Welcome, Mamma Crew, to another chaotic, exciting, but always beautiful day of an older mom like you!
So, one of my daughters, Emmi (one of the twins), has lately become interested in her Hispanic heritage. Mexican, to be precise because I was born in Mexico. And at first, I didn’t know what to make out of it because you see, when I was growing up, when we first immigrated to the United States, the concept of being part of the melting pot was really dominant. And my father brought us up with the idea that we have to become part of that melting pot.
Over the years, I could feel losing touch with my roots, okay? I could feel myself becoming more part of that melting pot, and that was a combination of issues. It wasn’t that my father primarily chose to have us live in predominantly white neighborhoods (which he did), but it was also that when I would return to Mexico, I was not accepted. And that lack of acceptance grew over the years as I became more Americanized.
So, I remember one time my dad took us across the border, and I was so looking forward to this, this was a big trip we’re going to Ensenada, Baja California. And we were going to visit some of our aunts, and I always enjoy visiting these aunts. They were kind of funky for Mexican aunts because they never got married. In a society in which you were considered an old maid at the age of twenty, they never got married!
So, I was really excited, and we were going to go for that visit, and then my dad decided to take us to the fish market in Ensenada and we were going to eat at this fish market. And the whole time, being the big germaphobe that I am, my father’s talking about whether we could have fish, or we could have the pork (carnitas), and I keep thinking, “How did I know that the pork doesn’t have trichinosis,” right? All that I could think of was trichinosis. And I’m an obsessive germaphobe. Obsessive.
So, I’m trying to decide if I want to eat fish (which I hate) or take the risk of eating carnitas, which I’m convinced has trichinosis. And I’m talking to my sister, and a Mexican woman turns around and says, “Mijas las bochas” which is a derogatory way of saying, “Those girls are from the US, they’re not really Mexican.” And I remember just stopping dead in my tracks and thinking, “Wait a minute, that’s not the first time that happened. Wait a minute, that’s happening a lot when we cross the border. They call us bochas”.
Later when I became a sociologist I realized, I was no longer part of the in-group. I had become part of the out-group. I did not belong to Mexico anymore. My accent was not right. My cultural beliefs were not right. But the difficult thing was that the Hispanic community, the Mexican community across the border, was very fractured too. You have the people of the ethnic enclaves that really stay within a community where there’s just other Mexicans, or primarily Mexicans, and really trying to maintain the cultural heritage, the traditions, the language, the food. And then, there are people like me. I became part of my culture. I became very Americanized. And recently when I was watching a show on HBO, I found out, “Oh, shoot! I’m what they called a “whitetina.” I’m like, “Crap!” I’m no longer considered Mexican. The Mexicans here considered me a white Mexican. But guess what? I’m also not white.
And why am I laughing? Because you know what, at fifty-four. I no longer care about any of these things. That’s the reality! Okay?. At fifty-four, I am who I am. I’m a woman that was born in Mexico, who in her thirties became a US citizen, who has lived in the United States for forty-eight years. I have never been embarrassed by my heritage, I have never been somebody who has Mexican flags on her front porch (I don’t criticize anybody who has). But the bottom line is, I’m an amalgamation. A combination of all of these cultures, and I take pride in who I am. So of course, that means that I also take pride in the bits of pieces that make up all of these cultures because it’s who I am, they’re all part of me.
But how am I supposed to pass this on to my daughter, right? Who suddenly becomes interested in the fact that she’s half Mexican, and who is suddenly confused by the fact that even though she is half Mexican, she doesn’t look Mexican at all. And when she tries to claim her Mexican heritage, people tell her she can’t do that because she looks white, and my answer is: I have no idea. None!
I mean what changes? Am I supposed to suddenly start putting Mexican flags all over my house, play Mexican music? I mean, I do play Mexican music, but I play just as often I play country, or as I play classical music, or as a play rock music. Am I supposed to buy more Mexican clothing? My mom beat that out of me! I think this is my only sort of Mexican heritage shirt I have, and frankly, it’s not an homage to Mexico as much as it is an homage to a very stubborn independent woman, and I love that about Frida Kahlo.
So, what am I supposed to tell her means of being Mexican-American? I have no idea! And in this culture, where if you wear something that represents a different culture, or symbolizes a different culture, you get accused of cultural misappropriation. It becomes more difficult to embrace one another, right? So, what do I tell her?
What I tell her is, “It’s not just things that change nothing changes. Believe it or not, it was just as confusing for me. It was just as confusing. I was born in Mexico. I didn’t grow up in Mexico. So, I spent all of my life (at least, my younger life) being confused about where I belong, trying to find my place in a very culturally diverse society. Which I think is one of the most beautiful things about the United States but is also one of the most challenging. And makes it very difficult to understand one another, and it makes it very difficult to understand where we fit in, in this big complex picture.
So, why am I even talking about this? Because she’s interested in the heritage? Believe it or not, that was a very long introduction to the fact that I’m struggling with whether or not we should celebrate the day of the dead this year. Last year was the first year that I had an altar, primarily because the family members that had passed away in my life have passed away when I was very young.
I had an uncle who passed away when I was seven. He was my father’s brother. His best friend. His best enemy. His best everything. They just truly love each other and understood each other in a way that my father still feels that void. And I remember him. I always remember him. I remember his dashing smile. His debonair way with the ladies. But there was so much distance there, right? So much distance in my understanding of that love, in my appreciation of the love that my uncle and my father shared. And I was a child it was so easy to grieve and move on.
But then when my mother passed away, it was a totally different story, and I really wanted to keep honoring her life. Her struggles. Her stubbornness. A gift that she passed on to me, and I’m passing on to both of my daughters. Actually, to all three. They’re all pretty stubborn. I don’t know about the boy, the boy seems a little bit easier going (but I’ll get back to you on that one).
But this year, this year, more than any other year, feels like the year of death. So many people in this world have succumbed to this pandemic, and they’re such tragic stories. And somehow, though we have lost acquaintances, we have lost friends, somehow, we haven’t lost a family member, and my father caught COVID early in the pandemic. He was really sick, and for a while, it looked touch and go, and he refused to go to the hospital, and he said he was ready. And three weeks later, he was on the beach celebrating with a beer that he had made it through another rough spot in his life.
So, it just seems wrong to celebrate the day of the dead this year. It just seems wrong. But at the same time, it seems wrong not to do it, at a point where my daughter is exploring part of the culture and The Day of the Dead is a strong component of our culture because we are celebrating the life of those who have gone before us. We’re not inviting death. We’re just saying, we know it’s going to happen, and we’re going to live the best life that we can. Despite the fact that we know, one day, we’re not going to be here anymore.
So, I feel this conflict because I don’t want anybody to feel that we’re making light of the tragedy that surrounds us. But at the same time, I know that we’re not. I know that The Day of the Dead is a celebration of life; is a celebration of human resilience over tragedy, and it’s a celebration of culture. A beautiful, crazy, lovely culture.
I have to tell you that one of the things I find most beautiful about Mexican culture is the way that we embrace life. You know, I’ve never visited another country (and I visited many countries. I’ve also traveled to many states in the United States) where people have a devil-may-care attitude about death. Where people embrace it and say, “I’m not going to be afraid of you. I’m going to live my life to the fullest, to the best.” And I even heard my grandmother say, “Why bother to be afraid of death when you’re dancing with it every day?”
So, back to my daughter, Emmi, who is trying to figure out her way, who she is, and how her Mexican heritage is going to be incorporated into that identity. I think that based on her exploration, I’m going to go ahead and set up the altar for my mother. I’m going to include my uncle. I don’t know why I didn’t include him last year. I love my uncle. He’s not my favorite uncle (my favorite uncle is my uncle Juan, sorry people!. He’s just my favorite. He’s cuddly. He gives the best hugs. Always positive. Always in a great mood. So, here’s a shout out to my uncle!).
But I loved him very much, and I know my father misses him until this day. And I will add friends, acquaintances that we’ve lost. And I will hope that next year, when I may be forced to add more pictures on that altar, I remember that they lived the best life that they could, and they always knew how to dance well with that death, that impending into our lives that we shouldn’t be afraid of if we’ve lived a good life.
Not only because I want to celebrate the life of those that have gone on before me, but because I do think that it’s a beautiful part of our culture. And right now that Emmi wants to explore her Mexican heritage, she’s entitled to see some of its wonderful, beauty, contradiction, and crazy expressions of love.
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