Thursday, May 26, 2011

Growing up Mexican

There's a little girl named Christina, who lives two doors down. She's six years-old and both of her parents are Mexican. I'm always in the communal courtyard of our apartment complex playing with Sabine. When Christina hears us, she comes out, too. She and I always chat about the neighbors, what she's having for dinner, what happened at school that day OR how she feels about being Mexican.

Most of the children in our town, South Pasadena (idyllic, but a little too The Truman Show for me), attend public schools (they're great and people flock here in droves for that reason). But Christina and her older brother attend a private Catholic school in Highland Park, which is mostly Hispanic as far as ethnicity goes. During a recent evening, I was making conversation and asked her what she was having for dinner. She told me they were having taquitos. She made a face and said she didn't like Mexican food. She proceeded to tell me that she's not Mexican. "My mom and dad are Mexican, but I'm not. I'm American," she said.

I was fascinated and saddened by this. Fascinated because she's found a way in her mind to not be Mexican even though her parents are. Saddened because she doesn't want to be Mexican even though she is. Then I remembered being in grade school and high school and telling people that I was half Spanish instead of half Mexican. I can't remember why exactly I felt the need to do this. Maybe because some of the white kids sometimes made comments about the Mexican kids. Maybe because in high school, Mexican kids were bussed in from East L.A. and many of them didn't speak any English and so they kept to themselves and existed in their own world within our high school. And maybe I didn't want to seem as other worldly as they did to some of the other kids.

I also remembered asking my mother when I was older why she never talked much about being Mexican or made Mexican food or spoke Spanish with us. She said that it was because growing up Mexican here in Southern California was a very hard life for her and her family and she wanted better or more for us. They had very little money (my grandfather was a mechanic, who also worked in fields or on farms picking produce). She remembered not having enough money to go to college (her tuition was eventually gifted to her by a family friend). She remembered her father drinking too much to forget not having enough money--and feeling so marginalized that he couldn't feel much happiness a lot of the time. His heaviness wore on my grandmother and their six children. So when my mother left her parents' house, I guess she decided she would be something else.

While growing up, I kind of forgot I was Mexican until I would go to my grandparents' house (where we went often). On weekends, my siblings and I would travel to Mexico with them for fun. My grandmother spoke Spanish and only cooked Mexican food. We even killed, cooked and ate chickens for dinner in their backyard. We picked oranges with my grandfather and swam in the neighboring canals. But I never told any of my friends this when I came home.

Now that my mother is not alive anymore, I'm trying my hardest to remember those days. To remember my grandparents and know where she came from and more of who she was before I came along. I'm telling anyone who will listen as much as I can all about her so I can keep her as close to me as possible. I tell them she was Mexican and that I am, too. It's funny: In some way, she was trying to forget and now that she's gone, I'm trying to remember. I wonder if some day, our little neighbor, Christina, will be trying to remember instead of trying to forget.

Images from Behance


Brianna said...

Love this! This is definitely (being a halfy too) something I struggled with as a child, in different ways. My dad is the worst Mexican ever. He doesn't even like hot sauce. But don't trip you know we still keep it Mexi at Christmas! One day Christina will realize what she's missing out on!

Laura Mauk said...

Thanks, Brianna. Good to know that you totally hear me or identify with my sentiment. I thought the Mauk-Ramirez's were the only ones! xo.

Mylène said...

Laura, how nice that we've exchanged grandmother stories . . . Like you I'm multi-racial, and my strongest sense of root and place came from my grandmothers (while my parents, for example, wanted me only to speak English). Your essay reminded me of Richard Rodriguez's (also poignant) memoir essays. Lovely.

Madeleine Kerr said...

Well, since my boyfriend is an American-born man of Mexican descent (though he says 'just call me Mexican') and teaches at a high school that is 99% Latino both to teens born here and not born here AND since I work with the public, I could go on and on and on about this topic. And what's sad is that it is so true. For example, there is a family from Oaxaca, where my boyfriend's family is from, who comes to all my library programs. The two young girls of this family have shared with me that meh, no Oaxaca for them. Do they love leche quemada ice cream, a Oaxacan specialty? No. Do they love mole? No. One of them doesn't even like chocolate! (Dios mio!) But I don't let that discourage me. I've gone on and one about the food and the places I went there, and now, after many months and finally seeing my photos, the girls have decided that WAIT A MINUTE, Oaxaca looks pretty awesome. And they talk about how much they want to visit. So many children of parents from Mexico and Central America really put distance between themselves and their heritage. I have a few personal observations or I could share story after story after story of others and how they feel about their mixed cultural and ethnic heritage in living here. But one thing that does come to mind that's less personal, but oddly enough, speaks to what is so true here, is something that a former patron brought up to me. She's studying for her PhD at UCLA, specializing in working with bilingual children and teens. And what she brought up to me is that the culture of Mexico and other Central American countries isn't part of formalized study, accessible to families. That there is such a Mexican presence in Southern California, it's just assumed that parents pass their cultural and their language to their children. But that's not really an accurate assessment. Many kids want to or just do identify more with American culture and many parents encourage their kids to distance themselves from what they perceive may hold them back. In Southern California, you can send your child to Chinese School, Hebrew School, Korean school and so on. In these schools, children can learn about cultural traditions and where those traditions come from as well as the language. But there's no special cultural school that serves the Spanish language communities. It's just assumed, oh, their parents are from (fill in the blank), so, they'll learn. But what they learn is casual, watered down and often, not even from their families. John could tell you that many of the kids he has taught don't even speak Spanish and make broad assumptions about their culture because it's what they observe through media..or hear through their friends. Of course, there are some schools that may provide classes or after-school programs that highlight a particular country's heritage for an hour or so, and there's National Hispanic Heritage Month, but there's really nothing consistent and far-reaching to give children and teens the information they really aren't introduced to until college, when they have more access to multicultural courses. I believe that if a multicultural, and I don't necessarily mean bilingual, but, definitely multicultural approach to education beginning at a very young age, there would be a more unified embrace of those cultures that are so present here in California. And, I think there should also be schools and afterschool "schools," that devote their entire coursework and/or funwork to cultures and ethnicities that represent significantly here. And, like many Chinese or Hebrew schools, these institutions are privately funded. Private institutions need to pick up and prosper where public institutions really don't have the infrastructure or ability at this time. I'm glad your grandparents gave you some memories that you have to share...and that make you proud:)

Laura Mauk said...

SUCH a good point re: education, Maddy. I think you are right. And WTF? Why is this the case? Thanks for a great comment.


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