Recently, some of my girlfriends made their first trip to Fresno California and spent the weekend at my mother’s home. Not many of my friends know my grandmother is first-generation whose own mother immigrated to the United States from the state of Durango Mexico. My grandmother has olive-colored skin, dark eyes and hair, a strong nose that tells the world Native blood runs through her veins.
My grandmother speaks a broken kind of English. Assimilating her children to American culture, an excellent grasp of English, and education were their top priorities. My mother and her siblings are bilingual and they all went to college. Slowly their generation broke away from day laboring in the fields.
By the time I came around, fieldwork was a distant memory. It’s almost fitting that one of my oldest memories happened in the schoolyard when other children wanted to know what I was, and I didn’t have an answer.
What am I?
“When people ask you what you are you tell them you are Mexican-American.” A declaration. A fact. Mexican and American. My young mother wants to be sure I understand her words. “This is what you are.”
Our names and our language are Spanish, of European origin, but we--all of us--are from Mexico, and we are also Mexican Indian, Yaqui specifically. This is from my grandparents, their grandparents, “ancestors” moving to and from different places, on boats and by foot, mixing everything together like a big pot of pozole. The “we” in all my mother says makes me feel good. Like a big hug from a tia I’ve never met who smells sweet and won’t let me go.
After these initial lessons there is an awareness of difference. I feel mostly American. My father is a dark-skinned Mexican with kinky hair; I am born with fair skin, dirty-blonde hair, light brown eyes. I pronounce Díaz as thee-aahz and tacos as tha-kos and tortillas as thor-thi-yaas. I can turn my pronunciation on and off; I can hide it if I need to, though sometimes it slips out. That is to say, my ethnicity is elective, I can pass as something other than what I really am.
I get a VIP wristband upstairs and I know this is true because my only sister, who is several shades darker than me and whose features take after my father, tells me so. She gets outright prejudice, people think they can say whatever the fuck they want to her, make demands of her, because she is brown, cuts her curly hair short, is obviously less than.
Less than me?
I went to college; she did not. I moved away from Fresno; she stayed. I am strapped with debt; she is not. Jobs come easily for me; she struggles to find work. She relates to our family in ways I don’t. We are both queer, but our queer experiences are very different. Is it because of the color of our skin? Because she presents as masculine and I as feminine (a topic for a different essay)? We are two entirely different experiences and sets of opportunities before we even open our mouths, show our resumes. Hers is a reality I can’t claim to know. She may always fight against this current while I walk along the shoreline.
During that weekend my friends visited my mother and grandmother’s home in Fresno, one said to me "I had no idea you were so Mexican". I realized I had been seen in way I never had before. I couldn’t hide. Was I trying to? Had I become so accustomed to my privilege, to my ability to blend in, that I was shocked when my friends saw me for what I really am? A Mexican girl from the Valley who is only a few generations away from Mexico, like the real Meh-he-ko.
The answer is yes.
It is easy for someone like me to forget how Mexican I really am because I don’t wear it so obviously on my skin the way my sister or other blood relatives do. I must always be conscious of the access this grants me and understand it is a privilege I did not work for. Because of this privilege, because I don’t speak my language, because I live far away from my kin, I work harder to stay connected to my roots and the important lessons that flow in my blood, to not forget who I am. This is one of the main reasons I write creatively, to capture all that has been lost on me as a Mexican-American woman living in this skin.
Candace Eros Díaz is a queer Chicanx writer based in Oakland, CA. She has held fellowships at the San Francisco Writer’s Grotto, Lambda Literary, and The Steinbeck Fellows Program of San José State University. She co-curates the long-standing San Francisco reading series Babylon Salon and is the Coordinator of Admissions and Student Services for the MFA in Creative Writing at Saint Mary’s College of California where she earned a dual-concentration Masters in Fine Art in creative nonfiction and fiction. Her work has appeared in Under the Gum Tree, Arroyo Literary Review, The East Bay Review, and Huizache, among others. She can be found at candaceerosdiaz.com.
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