Thursday, November 1, 2012

It Ain’t Easy Being Mexican


            Some years ago my mother-in-law, and brother- in-law visited us here in Stockton from Mexico City. In the midst of the usual small talk, I said something to the effect that I considered myself “Mexican.”  “No, tu no eres Mexicano”, she said. “Yes, I am,” I countered. “No, you are not.  You are an American,” she insisted. “But both of my parents were Mexican!”  “That doesn’t make any difference. To be Mexican, you would have had to be born in Mexico.” Worse, I expected my cuñado to come to my defense, but he just acquiesced. “She’s right, Richard. You were born here, so you are not Mexican.”

            I was deeply hurt. Angry. Yes, I was born “ here”, but I had always considered myself Mexican. The idea that an arbitrary line in the sand, nay a cyclone fence, could designate my ethnicity infuriated me! In my day, we had no designations like Mexican-American, Latino, Hispanic. The word Chicano was bantered about, but it was a cautionary term, loaded with a enchilada-full of negative connotations: “Don’t you know that Chicano means "Chingádo? Mexicans would ask incredulously. Having learned my lesson, I wouldn’t dare use it to call myself around my suegrita, and cuñado, or any Mexican. Later on, of course, the label took on some measure of respect.

          I mean, what did these people want from me? My parents were both from Mexico. I speak Spanish (though minced), I eat tortillas and frijoles, I love chíle, and Menudo; I listen to Pedro Infánte, Jorge Negréte, and laugh at the caustic lines of Cantínflas. I too go bananas when I hear a Mariachi strike up, and savor a shot of tequila con limon y sal. I can play a guitar, sing corridos and rancheras, and even a bolero or two? I listen to Ignacio Lopez Tárzo and totally get him. One time, I even peed alongside Cuco Sanchez in the men’s room during a concert in Mexico City, for Pete’s sake! So what if I happen to speak English, too, through no fault of my own? Don’t hold that against me.

       To me, being Mexican ought to be a thing of the heart, El Corazón. Or something in one’s blood, sangre. Strangely,  Americans had no problem calling me “Mexican”, including some of my teachers when I was a kid. During the 40s, when some of us were ashamed or too embarrassed to call ourselves Mexican, we opted for being “Spanish”, a word we deemed had more class.

       Oddly, I wound up becoming a Chicano/Mexican Studies teacher in college and my job was to teach about culture, in our case, Mexican culture and history and how it impacted who and what we immigrants of that culture have become, and how that fits into our amazing Melting Pot.  Luckily, I knew about it first hand, not just from a book. Even students from Mexico or Latin America were amazed with what they learned about “their culture” in my classes.

        As if in a final, sweet twist of irony, Marina, one of my Mexican students, an immigrant, raised her hand in class one day saying, “You know, Mr. Rios, I find it ironic that I was born and raised in Mexico and had to come to the United States to learn about my culture!” Asi es.



Penny Kennedy said...

Asi es Mr.Rivers. You read my mind. Los bukis (my kids) and I, recently had a conversation about culture and heritage in the U.S. educational system. In elementary school children are taught that different
cultures from all over the world came together in the USA, to live in harmony, a melting pot so to speak. Now the shameful part is this, as U.S. students we are taught that culture, heritage, diversity, that same melting pot that makes the USA, is an event of the past. LIKE A ONCE IN A LIFETIME EVENT. A non-caucasion student is no longer considered a precious gem, but a minority. Our educational system does not support heriatage and culture, only on special occasions, like 5 De Mayo. Im a MEXICAN 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, not just once a year. The beauty and love of our culture is a life long commitment. My heart beats MEXICAN, I bleed MEXICAN, and when i die, I DIE MEXICAN. We live in a land of equality and freedom, but yet if I speak up for myself or MY RAZA (people of hispanic or latino heritage who share/have the same cultural values as I) Im given a scarlet letter. If i was of caucasion decent i would be considered a leader an activist, but because im MEXICAN IM CONSIDERED A REBEL. AY AY AYYY un grito de amor para mi gente.

#167 Dad said...

What an outstanding essay, Rick. You're the man! Waiting on pins annd needles for the book...