Thursday, January 29, 2009

Quetzalcoatl: Rediscovering My Roots

When I was hired as a Chicano Studies instructor back in 1972, I knew little about Mexico or its history, save what my mom told me about her childhood in Torreon, Coahuila (Northern Mexico) in the early 1900's, and a couple of trips I had taken to Mexico City before I met my wife there in the mid-60's. I spoke what I believed was Spanish, and ate what I thought was Spanish food. The pioneer Chicano Studies teachers of the late 60's and early 70's, were self-taught, since there were no courses we could have taken in any American school that taught us anything contrary to the steady diet of a Western or Europeanized view of the world. So we had to teach ourselves by reading and traveling! We were just a chapter ahead of our students, in the few textbooks available to us at the time.

I found Mexico's history engrossing. How could I have grown up and missed this? Oh, the price of assimilation! When I returned to Mexico now I had a new mission, to touch and see for myself the art of ancient Mexico, the Maya, the Aztecs, Teotihuacan, Tula, and Chichen-Itza, the Aztec calendar, and the murals of Rivera, Orozco and Siqueiros and share that with my students. Standing on top of the pyramids of Monte Alban and Tulum on the Carribean coast filled me with a renewed sense of pride, of belonging. These were my people too, and I felt a kinship far beyond that of a tourist. I was stunned to learn of the brutality of the Spanish conquest of Mexico in 1521, of Hernan Cortez, of 300 hundred years of Colonialism, the War of Independence and Miguel Hidalgo in 1810, Mexico's first indian president, Benito Juarez, and the Mexican Revolution of 1910.
One day, when my mother-in-law visited my wife and I from Mexico City, I made the mistake of referring to myself as a Mexican. "No, tu no eres Mexicano", she said." "Si soy", I countered. "No." "Si." "No." "Si." I became more and more irritated until she decreed "No nacistes en Mexico, nacistes aqui en los Estados Unidos. Por eso no eres Mexicano." I could not accept the notion that just because I was born in the U.S. I could no longer refer to myself as Mexican. To me, being Mexican was a thing of the heart, the soul, the mind. It was all about beans, tortillas, chiles, menudo, tamales, enchildadas, Mexican music (rancheras, boleros, corridos), mariachis and gritos. Besides, both of my parents were born in Mexico! To my mother-in-law, to be Mexican, was simply a matter of geography, not of the heart.
Over the years, I have come to realize that my Mexican heritage is a gift I cherish, one that no one can take from me. No wonder my mom's last words to me as I left for college were: "Nunca se te olvide que eres Mexicano" (never forget you are Mexican). And forget I did, in the decade that followed as I went through college and we studied the art of every culture except Mexican. OK, so I'm not a real Mexican. I wanted to be. On the other hand, many of us have grappled with the pressure to assimilate: become Americanized: "You must forget your culture", we are told, as if we have to choose between one or the other! To hang onto to our culture is baggage and blatantly un-American. Yet so many us have perfected being bilingual and bicultural (even tricultural or more-orale!!) There is a choice to be made, yes. A very important and conscious choice. The choice to be a person of two cultures, two languages, both Mexican and American, a Chicano!
And like the old song says: No, no you can't take that away from me."

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