selling embroidered blankets, handmade leather shoes, Virgen de Guadalupe prayer candles, and enchiladas con mole. In the early 1900s, Los Angeles took in an influx of people from other parts of the us, and Olvera Street became a haven for Mexican nationals and Chicanos. Earlier this year, I walked the length of Olvera Street and looked for mi abuelo, touching the bricks and signs, hoping that he had touched them, too, seventy-five years ago. My great-grandfather was the caretaker of the historic Olvera Street, and mi abuelo grew up throwing coins into the fountain outside the Avila Adobe, the oldest standing residence in Los Angeles. I paused to watch a man dig the coins out of the fountain and toss them into a bucket.
I wish for a place to live where I feel at home as both Mexican and American, but I grew up in an upper-class neighborhood in the Pacific Northwest. I wish for a comal and a tortilla press but end up buying my tortillas from an American grocery store because it’s easier. There is no place, no home for me to be Mexican—to practice my Spanish, to practice my tortillas, to practice Día de Los Muertos—and American seamlessly. Being Mexican and American often means being American alone. Although I have found a home in code-switching, I function mostly in my American code. At home, we speak English. We celebrate Halloween and a Protestant Christmas. My family wonders why anyone would go through all the trouble to make tortillas or tamales when you can buy them for cheaper and save your time. Even though Mexico is North America, it is not American. But it is American on Olvera Street.
As he aged, mi abuelo lost his voice, which was never fuerte to begin with. He whispered mostly, a raspy vocal fry. When I listened to him, it required leaning in and living in the fluctuation of his voice. In his memories, I am transported to Los Angeles, to Olvera Street, to the small house with the leaky roof, surrounded by the sounds of mariachi and the smells of mole on the stove. Mi abuelo was Mexican and American in a Mexican-American pueblo; his surroundings matched his identity. Within his memories, and on Olvera Street, I am Mexican in America, too.
Olvera Street’s motto could be “A Mexican City of Yesterday in a City of Today.” It is the essence of being Chicana in physical form.
I am Chicana when my mom tells me about growing up near Redondo Beach, twenty miles southwest of Olvera Street. When she tells her stories of growing up Chicana, I also feel this split identity; her stories, though, are much more painful to hear. She tells stories of being bullied for her brown skin and dark hair. Her best friend, a California blonde with aquamarine eyes and so slender she often fainted in the heat, would tell her all the slurs people used behind her back: wetback, greaser, beaner. Aside from being called a beaner by a boy who rode my middle school bus, these were words I heard solely in reference to other, browner Mexicans.
Mama tells me these stories only when I ask. Each time, she tells the story in varying tones of anguish, as though, if she could go back right now, she’d tell the bullies to go to hell, or maybe she’d kill herself, or maybe she’d do nothing.
“Why would your friend tell you what the other kids said?” I wondered out loud once.
“To make me feel small,” she answered.
When her classmates yelled, “Viva la Raza! Chicano Power!” she didn’t join in because she didn’t want to be Brown, didn’t want to be Chicana, because being Chicana made her ache in the way a young girl aches for a best friend. Being Chicana made her seem small even to herself. I told her that instead of feeling ashamed of mi chicanidad, I feel like I don’t have the right to join in, to yell, “Chicano Power!” if there ever were a time for it.
I grew up displaced—in White neighborhoods with White neighbors and eight Latinos in my school of sixteen hundred. If I had grown up on Olvera Street or near Redondo Beach, would I feel Mexican in America? Could I exist as Chicana outside my house?
In college, I was too shy to join the Organization for Latin American Students because identifying as Chicana often means people assume I speak Spanish. At the time, I didn’t, at least not very well, and I didn’t want to have my Chicana identity stripped from me based on my language. It wasn’t until I moved away—to Virginia, in fact—that I found a place, a Mexican grocery store, where I felt Mexican in America: Tienda Latina Emily, a name I like because it reminds me of myself in its irony. La Chicana Ashley. But otherwise, being Mexican and American is a solitary endeavor that exists only in my house when I’m alone, with the items that reflect who I am: the embroidered cloth from Guadalajara, the grocery store tortillas with homemade salsa, the Huichol bowl, and the painting of the Capitol Building in Washington, DC.
I wrestle with considering myself a member of this group, una Chicana, because I feel so underqualified: Spanish is not my first language, nor do my parents or my parents’ parents speak it (Abuelo used to speak Spanish, then switched to only English when he got married); I don’t experience nearly the same level of racism as my mother did; I don’t live in the Southwest; and I hardly even look the part. When my mom visited two years ago, we sat at my kitchen table, my knees tucked up to my chest, her jaw working at a large piece of bubble gum. I told her I didn’t feel that Chicana or Mexican was an identity I could claim.
Without hesitation, she said, “We were never allowed to claim it. We were never allowed to feel proud of our culture or traditions or language. We never had the opportunity to walk around town and be proud of being browner than most other people. So you must claim it. To make up for all the times we couldn’t.”
I have to claim it. In her memories, I imagine myself scribbling “Viva la Raza!” on my notebooks in first period and learning Spanish from the kids who weren’t afraid of the paddle. I imagine myself owning the slurs, laughing at their pathetic assumptions. I am Chicana in these moments of inhabiting Mama’s memory, just as I am Chicana on Olvera Street, walking beneath the same Moreton Bay fig trees and eating the same street tacos in the same old buildings that decorated mi abuelo’s memories.
A letter to my future children:
I hope that you tell people. You are a quarter Mexican.
I hope that by the time you read this, they will understand. Your presence is resilience.
I hope that by then, they will know. Your skin, your accent, your hazel eyes have nothing to do with it.
I hope that by then, Mexican and European and American means whole.
* * *
I am White when I sit at my kitchen table poring over location choices for my husband’s dermatological residency, and the southwestern cities jump out at me like holograms. Mesa. Scottsdale. Los Angeles. Corpus Christi. I’ve never lived in the Southwest, but I want to. So I can practice my Spanish. So I can live among other Chicanas without having to go out of my way.
And then I realize that I’m complicit in my own passing. I participate in the Chicano community only when it’s convenient, when I don’t have to take any risks, when it’s easy.
I am White when I pretend that the lack of Chicano history in our high school history class was just because there weren’t many Mexicans in the Pacific Northwest, and so this information was irrelevant.
I am White when I pretend Chicano history isn’t also American history, isn’t also my history.
I am White when I sit in Washington, in North Carolina, in Virginia and wait to become a Chicana, as if I am an egg waiting for something or someone else to break my shell.
* * *
I am Brown the first time I meet my friend Sal, and he says, “Hey, you’re Brown, too!” I can’t remember if someone told him I am half Mexican or if he guessed with some sort of Brown-dar. Sal is the first non-Latino to claim me, to acknowledge that the color of our skin is something we share, even though mine is a much lighter shade. Sal is Pakistani-American. He’s bald, just under six feet tall, and grows figs on the back porch of his apartment. We have nothing in common except our skin, and it makes me think:
I am Brown only sometimes.
On the phone with my sister, I ask if she feels Brown. My sister is a warm, smooth brown, like turned wood. Her hair is big and full like her laugh. When she was a toddler, her hair sat on her head like a lone bush on a small hill. Her nose is the Elizondo nose. She says no, that she’s always been jealous of me because I learned Spanish and cooked Mexican food and felt the longing for a place we never knew. She says she’s Brown only when she teaches, when her Black and Brown students interpret her skin to mean empathy.
But I remember a moment when she was Brown and it wasn’t negotiable. We lived in Stuttgart, Germany. She was five and I was nine, and we had set up a race track between the kitchen table and the television. Whoever crawled fastest won. The screaming began only a few minutes into our game. My sister had caught her pinkie on one of the legs of the love seat. From the angle and the swelling, it became clear that she needed a splint. Only my dad spoke German, and he wasn’t home yet from work. While we waited, Mama and I tried to keep her calm.
When my dad came home, he tore through his files as if he were trying to find a misplaced ticket to an invitation-only party. My sister’s passport. In our town, the latent racism of the 1930s and ’40s lingered in long stares and blatant inattention at store counters, and my dad had a feeling the doctors wouldn’t believe that she was his daughter. My dad is White. His ancestors were Scandinavian: blond hair, green eyes, tall, and slender. A White man carrying a screaming Brown child seemed suspicious to those not yet used to biracial marriages. I wonder: If it had been my pinkie, would he have had to prove our relationship? After all, we share a long nose, weak eyelids, and paler skin.
In general, most White people assume a commonality with me. But Latinas—they know. From my high cheekbones or dark hair or faintly olive-tinted skin, they detect me and will often say something. But these moments are few in the places I’ve lived: Washington, Stuttgart, North Carolina, and southwest Virginia.
I am Brown only in tension, when in the presence of another Brown person—my sister, my friend Sal, another Latina—like a magnet near metal. I am not Brown alone, like my sister’s hair, on a hill.
The color _______.
One of the worst things someone has said to me is that I am not _______ enough to be _______. This is confusing since my sister seems to think that I am the _______est _______, and otras latinas say that I am _______ and not _______ at the same time.
The kindest thing someone has said to me is that I am a familiar _______.
I am White when, two years ago, I am at a bar with other writers and we begin talking about diversity within our graduate program. A few of us are sitting at one end of a long table, the smell of smoke-soaked sofas and stale beer hanging in the still air, when a young Bangladeshi writer leans in and talk-whispers, “Guys, I’m the only Brown person here.” The others look away, not knowing what to say. Stemming from a momentary desire to out myself, to be known, I tell her that she is not the only Brown person in the group: “I’m Brown, too!” Cheeks blushing pink, she asks, “What are you?” and I tell her. “Half Mexican, una Latina.” Her response—“Oh, that’s neat”—as if I am showing her a painting I made at one of those classes where you sip wine and paint your dog, isn’t sincere and she changes the subject.
Later in the school semester, this same woman critiques my writing in a workshop, and she finally tells me what she really thinks: “The lightness of your skin affords you a certain kind of privilege despite your claiming of a particular Brown race.” She insists I acknowledge this privilege. Her comment shuts down all conversation, and the professor insists we move on.
I am White when other people declare me White.
She is right, this young woman. I hate that she is right because it feels like erasure, or maybe a pre-erasure. I can’t even claim to be Brown if my skin has already affirmed that I am not. I go home to think on it, but I don’t write again until six months after her words take up all the air in my head like a wildfire. I have to wait for the ash to settle.
* * *
I am Latina when I answer The Question: What are you? This is always how they—strangers, acquaintances, sometimes even friends—ask The Question. Not who but what. As if anything other than White is some other species.
What am I?
This is a difficult question to answer. It depends on whom you ask. If we, and I mean all of us, are being specific and scientific, and if we refer to the dna spit test I took last year, I am half Mexican (Spanish and Native American) and half Northwestern European (mostly Scandinavian). To Mama, I am Hispanic, referring to both my Native Mexican and Spanish ancestors and the language that they (forcibly) shared. To my bosses, professors, and friends in the outer circle, I am White because I don’t correct the misguided assumption that White skin means White race. I look White, so I must be White, Caucasian, probably European if we go way back. They’re not all wrong. They’re just not all right.
I tell myself I am Latina.
Why Latina? Why not Hispanic, Mexican, Chicana, Brown? Or White?
This is the hardest question because it depends on the context. I am a chameleon, a shape-shifter. Most days I am Latina, but when I celebrate Día de Los Muertos, I am Mexican. When I speak Spanish to another Spanish-speaker (regardless of what country they call home), I am Hispanic. When I think of joining a race-based campus organization, such as the Organization of Latin American Students, I am Chicana. When I talk to my sister and my friend Sal, I am Brown. When I don’t say anything at all, I am usually White. But Latina is where I am most home.
When I meet the Puerto Rican poet, the Cuban nurse, the Mexican short story writer, my identity isn’t a decision to make. They text me “¡Feliz Cumple!” even though we hardly know one another. There exists a silent pact among us. Latina gives me a community in a town where I am linguistically and geographically displaced. Latina because it is wider than Mexican but narrower than Hispanic, wider than Chicana but narrower than Brown. Latina is a sisterhood, a brotherhood, a personhood of misfits who can’t always claim one city or one country as home.
I don’t remember exactly when the poet and I became friends. During an orientation meeting in graduate school, she told us that she was from Puerto Rico. The island’s name skipped on her tongue like a smooth pebble on a lake’s still surface. She was so sure. And then we didn’t really talk, aside from How are you? and See you in class! until six months later. We bonded over being Latina because we were both fighting alone. Our peers were White. Our mentors were White. In the valley we lived in, we felt surrounded, not protected. We bonded out of necessity, to sustain each other, to call each other out of shyness. I don’t remember the moment or the words, but I do remember how she made me feel.
She didn’t assume I spoke Spanish, but when she hablaba, she would put up with my answering in English and my frequent misunderstandings. She was a White Latina, too, and we talked about what it meant to have one White parent. She made me reconsider details in my family’s history that I had not considered as part of my own history: how English-only schooling had stolen language from my mom and so also from me, how my mom had to work harder (taking multiple part-time jobs and extending her undergrad education over twelve years) than her White peers to make it through college, how my uncle insisted (and still insists today) he was Spanish and not Mexican. She taught me when to be angry at White mentors for their silence and to notice the small comments people make to paint our experiences as foreign. It is as if she can see me in X-ray; she sees through my mom’s quietness about being Mexican, my parents’ hopes that I would become a doctor, my father’s insistence that I be fluent in Spanish. Where I see normal family messiness, she sees shadows of suffering. She is my mile marker and my front-porch light, has shown me the way home, even if we’ll never get there.
She makes me feel like my white skin could be una casita just for me.
* * *
Sometimes I am Latina and people think I am exotic. I am Latina when I answer honestly to the wrong people, usually men, usually at a party or gathering of friends, but sometimes in odd places like church. When one male friend from church discovered I was Latina, he shook his square hips at me, wiggled one finger, and said, “Ooo, a sassy Latina.” People like this guy use my ethnicity as flint to light their shady fantasies. What I hear: Oh, you sassy Latina, you tigress, with your defiant air and round ass. What I see: his eyes narrowing and glistening, like a hunter focusing on prey. Sometimes their prejudice is so obvious because they say it out loud, like this guy did. I like my girls spicy.
This exoticization also appears in the form of under-the-breath comments, side glances, and terse jokes. I am Latina then, too. And because I am Latina, I must be sensual, hungry. My response to those who treat us like fuel for some dormant exotica fetish: get lost.
But also, aren’t we past this?
* * *
If identity is a dress
code I can buy
The cost is re
* * *
Most of all, I am White when I forget. A professor and friend told me once that she always dressed up when she left the house because she never knew who might stop her or who might question her motives. In other words, she knew people saw her skin color first, so she did everything she could to counter their assumptions. I am White when I wake up and decide that I am too lazy to dress in respectable clothes, so I wear my pajama pants to the grocery store, no makeup, hair a nest. I am White when I walk down the produce aisle or through the green on campus and subconsciously understand that no one really sees me as anything other than the majority. I am White when I go about my day, every day, without once having to think about how someone else sees me. This is a privilege, to forget. No matter how much I want people to know I am Latina, I have the privilege of passing as White in America where being White affords me an automatic level of respect, at least at first glance.
It’s hard, this forgetting. It’s not hard to forget, but rather it’s hard to understand in retrospect that I could forget such a deeply rooted part of who I am.
Last year, I celebrated Día de Los Muertos for the first time, but I had no idea where to start. I thought of mi abuelo, whom I lost to Lewy body dementia two years ago. During the year following his death, I began to collect memories in writing and make photocopies of family photographs. Unknowingly, I was building the beginnings of una ofrenda, an alter, an offering. I wanted to remember him, yes, but I also wanted to remember for him.
At the craft store, next to the Styrofoam skulls, was a shelf of glittered calaveras, wreaths made of skulls, and bright pink and yellow silk-flower headbands. Even though I knew that not one of these Chinese-made Día de Los Muertos trinkets was authentic, the shelf drew me in like a raccoon to tin foil. The plastic decorations, like me, were shadows of tradition.
I had always been wary of Día de Los Muertos because its pagan exterior clashed with my upbringing in the Protestant church, so I avoided its appeal for the longest time. But, through my research, I discovered that many modern Mexicans use el Día simply to remember their lost loved ones and to remind themselves that death is not something to fear. In fact, we have the opportunity in el Día to defy death, to dress as death, to tell death to take a hike. In the end, I celebrated a hybrid Día de Los Muertos, which felt right.
Día de Los Muertos fell on a Tuesday last year. I had classes and a Bible study to attend and homework to complete. That morning, I stuck a silk marigold in my hair (I couldn’t find any real ones). Marigolds guide the spirits by their vibrant color and sweet scent to la ofrenda.
I also placed in my ears tiny calavera earrings. They had no traditional significance—but I didn’t own any extravagant Mexican dresses and didn’t think that sugar-skull face paint would be appropriate for class. The earrings were all I had.
I imagined my ancestors, the ones whose names I knew. I imagined Castulleo Allende, my great-great grandfather, executed in the town square by Che’s men. My father and I once stood in the spot where he was shot. We hoped he would know that we looked for him there.
I imagined the women, like Rebecca Maria Allende, who left their babies by trees to pick fruit in the field. My grandma was one of those babies.
When I arrived home after class, I sat at my kitchen table, wondering how I could do mi abuelo justice with just a few small items to offer. I set up a mini ofrenda right there next to our salt and pepper shakers. I set up his photo, the one that shows him as a baby on his baptism day. His mother holds him; she is blurry in the background, like a memory. I imagined her mother holding her in this photo, too, so blurry and far away that I can’t make her out. And on it went. They were all there and not there.
I imagined mi abuelo, Ramon Elizondo, who endured the death of a mother and a brother because of a suspicion of a medical system that didn’t care enough for Brown neighbors.
Next to the photo of mi abuelo, I placed a plastic calavera mariachi band. They were mid-performance. I imagined them playing “La Cucaracha” or “Feliz Navidad,” mi abuelo’s favorites.
I imagined my ancestors and mi abuelo, who heard no voices telling them to be proud of where they were from, of their skin, of their struggle.
On the other side of the photo, I placed a candle and lit it.
Estos antepasados, they talk. Through mi abuelo, mi mamá. How could you forget for fear of being rejected? We were rejected when the stakes were much higher.
I decide, then, that I am Latina.
I leave the candle lit. It does not yield to the dark.
About the Author
Ash Whitman is a Washington State native who currently resides in North Carolina with her husband. She splits her time between working at the public library and finishing up a collection of essays about exploring her Mexican heritage. Her essays have appeared in journals such as River Teeth and Michigan Quarterly Review.