Friday, April 22, 2011

Sometimes a lost culture

This summer taught me a few things. Including what it means to love without boundaries. To trust people completely without fear. And based on my background, both as a refugee to the United States and from living in cities for my entire life, this was a really breath taking experience.

On our first day in Huixcazdha, we met a woman with a face that had wrinkles carved into it from smiles that reached all the way across her face and years of telling people the truth about what it meant to be loved by her and to live with her taking care of you for every moment that she was with you. Everything with cariño. She had a mind of her own and was sharp as a tack, though she had very little if any schooling. But life was led with ganas. Everything, from picking the figs from her trees to bringing us her salsas and frijoles and tortillas was done with love that curled off the top of her heated dishes and into your heart. You could not help but love Doña Pau. No one could.

She would come and hug you deep into her chest until you were swallowed by the warm of her voice, clucking and telling you to come and asking you where you had been that morning. She would tell you honestly, no tenemos mucho, pero estamos feliz. And while this came with a sadness that clung from one corner of her cheek but a glow through her eyes. Life is not easy, and she more than others knew it. As her family spent their days in the milpa, pushing old iron blades through dry earth, hitting rocks again and again and bringing life through green into their worlds, you knew she was right there with them. Each line in the earth another line on their faces. Each line in the earth, another son sent to the United States, to send readmittances to a family that they swore they would never forget and as the years go on and the distance grows you see time slowly pulling at the bonds that made their struggles her struggles.

Love. Warmth. Sadness. And Chile.

So much Chile. When you asked Doña Pau to make it spicy, she would make salsas that made you sit there and sweat. Agony and ecstasy. But doesn’t this explain how Mexican culture works? In pain and suffering, there is beauty and joy through another sort of experience. In knowing that you are alive. And knowing that there is something else through all of this and feeling cleansed in that moment of burning. Burning.

Doña Pau showed me what it meant to find beauty in the darkest of days. And at the end of our stay in this magical world, where people loved because it meant living, and everything you have was something more that you could give to those you loved, she felt tragedy. And this tragedy was enough to see the sunlight leave her rounded cheeks. The lines on her face sunk deeper. And it literally melted my heart that I often fear may be made of ice.

How easy it is to forget, when there is distance. As I write this now, I sit with tears streaming down my face and a heartbeat with each thud that makes me both smile from the bitter taste of missing someone so far away in so many ways and knowing that if I went back there tomorrow, Doña Pau would invite me into her house, sit me down and feed me the frijoles and tortillas she made that morning for her family. And she would remind me what it means to be more than I thought I could be.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Hosted by La Casa

“Am I Latino enough?” Voices rang out from each part of the room in response, each one echoing this experience of becoming more Latino after leaving his or her home community to come to Yale. “Am I Latino enough?” My own voice stayed silent. I had walked in with so much confidence that I was Latino that the whole concept of the event made me giggle on the inside. Yet, I walked out those same doors slightly confused. It hadn’t occurred to me before then that, upon leaving home in the South Bay of San Diego, a predominantly Mexican community, to others I had become less Latino.

I’m not sure if I was the only one in the room to feel that way, but in the spirit of false uniqueness, I assumed that was the case. I decided not to speak up, choosing instead to imagine a conversation in my head where I boldly contested the ubiquity of the issue and sparked a more heated conversation about what it really meant to be Latino. Instead, I let the idea slowly cook in my head, and I think it’s time to pop it out of the oven right about now.

My experience upon arriving at Yale seemed to be one of becoming less Latino. I remember as vividly as human memory allows that exact moment my sophomore year, while working at the Intergroup Relations and Development Lab, that I (to my own surprise) surprised the graduate student I was working with by telling her of my Mexican-American background. “I didn’t know you were Latino! You don’t really look it.”


Maybe I shouldn’t have been so surprised. It wasn’t the first time I had run into this kind of statement back home, but back home it was so much less bothersome. At a school where the majority of students were either Mexican-American or Filipino, I had gotten “Asian” a lot. But I always brushed it off. I wasn’t “Asian.” I am pretty damn Mexican, thank you. I like my tortillas, I won’t eat anything without hot sauce on it, and it goes lime, salt, tequila for me.

Granted, that’s talking about behaviors and preferences. Fine, let’s talk about appearances. Did I look Latino? Well, first of all, what does it mean to look Latino? And if you come down the rabbit hole I’m trying to take you down (please do), I want to ask you, do you know what it means to look Latino in San Diego? Because for me, it meant a variety of things. It meant going to the local hardcore shows with my straightened hair, where the majority of the scene kids were Mexican-American. It meant severeal hours of headbanging at local metal shows where the majority of the all-black-wearing metalheads I was with were Mexican-American. And it meant looking like a fool while I tried my damn hardest to ollie even one inch off the ground at a skate park where most of the sk8r bois were Mexican-American.

So after I came to Yale, I was pretty surprised to find out I hadn’t been an easily identified Latino. Just like back home, I assumed everyone just knew. And because you just knew, you could move on towards constructing other parts of your identity. So that’s why I assumed everyone would just understand why I said that the dining hall enchiladas didn’t enchilarme enough.


Yet, just short of having a full blown cultural-anxiety-induced identity crisis (I have enough anxiety issues for now), the event helped me to re-affirm my identity. “Am I Latino enough?” I’m sorry for bringing that up again, but it needs to be there so I can mention that I’ve realized that the voice in those quotes was never really my own. Though the event provoked a few considerations about what it meant to be Latino and how one would “become” Latino, I realized that I’ve been Latino all along. I think most of the other voices in that room would agree. Because no matter if you don’t look it, act it, eat it, speak it, or dance it, I’ve realized that those same things I’ve mentioned have, for some odd reason, become the implicit standard for what it means to be Latino. And despite the fact that I don’t look it, act it, or dance it, I am Latino.