The Beginnings of a Memoir
August 6, 2016
This post is part of my new effort to tell more of my story. I am working on piecing my memories together through a collection of family photography and written memoirs.
Growing up crossing the border between the US and Mexico is an experience that has become a vital part of my existence. There is an imagined Mexico that I have always romanticized that sometimes feels like a past life. A piece of me is living and thriving in an old Mexico that I knew so well – and at the same time – have yet to meet. Half of my extended family lives in various places throughout Mexico: La Paz, Guadalajara, Tepic, Mexicali, Tijuana, Mexico City, and parts of Durango. Every month my mother and grandmother sent a portion of their earnings to some of our relatives in Guadalajara and La Paz. I would accompany them on their runs to Western Union.
My first language was Spanish and because of the high-volume of first generation Spanish-speaking children that lived in northeast Los Angeles, kindergarten and first grade were still mostly taught in Spanish. I still remember learning English through cartoons on our television. The first phrase I ever learned was “leave me alone”. I kept repeating the sentence and asked my mother what it meant. “Significa ‘dejame en paz,’” she replied. I was so proud of myself for finally knowing an English phrase. It made me, who was enrolled in ESL until I was in the 5th grade, feel closer to being an American. I have always formed my thoughts English and Spanish. Sticking to only one language has always felt like a hard compromise that limits my ability to express myself with a more expansive vocabulary. Spanglish has always felt like the most liberating dialect for me, particularly the Spanglish that is used in southern Califas.
I never threw away clothes, toys or shoes that I outgrew. Instead, my grandmother would store these things away and my uncles would collect black trash bags of “chucherias”. These were a variety of hand-me-down necessities to deliver to relatives and friends in Mexico. I used up calling cards as a child to talk to my cousins in Guadalajara. Mexico was always on my mind. It was a land that struck a nostalgic chord in my soul.
Finding ways to eliminate the painful distance was always a challenge with few remedies. Music has always played a key role in connecting my heart to this not-so distant land. Chicano music, Spanish-language punk rock, and the banda sound of Jenni Rivera were always relatable to me. These performers helped me find ease in how they communicated artistic expression about Mexican and Mexican-American experiences.
Before the intensified drug-fueled narco violence of 2006, I would visit my family every year. Sometimes we would drive all the way to southern Mexico and have big family reunions since most of our family could not visit the US. Hearing stories of extreme violence, disappeared individuals, narco confrontations, and human trafficking became normal experiences for me. I have had multiple family members have to tread lightly because narco altercations are not always so easily avoided. As Mexican-descended people, we were always told that it was
important to blend in when we went to Mexico. We weren’t able to pass as white tourists who can find some safety in their skin color. We understood that regardless of our US passport, our lives were not held in high regard. As Mexican-Americans in Mexico we were targets because we were basically like Mexican citizens, but with a bit more money. One experience that brought this reality to life was when I once had a cousin held for ransom. The same thing also happened to a distant uncle who was held captive for money. My family has had to spend savings on troubling situations like these that other Americans may not necessarily have to face.
I can recall as the violence towards women in maquilas increased I expressed concern for my cousins who worked in them. My aunt always worked the graveyard shift and I stressed the need for her safety when I was a teenager. Mexico was a land of disillusionment. The inescapable violence ultimately helped shape my psyche early on. It never allowed me to get too comfortable. Keeping my guard up has often been necessary.
In addition to this, my diasporic and multi-ethnic experience went beyond Mexico. My brothers are half Nicaraguan and my sister is half Guatemalan. I grew up in a Central American-Mexican-Chicana-US household with first and second generation Mexican-American cousins. I also have Salvadoran and Colombian cousins. That is ultimately what it means to grow up in Los Angeles to me. It’s the tugging and pulling between different cultures. Early on I felt the commonalities and comradery between different Latino groups, while I also felt the tension and conflict brought by Mexican-centrism. Some Latino groups have dominance over others in this regard. I have learned about the marginalization of Central Americans during their crossing experience through Mexico and the shame non-Mexican children can feel among primarily Mexican peers.
I also witnessed a lot of anti-blackness growing up when my mother dated a black man. Most of my friends in elementary school were black girls. By middle school, my grandmother told me to stop hanging out with my black friends and lunch hour became a space of segregation between our respective groups. My best friend was Guatemalan, but she also assimilated to Mexican culture, like most Central Americans. Because of these reflections, I have worked to be better at lending a listening ear to Latino groups that are not Mexican and I have a strong affinity to Central American communities.
Again, my upbringing was completely transnational and diasporic. My home was always a receiving ground for new migrants. Family, friends, and people we hardly knew would cross by smugglers (through many methods) and would come straight to our house. As a child, I befriended people that would move in temporarily with my family. They would sleep on our floor and cook for me, or help me get ready for school in the morning. Many of these people were kind young women are very independent and successful now. Women we helped transition and settle into the US have taught me about work ethics, independence, and feminism. It was a lesson for me to watch people arrive to our home smelling like they had not showered, wearing worn shoes, with little to no belongings; they would gather change for the bus and go out to look for work. The innovation for business and survival was unbelievable to say the least. With a few months of turn around time, most would move out and begin a life independently. I always missed them.
Since the early 1990’s my relationship to Whiteness was always one at a distance. Contrary to the current trends of gentrification, every time my mother moved us to a new neighborhood I witnessed the few white tenants left leaving as we arrived. They would move to growing white neighborhoods north of Los Angeles or to other states altogether. I never had the opportunity to build solid relationships with white children in my neighborhood. I have always felt like a transplant, but I never understood completely where I came from. Displacement is part of my identity. My mother was a refugee fleeing poverty, patriarchy, abuse, and violence; but the popular mainstream US narrative is that my mother is just an immigrant that crossed the border illegally. My experiences have made me well aware of racism within the Latino community (e.g. anti-blackness, eurocentrism) and towards Latinos (white flight, marginalization, etc). With that being said, I am still in the process of understanding that my upbringing was not “normal”.
As I became more politically aware and entered my late teens, I was introduced to the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas, Mexico. There was no turning back. This was the Mexico I wanted to know and learn from. Though I was a mestiza Xicana and it was a Mayan indigenous revolutionary movement, it provided me with hope that I could escape the narco-violence ridden large cities when in Mexico. The politics of autonomy and indigenous anarchy fascinated me and channeled my passion for justice and revolutionary politics. Los Angeles already had a strong rooted history of transnational activism and transborder coalition-building. I began to organize with Chicanxs and other activists to form delegations with the Zapatista government. I am forever captivated by that period in my life where revolution was tangible and the legacy of Ricardo Flores Magon and Emiliano Zapata felt like a blueprint for real change.
Today, I dodge labels when I can. I like to identify myself with fluid descriptors like transnational, multi-ethnic, and queer. I have a complicated relationship with my Xicana identity. On one hand, I absolutely celebrate it with pride because it is my culture, my foundation, and my chosen identity. However, I also think it has not included and encompassed everything that I am made of. I am an assortment of many things with roots in the Middle East, Spain, Japan, and the native lands of Central Pacific Mexico. I disagree with some nationalistic Chicano militant ideologies such as the idea of Aztlan. I think it erases the Native American nations that have existed throughout this land and does not honor the African ancestry of Mexican people. The Chicano movement always had a strong patriarchal element that cannot be ignored. Despite this problem, the Chicano movement has still served as a harbinger of progress in our community. I am still exploring what it means to be Mexican-American and I may spend a lifetime doing this.
For me, identity must be intersectional in order for me to be interested in it and want to explore it further. I find that I am more interested in experiences that inform us about the complexity of our identities than solely focusing on one monolithic identity itself. Through my art and photography I like to explore the question of “why,” more than “who?” What are the layered experiences that lead us to be who we are? I want my art to interrupt what people expect me to be and I want my art to reveal stories about people that go beyond stereotypes and assumptions. My art incorporates visual storytelling because I believe stories are a powerful medium for transformation inside of us and our society.