able to slip from “How’s life?”
to “Me’stan volviendo loca,”
able to sit in a paneled office
drafting memos in smooth English,
able to order in fluent Spanish
at a Mexican restaurant,
American but hyphenated,
Viewed by anglos as perhaps exotic,
Perhaps inferior, definitely different,
Viewed by Mexicans as alien,
(their eyes say, “You may speak
Spanish but you’re not like me”)
an American to Mexicans
a Mexican to Americans
a handy token
sliding back and forth
between the fringes of both worlds
by masking the discomfort
of being pre-judged
As far back as I can remember, the two words bilingual and bicultural have acted as a kind of background rhythm to my existence. Bilingual, bicultural terms that, as Pat Mora’s “Legal Alien” illustrates, hyphenate experiences, creating at a minimum the doubling effect a number of writers have discussed, “an American to Mexicans, a Mexican to Americans.” Because this doubling, this “polyphony” set by language and culture, is tantamount to the so-called minority American experience, it seems ironic that for some people the positioning between two cultures automatically equates with an “essentialized” minority perspective. Imagine throwing a pair of dice and always expecting them to fall in the same combination. This ludicrous expectation resembles the problematic reasoning that occurs whenever we speak of a universal minority experience. As a Chicana, I can testify that more than the broad Mexican and American contexts, I trace my influences to the specific region in which I grew up and the geographic regions in which my parents were reared.
My parents raised all nine of their children to respect their elders, to speak when spoken to, to go to church on Sundays, and generally to behave, which meant do not make any waves and stay out of trouble. We never thought of ourselves as bilingual or bicultural, even though we spoke Spanish and English at home. Although the staples of our diet were beans, rice, and tortillas, as a child I don’t recall thinking that our meals were Mexican; we simply referred to them as breakfast, lunch or dinner. In retrospect I have come to realize how my formal education, my induction into the world outside my family, transformed my assumptions in a way that made me keenly aware of my racialized status in North America.
I went to kindergarten in an elementary school in San Francisco’s Mission District. Today the Mission is thought of as a Latino community but it was not always so. In the 1950’s Irish Americans constituted the dominant ethnic population, a fact that became uncomfortably apparent to me during my first days in public school. Until I was about six, my major cultural influences had been my “Mexican” mother and father.
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Meditating on my first days in Bryant School, I vividly recall what we now label, perhaps too familiarly, “difference.” In her efforts to keep me well groomed and save precious time, my mother was in the habit of French braiding my hair. Every morning just before I left for school, she would part my hair down the middle and form two long braids, weaving colorful ribbons into them and folding each braid in a lasso loop that she fastened in place with a large bow just above each ear. I liked this hairdo; it accentuated the lovely gold-and-ruby dangling earrings my father had brought me from one of his annual pilgrimages to visit “his family” in Mexico. I was short and thin—smaller than most of my classmates—with a fair complexion, dark eyes, and dark brown hair that, unbraided, hung past my waist. My dresses were different in style and usually much more colorful than the subdued pastels of my classmates. (Since there were nine of us my mother saved money by making most of our clothes.)
Still it wasn’t the hair, the earrings, or the dresses that made me different; rather it was the question my classmates asked repeatedly during those first weeks: “What are you?” The first time I suppose I was a little thrown, but when child after child asked me to define myself, I began to feel increasingly uncomfortable. Uneasy and uncertain about the appropriate response, I decided that I would take the challenge home to my parents for their consideration.
My home, unlike the one Richard Rodriguez descries in Hunger of Memory, was a private space in which we spoke Spanish as well as English. My mother, a native of Carizozo, New Mexico, always spoke to us children in English and to my father in Spanish; my father, born in Mexico City, refused to speak English at home though he was quite capable of it. The shape of this bilingual, bicultural environment my parents created also seemed to divide our home along gender lines. Early on I realized that in our home my mother functioned as the ultimate authority; as a homemaker, she was responsible for all the internal workings of our day-to-day existence. My father, a teamster warehouseman by trade, earned his living on the outside, spending much of his weekend time off working either as “El Vocero del Aire,” a volunteer disc jockey on the local Mexican radio station, or performing administrative duties as president of el Comité Cívico Mexicano. He was the epitome of a public individual and served as the family mediator between our public and private worlds.
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I vividly remember walking home from kindergarten that day, thinking that to understand the puzzling question “What are you?” I would need to explain in both English and Spanish, for I needed help from both of my parents. That evening I headed for the kitchen where my mother busied herself with dinner preparations and told her about her question many of my classmates had been asking. She seemed intuitively aware of my confusion and gave me my answer without a moment’s hesitation: “You are Spanish!”
When my father came home from work he always went straight to the large green recliner in front of the television in our living room. Elevating his legs in a laid-back position, he relaxed by taking in the day’s news as he waited for dinner to be served. In this quiet time animated only by the black-and-white images of the world that our television beamed in, I brought my concern to him. “Los niños en la escuela me han hecho una pregunta que no se como constestar. Quieren saber que soy.” To my surprise my father, like my mother, answered without hesitation, without inquiring about the circumstances. But unlike her he turned his attention away from what he was doing, his eyes darting in my direction: “Eres India!”
In the kitchen in the English language of my New Mexcian mother I was Spanish; in the living room in the Spanish tongue of my Mexican father I was Indian. Clearly something was amiss. I felt as confused as ever, yet I recognized this as one of those taboo subjects that adults appeared to regard as unanswerable and therefore inappropriate. I realized I had asked something whose answer they thought lay beyond my understanding—so I stored it, with other taboo topics, in the hope of enlightenment at a later date. I was Spanish; I was Indian. Mostly I was very confused.
”You are Spanish”; “Eres India” and after my graduate school training came another declaration “Eres feminista”—definitive statements that illustrate both my family’s assessment of me as a social subject and a Chicana cultural predicament whose very nature inspires creative resistance. That one of these judgments can represent one individual suggest that each option was fashioned for a specific purpose to address a particular challenge. Whenever I (or other Chicanas) attempt to refashion an identity, emphasizing alternative purposes or challenges (I am a “mestiza”; I am a “woman of color”; I am a Chicana”; “I am a Chicana lesbian”), we involve ourselves in a self-fashioning process that engages someone else’s political agenda. Renaming oneself, in this situation, represents a symbolic act of resistance that requires imagination, fluidity, and finesse. The question “What are you?” ultimately lead to my awareness of being marked as Different within a United States context and to a deep comprehension of my status as “Legal Alien”!
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