Tuesday, October 21, 2008

"Nopal En La Frente"

"Nopal En La Frente" (Cactus on Your Forehead), is a clay mask about 12" high, which is inspired by an old Mexican phrase mocking those who go around pretending they are not Mexican. It is not uncommon for Mexicans in the U.S. to deny their nationality, avoid speaking Spanish, and even to change their names! Thus, Consuelo becomes "Connie", Jose becomes "Joe" and Pedro becomes "Pete". When a Mexican denies his language and culture, trying to pass himself on as "American" or some other nationality, due to a desire "to get ahead" in Anglo society, people say: "Miralo, se cree muy Americano pero trae un nopal en la frente!" It is a way of saying a Mexican can never fool anybody into thinking he or she is not Mexican or "A Tiger can never change his stripes!" The "cactus" (symbolizing Mexican culture) on his forehead is a firebrand, a permanent mark that cannot be so easily be removed.


Laura Paola said...
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Laura Paola said...

Hi there,
I was looking for more info on the phrase "Nopal en la frente," since I've heard it a lot since I've moved to Mexico from North Carolina 3 years ago.
Thanks for your post!

Now I wanted to state my opinion, and I do realize that it is biased based on MY experiences growing up.

I hate that phrase. It's one thing to be proud of being Mexican and to want to conserve the culture. I honestly feel that people use that phrase (usually, not always) out of envy. Then again, each situation is different. I grew up in North Carolina in a very diverse community and my (mostly) Mexican family was not an ordinary Mexican family. I grew up eating more Japanese food and Arabic food than Mexican food, I listened to more hip hop, rock and bollywood music than music in Spanish. I did not speak Spanish growing up and I was not educated about my roots and Mexican culture.

Was I ashamed of being Mexican? (I was born in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua) Was I "denying" that I was Mexican to "advance" or trying to pass of as something else?


I knew that I was Mexican and I never denied it. I was never ashamed of it. What I did feel was shame when I answered "Mexican" to another Mexican who then began criticizing me for not speaking Spanish. I felt shame for not knowing the language and embarassed (publicly) by this random stranger that decided to ridicule me for not fitting his/her ideal of a Mexican. I avoided people after they asked, "hablas español?" because I already knew they would start cursing me out soon. I did not understand back then what the problem was, since I was not denying it nor ashamed of my roots. It was simply ignorance, not shame.

It's not until I moved here (I live in Cuernavaca, Morelos) that I realized that Mexicans have a love/hate relationship with the US. Many worship most things/people that are foreign, more so than anything Mexican. Yet when a paisano goes abroad to make something of himself, that person needs to be ridiculed.

I can understand that some do leave the country and let sh*t go to their head. However, I believe this happens when it is a Mexican who was raised in México with "clasismo." Take a person who was raised with the ideas of clasismo and insert them into a racist (US) society that automatically considers them inferior because of their skin color or culture. They respond with trying to assimilate.
It may sound like a long shot, but I really think this has a lot to do with it. When these folks come back to Mexico, some of them come back with a superiority complex. They feel they are better than those they left behind because they spent so much time trying to one up their neighbor in the states that looked down on them.

With that said, I am not trying to justify my ignorance growing up in the states. It would have been better that my family would have taught me Spanish instead of just nagging me for not knowing it. It would have been better if I would have taken interest in my own family history and would have looked into Mexican culture. We can't just assume that all people in the states who are of hispanic origin speak Spanish and if they don't, they are traitors.

Instead of criticizing these folks, why not offer to teach them a few things?

"Aaah, no hablas español. ¿Quieres que te enseñe unas palabras?"
"You don't know what 5 de Mayo is, let me tell you..."

Being constantly nagged about it, believe it or not, did not make me want to learn Spanish. On the contrary. The only reason I decided to start learning Spanish was because I decided I wanted to study in Cuernavaca. I am happy with my decision and I love all that I have learned about the language and the rich culture and my roots. None of this, however, was due to comments like "tiene el nopal en la frente."

Rick Rivers said...

Wow Laura, thanks for taking the time to respond. I don't get much of this on my blog, so I've kinda given up even looking. I agree there was a lot of envy in the use of the term, even back in my day. It irritated Mexicans for their compatriots to lose their identity to Gringo culture. But some of that had to take place in order for us to get "ahead" in this society. Good thing some of us rediscovered it back in the late 60s and 70s with the Chicano Movement.

Niccolo Bay Area said...

we are not Mexican because we are born in Mexico we are Mexican because Mexico is born in us . I'M MEXICAN I will never call myself a Hispanic or a latino , i'm indigenous to this continent . FYI rick rivers joe or jose is not Mexican thoses are slave names that were past down since the arrived of the Spaniards .

Ivan Farias said...

First, I want to say thank you Laura for that post (I don't care if it's been nine months)it expresses the idea and feelings I have for that phrase, it's born out of envy
Now, I don't think that phrase is related,now and then, to the lose of roots/heritage/identity you name it
That phrase is used by conformists who hate seeing others taking the best of life, because their success shows how lazy they are

Xeon Krze said...

I am Mexican, and to think that phrase comes out of envy, is arrogant.

There may be cases where kids are not at fault, and we Mexicans stereotype everyone assuming they're just ashamed of their roots,

but at the same time, as a Mexican, for me, it is very difficult to understand why kids of parents that have low education and speak only Spanish, turn out to only speak English. How do they communicate with their parents?

I was brought to the US as a kid, and speak both languages. I've even known cases of kids like me that are brought, and still later on supposedly don't speak one bit of Spanish, but their parents don't speak one bit of English.

Many do feel ashamed of being Mexican and they want to act like something they're not.

Sure there are exceptions, and the mistake is in generalizing, but a lot of people do feel ashamed and thus the stereotype.

And now I read Ivan Farias, saying we're lazy? Well, that just sums up the need to use the phrase, you think you are all that, pero tienes el nopalote en la frente.

In other words, don't think you're better.

Many times that phrase is used to people that express arrogance, which American cultures are a bit arrogant, and Mexican kids in the US can grow up being quite arrogant in the US compared to their Mexican counterparts.

I don't think anyone would use that phrase on someone that speaks no spanish but acts humbly and accommodating, friendly.

Xeon Krze said...

And to add to the envy argument, the facts are that the latino population in the US has an average per capita wealth lower than a Mexican living in Mexico.

I'm pretty sure that will surprise many and shake you off your feet. So the whole argument about envy and bettering oneself doesn't hold water.

Majority of Mexicans in the US are not rich, they are in the lower class of the country with low wage.

In Mexico, there is poor people, yes, there is middle class people that most live in the big cities, which many people that migrate to the US come from rural towns and never been to the cities so don't know that reality. And there is a lot of rich people.

So in average it does make sense that a Mexican in Mexico lives about the same or even a little better than a Mexican in the US.

Once again, see the bigger picture, not just the small 500 people rural town that most people come from. In those towns there are no opportunities, but Mexico has big and vibrant cities with large middle class.

Laura Paola said...
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Laura Paola said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Laura Paola said...

@ Xeon Krze I think the phrase itself is arrogant. It's an attempt to shame someone for the way that they were raised. And yes, many say it out of envy, I'm not saying all. I can understand the frustration when Mexicans see their compatriots losing their culture abroad and not passing on their traditions to their children, etc. By the way, you yourself may not be considered (authentic) Mexican where I now live. I too grew up in the states and that is how I got my nickname here, "Pocha." For those who don't know, pocho or pocha literally means rotten fruit and is a term used for Mexicans raised in the states. Even if you were brought up with both languages, people here (in Cuernavaca at least, I can't speak for the entire country) will tell you "no eres ni de aquí ni de allá." Many will constantly remind you that you have an accent, that your Spanglish or "chicano accent" is adorable and make fun of it every chance they get. Some will even remind you about "el nopal en tu frente." I only say this from experience, o sea, que tengo años viviendo aquí y años escuchando estos comentarios. I obviously can't speak for your experiences here in Mexico and how many have told you that they do not consider you a Mexican because you were raised in the states, that you are a Pocho or Pocha.
Like I stated in my original post, I can understand why the stereotype exists. I have seen many Mexicans who move to the states (as adults) and return with a superiority complex. They come back to Mexico and treat their paisanos with disrespect, looking down on them. (Again, many not all)
And as for your argument of the US Latino population have less wealth than a person living in Mexico or that a Mexican here lives better than a Mexican in the states is bull. I have no clue where you get that crappy argument from. Minimum wage here is PER DAY, and is less than an American gets PER HOUR. Food costs are almost the same as in the states, technology costs a crapload more. The "poorest" Mexican in the states has enough to buy a car, a house or pay monthly rent, have cable & internet and depending on where they live may even get government assistance. Here, internet is a luxury that not many have. The poor here have sheds with dirt floors, wash clothes along with their neighbors outside and hang the clothes to dry. I'm not referring to the people in rural areas either. These are the lower class in the cities, there are even worse living conditions for the truly poor. Of course there are beautiful, vibrant cities with more opportunities, but it is still not easy to get a good job without a degree. Even with a degree, pay is not always that good. Most people that grow up in rural areas have crappy schools, inequality in education and their rights. Imagine a person from a rural area that has to work since childhood and does not know to read and write. Where are their opportunities in these vibrant cities? Yes, we have rich people, including the richest man in the world. But they are a minority.

Laura Paola said...

@ Xeon Krze
To conclude, and I quote you:
"you think you are all that, pero tienes el nopalote en la frente." <---- just made my case, envy.

The majority of the times that I have heard that phrase, it's because people ask me about growing up in North Carolina. I hate speaking about it, because it's already generalized that I feel superior and that I hate eveything Mexican. Which is bull.... I live in Mexico, no one forced me to move here. If I looked down on the culture, the people, etc... why the hell would I be here? When people ask me, they assume that everything was better "over there." Nunca falta el que "¿por qué estás aquí? Si allá TODO es mejor." That is the generalization that a Mexican (here not in the states) makes of life in the states. The generalization that the streets are paved with gold and everything is practically free. Then after interviewing me, they automatically assume that I consider myself superior and remind me that I am not a "true Mexican."

Xeon Krze said...

I get my statistics from the Pew Research center.

Yes, Mexican in the US can afford an iPhone, car, pizza, internet, whatever, but they still have to work like slaves in some states even 2 or 3 jobs like in California or living in cramped apartments or houses almost 10 people in a single dwelling.

A Mexican even with a degree rarely will live the life of an typical white American. There is lots of discrimination. This is again documented.

And people don't own their homes, the moment they lose their jobs or they don't afford to pay mortgage, they're kicked out of the streets.

Sure these ladies may wash their clothes outside their homes, they may not have internet, but their homes are 100% theirs and they will never risk going to the streets, plus many either are stay at home or work regular hours.

To me, America is just a "dream" not a reality, an illusion of wealth.

To finalize my argument I think there is envy from some Mexicans but also a lot of arrogance and ignorance from some Mexican Americans or those that grew up in the us.

Personally I've never been called a pocho because I speak perfect Spanish even though I was brought as a child, and in the US I speak almost perfect English and have a professional job, but that's not the reality of majority of Mexicans.

Emanuel Alanis said...

I'm Mexican and this is what the phrase means in all of it's glory.

It's condescending and you say it to someone who looks either indian, very indian, or even half, but definitely looks stereotypical "Mexican", especially if coming from parents that are peasants and have maybe elementary education, yet the children act Americanized and better than everyone else.

Some of this may be true, or may be false as in the case of Laura Paola, where she just wasn't exposed to the culture.

There is some envy as people like this are seen as undeserving in Mexico (there is lots of classism), so to see an indian looking, coming from peasant parents, acting all American/European, etc it's like a slap in the face to some. Some like to shove it, and some don't.

For those that like to shove their superiority, it's an earned title, for those that don't it's really sad that they have to take the heat for something is not their fault.

But the phrase is indeed condescending, classist, and racist by "US" terms.

You almost never say it to a brunette green eyed Mexican unless they look like they come from dirt poor parents, in which case the phrase "guero de rancho" is used.

Emanuel Alanis said...

In Mexico you're tied to who you are and where you come from, so there is no "anyone can be anything that you want to be" motto. If you're a son of indians, look indian, son or daughter of peasants and look like one of them, then supposedly you have no right to act like an American, or European.

That's all behind the phrase.

Emanuel Alanis said...

By the way Laura Paola, imagine someone from your same background was raised in London and comes speaking with a posh british accent and saying this is better in Great Britain and that, I think you could also be feel the same as some of this folks. Just never ever say anything in America is better to any of them especially not material things, not everything is an internet connection, family connections may be more worth in Mexico.

Laura Paola said...

@Emanuel Alanis, I understand. I don't compare things from where I grew up to where I live now. I usually prefer to avoid the subject all together and hope that no one notices my accent. It is that generalization that I usually get from the get-go. "Oh, you are pocha, so you MUST feel superior to me. I'm sure you miss home, huh? I bet you can't wait to leave this country?"
To which I answer, "ummmm, no. I'm here because I want to be here."
It does get annoying sometimes, having to tone down who I am so I won't offend anyone. For example, not being able to talk on the phone in public if someone is calling me from NC, because my speaking English in public is rude. "Who does she think she is?"
Or pretending that I don't like certain foods or music so I don't look too americanized.

Emanuel Alanis said...

@Laura Paola Yeah, Mexicans are also "malinchist" in which we idealize anything American or European and think it's the glory and therefore think that you must be waiting to get out.

If you're talking to another Mexican in English, it's looked down upon. If it's a non-latino American, it shouldn't, but then again, they probably assume you just want to show off your English, as some do.

Then again there is the assimilation issue, I can't take a Spanish call either when I'm at offices in the US either without getting some nasty look or feeling uncomfortable. I try to hide when I take Spanish calls.

Rick Rivers said...

Thanks all for such a spirited discussion on the topic! The piece is one of the "chapters" in my book titled "Songs From the Barrio: A Coming of Age in Modesto, Ca." and I guess should be taken in the context of the whole book. (It's available on Amazon) My experience with the term was not so much that its use indicated "envy" by the user, but more of a "disappointment" even "disgust" with the subject in question (being Mexican) who thought he "was better" than other Mexicans, more "American", who denied or was even "ashamed" of his culture, who even went to far as to change their surnames, Martinez to Martin, Campos to Fields etc. I find humor in the phrase and even created a clay mask (pictured in the post) of a face with a nopal on it. People are either confounded by it, or greatly amused. My mom, though she lived a great chunk of her life in the U.S. flatly refused to speak English (thought she could if she had to, brokenly). It was partly out of embarrassment, and partly out of pride for her country of origin, Mexico. Of her 30 odd grandkids, only my son Michealangelo, spoke Spanish and she was so proud of this.

Laura Paola said...

@Xeon Krze as for your last post, I totally agree. I personally consider it better to own my land, house, etc here in Mexico than the illusion in the states. However, that doesn't mean people here have better living conditions compared to those in the U.S. Many do, but there is still economic inequality. Many people here have to work long hours, as well, to make ends meet. 10 hour shifts, 6 days a week to make about 12 dollars a day. A Mexican in the states, despite the discrimination, can make anywhere from 8-16 dollars an hour.
As for the arrogance of some Mexican Americans, also true, which I mentioned in my last posts. Some come back feeling superior, although I have seen it more with people who were brought up in Mexico and later on established their life in the states.

Laura Paola said...

@Emanuel Alanis
I find that annoying as hell. Having to hide to make a phone call so people won't give me nasty looks. Whether it's taking a Spanish call at the office or an English call around other hispanics, you shouldn't have to hide. You're not doing anything wrong. With that said, I still feel awkward when my mom calls me on the phone while I'm on a bus or walking around downtown Cuernavaca. I've had people give me dirty stares in the past, and although I shouldn't let it get to me, it's uncomfortable.

Miryam Silberfarb said...

I really enjoy this blog and the responses to the nopal discussion. So...bottom line, is it such a bad thing? TO HAVE A NOPAL or NOT TO HAVE A NOPAL. When people tell me I look so Mexican, I don't care. I love being Mexican. If I have a nopal on my face I figure...hey...it makes me cuter! I don't have an issue with me. I'd love to hear from people who have been told they have a nopal. What is your reacion.