Monday, February 6, 2012

Wolves in Sheep's Clothing

I wrote sometime ago about how my six-year-old neighbor, a girl, told me she was "American, not Mexican." Well, her mother and her father are Mexican, so that makes her Mexican, of course. It's heartbreaking how set she is on not being identified Mexican. I want to ask why it's a bad or shameful thing. But then, my brain forces me to remember that I did the exact same thing when I was close to her age.

And then my brain takes me back just two weeks ago when I was shopping at Trader Joe's with Sabine. We were in the produce section and a group of teenagers were looking at the tomatoes, deciding which ones to buy. One of the girls picked up a tomato and asked the others, "How about these?" Her friend took the tomato from her, read the sticker, threw it back into the bin and said, "Ew, no it's Mexican!" I've no idea what she meant exactly or why her aversion, but I got a sinking feeling in my stomach. My mind felt weary at the time so I decided to stop thinking about it and headed to the next aisle.

A few months ago, a new family moved into our building. They, like the six-year-old girl's family, are one hundred percent Mexican. The eldest daughter, who is nine years old, has the lightest brown hair and blue eyes. She, with her mother and her little brother, stopped by our place recently and when it was time for them to go, the mother said, "Come on, you guys, we're going to grandma's house and she's waiting for us." The girl looked at me, rolled her eyes, put her hand to the side of her mouth and said my grandma's Mexican."

I told her I was Mexican and that meant that Sabine was Mexican, too. She just looked at me and said, "Oh."

I hate that too many young girls, including myself and maybe even my mother, feel and felt shame about who they are. I hate to think about how other people in the world are helping to create that shame and negative perception.

And I hate that those of us who don't look Mexican are all-too privy to that negative perception, those negative words, that hatred. Maybe if we were more brown, we wouldn't have to hear what they really think.

via Observando


Madeleine Kerr said...

I think it's sad, too. I may have mentioned it before here on your blog, but I wish there were after school programs or entire schools (like Chinese School or Hebrew School or French School), where there's a focus on education of all Latino cultures and languages. I feel that the inheritance of all things Latino is looked at fairly casually, and thusly and unfortunately, treated this way. Many kids and teens I meet who are of Latino heritage have never traveled to where their parents are from and may speak in Spanish, but haven't bothered to learn to read or write in Spanish. When I tell them it's such an advantage, they shrug. I can almost hear them muttering, 'whateves lady.'

But what I observe, especially with kids and teens who I work with who are of Latin heritage, is that part of their rejection of all things Latino is a process of how they define self. I am THIS and my parents are THIS and my grandparents are THIS. Kids and teens who grow up in the States, and especially those who function as their parents conduit to the world, perceive themselves as far more sophisticated then their own parents and grandparents. It invites this sort of disdain and rejection of all that's parent related. What I feel I've understood is that while their culture is something that they are proud of, what they also learn to understand from their families is that there are many things that aren't great about Mexico--and this becomes something they do latch onto and separates them from their families.

I know a lovely family who comes to my library from northern Mexico. The mom works at a school, the boys are curious and big readers and Dad comes to the library to read on his own. The boys loathe Mexico, and I was so sad to learn this from them. But when I learned what it meant, I understood why...when they go, they stay with their relatives in homes without plumbing, where big bugs are everywhere, where the food is weird to them and where they get sick every time they go. They just don't like it. After hearing their stories, I don't blame them.

But I also know another family who's from the same village as my fiancé's family. They send one of their three daughters to the village every summer. They're sweet girls who speak English, Spanish and Zapotec. They have a great reverence for their culture I think because their parents have taken the time to educate them.

I know another family from Oaxaca de Juarez. The two daughters weren't at all interested in Oaxacan culture when I met them. They said they didn't need to know because they live here and they like hot dogs. After many months of me extolling the yumminess of Oaxacan ice cream, the nuanced flavor of black beans cooked with avocado leaves and sharing the knowledge that there's a street in Oaxaca that smells like chocolate..they were intrigued. After showing them photos, they started talking about wanting to visit.

I'd like to think that many kids and teens come back to a culture they dismiss once they feel more settled themselves in who they are--but a multicultural identity is hard to maintain for a child, and sometimes I think they just pick something and go with it. I also think that parenting has something to do with--and yes, sadly, I think the way Americans perceive Latin cultures and how they perceive themselves.

Miss A said...

Wow. How sad, yet how comprehensible because I was also once ashamed of the black part of myself, the part that is so strong, and obvious, and I use to tell everyone, I yelled it, that I was jewish, middle eastern. I still do, I still feel the need to remind everyone, but this time it's not to deny my blackness, which I now embrace fully, but more to embrace a part of me that is so strong, but maybe invisible to everyone else.
Anyway. Moving to New York changed all of that. But I'm so aware that NY is not the center of the world.
I was lucky, I grew up with whites, blacks, latinos, chicanos, asians.
My first american crush, the big one, was called Fabian. He was mexican american, he was hot. this was followed by crushes on black guys, white guys, asian guys, more mexican guys.
I feel so sad that those girls are ashamed. But maybe if we just considered them american, without labeling them something else, they'd have the time to get to know the other part of them, to embrace it.
It's just hard when someone forces on you their own stereotype and their views of who you are...

Laura Mauk said...

@Madeleine, such astute ideas about why the shame or lack of pride. you make excellent points--ones i hadn't seen--that are so important to think about. i hope in the future that more of us see it this way so that things, as well as perceptions, can change.

Laura Mauk said...

@MissA, once again, your experience is comforting and illuminating. i think more people probably share your--and my--feelings than we realize. feels so good to write and hear about them...thank you!


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