“So what’s your heritage again?” Caucasian, hispanic..?
Um I guess both..
“No you have to put something down.”
Um Ok “Other”
“You’re Mexican right, I mean your mom?”
No.. I think she’s from Barcelona..
I don’t know I think some small town outside of Barcelona…
“Sarah…. Katie…. Allison….Dereck…. and um… George…georgetta, georgina? (the class giggles), sorry what is your name again?
It’s Georgette, you know “Georgette with a ‘t’ ‘t’ ‘e’ at the end”
Ah ok, sorry… and is “Jupe” like “hupe”
no…. oh well never mind
[repeats every year until college]
Three separate conversations, but three that I remember quite well.
These are small, seemingly small conversations from my childhood that colored the way I looked at life.
The first: the much-hated “ethnicity” questionnaire we were often asked to fill out at school, the confusion of not knowing what “box” to mark. The second, an obvious question from curious people about where my mom is from; and the third, a common question one is asked on every first day of school in each grade from elementary to high school, “how do you say your name?”
What the above situations above show is that I was constantly uncomfortable at having to repeat the pronunciation of my name or as in the second conversation, straight out lied about where my mother was from because I just didn’t want her to be from Mexico. I would deny till I die, even my best friends wouldn’t question me on that even though t hey probably knew the truth. I should have been more concerned that I didn’t even have a mom around most of my life but at the very least the idea of her being from Spain was a hell of a lot more appealing for reasons that I didn’t even know at the time.
The thing is when you’re a kid you don’t know why you feel certain things, perhaps it is the product of the environment of where you live, perhaps it’s just you.
I can say is that I was embarrassed to be Mexican-American and I still have no idea why. Considering that San Antonio, Texas is very Hispanic, in theory I was more “normal” than I thought I was, but I think I had these dreams to be a pretty blond cheerleader from the“North side”, the coveted gated neighborhoods surrounding 1604 where people had big houses, large yards with pools, college tuitions saved up, and probably, less painful memories.
I should say, this doesn’t even have anything to do with my mom. I spent most of my youth growing up with my dad and brothers, a latchkey kid with dreams of the big city while my mom moved to be closer to her sisters in Arizona. At the time, I wanted nothing more than to be “normal.” Which for me meant a girl with a boring name like Jennifer who didn’t have sun-in put in her hair when she was five, or as I became a teenager, the need to get blue contact lenses because brown is so boring. Having a name like “Georgette” only further identified me as someone different, an old-fashioned French name that would have been like “Gertrude” in English. Every French person I know had a great aunt or some distance relative with the name Georgette. However who cares, as long as I don’t actually meet some French, Georgette can be as sexy as “Monique” or whatever else was in fashion at the time, only my masochistic self ensured that I would indeed fall in love with a Frenchman one day and have to explain to his family that no I’m not French, yes I have an old French name, and no I don’t know why.
Why am I talking about this on the blog?
Why bring up such a personal subject and especially during a hotbed of political turmoil in my home country of the USA? I will be clear, this isn’t a political agenda here, I like to keep my opinions mainly to myself, my friends and family; but after visiting Mexico this past weeks, I feel this matters enough to share if anything just for myself.
I often wonder what my problem was, why was I so embarrassed to be half-Mexican in Texas in a place like San Antonio where so many were like me? Was chasing the American dream only plausible with shiny blond hair and blue eyes? Obviously not, but try telling that to a grumpy 17-year-old in 2002. And sure, people made callous and thoughtless remarks about hispanics around me because they thought I was like them. This among other things meant that I didn’t want to be identified with being a Latina, I wanted to kick ass at school and not be lumped together with people I prejudged as mostly got married young with babies soon to follow, pushing large carts at Costco or watching coupon shows on TLC. I’ll never forget when I met someone from Texas in Italy who after their third vodka tonic and a shitty bar on Via dei Benci said “I mean you’re from Texas, you know how it is.. all of the Mexicans taking… ” I stopped her right there, I was so not ready for some bullshit conversation on a Friday night and said “look you really don’t want go that route, I may not look it but I’m half Mexican and besides you sound like a drunken asshole right now.”
My mom’s family lives mostly in Arizona, another very place very populated with Mexican-Americans and first, second, and third generations of those who crossed the border for a better life. Some were very fortunate, some less so though the family bond was very close with my mother and sisters speaking almost daily on the phone in Spanish. We used to go on 7-hour shopping trips and I would fall asleep in the aisles. It used to annoy the crap out of me. I did everything in my power to be anything but like her, I was/am always on time, kept my promises and tried to be self-sufficient. Now it just serves as hilarious stories for my brothers and I to talk about over Christmas.
Living in Italy, there’s probably more in common with Mexico than in the USA. People don’t mind beign a little late, they love long, lingering meals and hanging out with family. Culture reigns strong. Ironically, that’s where I’ve chosen to live, that’s what I now identify with most.
I once dated a guy who was very opinionated about anyone from another culture and constantly made slight-racist remarks to anyone that wasn’t of a heritage he respected. Naturally the hypocrisy was that he and his dad preferred petite females of the foreign variety and yet had nothing nice to say when anyone “different” popped up on the tv. According to them, everyone was taking advantage of the “system.” Said by someone who used to do medical drug trials when they were low on cash was pretty ironic.
I moved to Los Angeles when I was 18, with the guy and my best friend on some adventure to escape life and find another one. I wanted to prove something, make it on my own and live in a place that didn’t completely frizz up my hair like Texas (superficial I know but I WAS 18). I worked out every day, colored my hair and wore blue contact lenses. I was the person I wanted to be, or so I thought.
I gave a speech during speech class, it had an anti-immigration theme and I stuck to my treasured points. Keep in mind that I was standing in front of a class of mostly first or second generation Americans who didn’t have the best of love for me at the moment. After I finished my speech, a guy stood up and introduced himself. He had tears in his eyes and his voice wobbled as he said that I was right, to.. some degree. People should respect the laws of the land but that if his parents didn’t come over, he wouldn’t have had a future. He was the top of his class in his school and helping to support his family. He wanted nothing more to be American and contribute to this country. That was the day I started to open my eyes a little wider.
One of my best friends was a girl of Pakistani descent who I met in Los Angeles at university. When her dad died, she took over as the sole care keeper of her mom. Her paperwork was lost by the government at one time and she had to start from scratch, it was excruciating and she couldn’t travel out of the USA for some time. She would do anything and everything for her mom and her friends like me, a naive girl from Texas. It was another lesson in life to be friends with someone who had no family-friendly backup plan, no “plan b” no one to save her financially if she made mistakes or pay for her every whim, it was all her. Today she has a beautiful family with a guy from Argentina who himself is a “new” American. They have two beautiful kids and while I don’t get to visit often enough, she will always be like family to me, her generous heart traverses borders.
I’m an immigrant in Italy, you know. It’s not always fun, I hate the questura, sure so does everyone, but I accept that it’s all part of me being here and its taught me a level of compassion I didn’t have before. I’ve seen Americans skirt the rules here plenty of times, and only bother to get visas when they feel they have too, it goes both ways.
Funny enough, my dad is an immigration officer who has lived abroad and interviewed refugees, I have a brother who works on the border of Texas and Mexico. Thus, the question of immigration has forever been around me. In junior high when my dad did a naturalization ceremony for hundreds of new Americans in my school. It was a huge event and I was hugely embarrassed that my dad was going to be at my school and naturally it got a few snickers from awkward middle school bullies. But I was there too, and I saw the faces of those who endured god knows what to be in the USA. They clutched little American flags and pledged their allegiance to this country, tears running down many of their faces. Who knows what they previously went though to be there, in America, in my depressing middle school, in peace. It made me feel really proud about what my dad did and still does. I used to think that being strong meant that you couldn’t be weak, including showing emotion. Instead I understand now that being strong and being respected is to be a good person on the daily, which includes being compassionate and teaching compassion; knowing when to apologize, taking the time to listen and understanding those who are not like you. Now that takes balls.
He sat in those rooms listening to people plead their case to be American, he did his job so well that I still get emails from his former interviewees who go on and on about Mr. Jupe and how nice he was. I always think, how wonderful that they didn’t experience the horror that comes with people that treat you like a second-class citizen. I remember when I got my fingerprints taken in Florence, the woman scanning each finger scrunched up her face is disgust when she couldn’t get a clear print. “but your fingers are weird”- weird fingers that couldn’t fingerprint. Another small sting but those paper cuts add up over time. I felt like an alien but I just prayed the process would be over soon.
Another memory, the few times I would spend with my mom I would constantly be correcting her grammar; to this she would always agree saying that she needed to improve, speak better English. Instead Italian is my second language and I make constant mistakes. I remember running to the bathroom one year in tears at an ex-boyfriend’s house because his aunt asked me why my Italian wasn’t as good as her son’s German girlfriend. I stewed on that for weeks, it actually broke my heart because I was so sensitive about speaking Italian well.
Luckily, I got over it and I now ask my (French) husband to correct my Italian. French is yet another language I have to blunder my way through. Luckily that was the only time that has happened. Italians are so generous with us making mistakes in their language (my experience), they don’t say things like “go back to the USA” if you don’t speak Italian. Instead if anything they relish practicing their English with me and are decidedly kind when I say “penis” instead of peas or blunder the word “fig” (don’t ask).
The biggest irony is that if I’m embarrassed about anything now, it’s that I don’t speak fluent Spanish. As I struggle to learn French (which will be my third language) I can’t help but think of how much easier language learning would be if I just learned Spanish fluently. Of course, I can now, but my poor brain can only handle one language at a time. So once French is checked off, Spanish, I’m coming for you.
In Mexico, Nico and I got by all right. We did a tour only in Spanish in the area of Chiapas and managed to understand most of it though I have to admit Nico was better than I was. It did make me curse myself and the five years of Spanish I took, in the highest-grade level of course. If only I could roll back time. I learned so much about the many various cultures we interacted with during those two weeks. We dove into the delicious food (tacos, quesillo, mole, hearty soups, corn slowly cooked with pork bits) and drank smoky mezcal with a slice of orange and worm salt at sunset because why not, we’re in Mexico.
It’s clear, I no longer feel embarrassed to be half-Mexican, instead I feel really quite proud to be part of a culture where you can still see ruins of past MesoAmerican civilizations at places like Teotihuacán or Monte Albàn and one that has itself accepted so many other countries and cultures within its borders. I went to churches turn ritualistic spiritual spaces complete with incense and shots of “Pox” (a sugar liquor favored by Mayans) and shared a laugh with the guys in the meat market in Mexico City.
You’ll see it all soon enough on the blog but thank you for now for listening to this story. If you’ve experienced anything similar like my own stories above, I’d love to hear about it..
Cover photo of me by Melissa of Flytographer in Playa del Carmen March 2017.