I was reminded by the Google doodle of the work of Zitkala-Sa, the great Yankton-Dakota writer and political activist who had a birthday a few days ago. I inadvertently threw myself down the rabbit hole of Native American suffering in the Old West. After all, I live where tragedy was once a way of life: Good old Wyoming. My sweet home. This land, where I raise my son and lay my head at night, is land that has been fought over, and seen disarray as manifest destiny trampled over tradition and culture much older than the relatively young greed of American conquest.
I love looking at old photographs of the time period and do so with a reverence I don’t fully understand. I wonder how Native Americans dealt with the unimaginable grief of being taken from their culture and molded into something else. I also recall reading about the Carlisle School and its “grand purpose” of re-educating children whose faces refused to find comfort in their new outfits. Their motto brought me deep sorrow: “Kill the Indian: Save the Man.”
I don’t intend to create parallels between the horror experienced by Native Peoples of America and what people of color experience today. It’s a different experience, of course, but yesterday’s unfiltered hatred toward the Other still lingers in various distilled societal forms. As I read about Zitkala-Sa’s fierce sense of duty and tales of her advocacy, I am humbled by the hurt she endured, and am reminded that the through-line of re-education, assimilation, and cultural subjugation, is still at play when people of color choose to adopt a mainstream American identity. Mainstream American identity, sort of like a shiny and new euro-centric sense of belonging we were sold in those high-energy TV commercials in the 90s, and everywhere we looked growing up. Seeing that ideal everywhere can cast doubt in the minds of brown kids. Even now, I second-guess where I land on the spectrum of culture guilt. I ask myself often, almost daily:
“Have I left my culture behind?”
“What if my code-switcher got stuck and now I’m just a coconut?”
“Did I become one of the good ones in their eyes for good?”
When I was in college, I was introduced to Richard Rodriguez’ often polarizing Hunger of Memory; A narrative about the author’s steep road to a Western education and the haunting isolation he experienced, particularly from his own family and culture. When I read it, I fumed over it for a long while. I wrote a five page essay in response to what I perceived as pomp, and accused Rodriguez of surrendering his culture no-questions-asked to the romanticized pursuit of becoming a Western intellectual. A traditional person of letters. Perhaps I didn’t have the academic scope and most likely, still lack the secular acumen to clearly see his point of view, but I felt a rage. A deep fervor that a person so intelligent, eloquent, and driven, would choose to leave his culture behind. I believed Richard, the son of Mexican immigrants, an immigrant himself, decided to forgo his background, to acquire a new one. Maybe I misunderstand his take on it.
Not so long ago, I was browsing through my bookshelves and I saw Hunger of Memory stowed away in the forgotten corner of my guest room bookshelf. It still pained me to recollect how I felt in college. I haven’t read it since. Not sure why I still own it. Perhaps as a strange reminder that I would someday be in the very position Richard Rodriguez wrote about. In this struggle of assimilation, I find that after living in the United States for 25 years, and growing up in a place like Wyoming, it seems as though assimilation took place in me and I forgot to pay attention when it occurred. I used to be mad at Richard because he predicted the wedge I often feel separating me from my family and my culture. I left my Mexican home in Evanston, as a Mexican young adult, and I went somewhere else to learn new things that contradicted everything I knew about life. I must have become an “American” somewhere along the way. Looking back on that critical time in my development, I now understand that to inhabit and keep my culture, is a responsibility. A choice.
I write with a clear understanding that assimilation happened to me. I didn’t know it was happening so I didn’t prevent it. I could have paid attention, sure. But who does at 19? I wasn’t asking myself whoa I feel really weird, it must be due to my decreasing Mexicanity levels and I need to sound the alarm so the compas can come help me gain full Mexicanity and rid myself of this cultural flux once and for all—
—I don’t think it happens like that. I just went out into the world and experienced a lot of new, interesting, and cool shit. While I consider myself a private person, my grave mistake has been to exacerbate this concealment. I grew too accustomed to withhold parts of myself from public view. In turn, my Latinidad is the aspect of me that has suffered the most. I could have done better being my true, weird, Latinx self. I could have been more proud. Unapologetic on all fronts. In a place like Wyoming, that can happen, you know? In a homogenized place, it is emotionally taxing to be the odd one out, so it helps to lie low sometimes. To survive. I then left for college, and the wedge truly appeared as I walked out of my parent’s house. I was no longer watching novelas or Sabado Gigante on the regular, I was listening to Wicked and watching Christopher Nolan movies and listening to Elliott Smith deep cuts and all the other cool shit I couldn’t find in a small town. All these things definitely inform who I am now.
The great thing about being a writer, however, is that all of this hodge-podge and cultural fusion inevitably comes out in the writing. Just when I think I wasn’t being myself, I look to my childhood poems, my college plays and even what I’m writing now, and I see so much melodrama lifted from the dense history of my extended family, myths I overheard at Socorro’s store around the corner while buying chiclets, my grandfather’s violin, my favorite Cantinflás movie, my father’s guitarist hands cracked in the Wyoming frost he worked in for years.
Yes, there is a Mexican in there after all.
And all of this Mexicanity comes out with a shot of Tequila from my querido Jalisco, as I write with my Amá’s tireless work ethic, featuring a serving of Euripides and Ionesco and Pinter and a soundtrack by Quasi and Neutral Milk Hotel as the backdrop of a Rocky Mountain sunset that reminds us of our mortality and deep existential purpose. It’s all there. There is room for all of that. And so I arrive to this:
This Mexican-American. This pocho. This coconut. This grown-ass brown man has a choice.
I have always had a choice.
My brown face. My strong brow that precedes me. My hair black hot as a tarmac below these pelting open skies. This is me. Y eso es todo. Soy yo mismo. And I am capable of being truthful about all that I am.
One last thing: While I was away at college, my Amá would send me care packages. She would freeze meals and ship them to me. Carne con chile. Frijoles Fritos. Chiles Rellenos. She sent me little gifts. Prayer cards. Family photos. Those spicy mango paletas. For years, she sent me reminders of where I come from. As if kindly asking me not to forget. All I had to do was put in the effort to strengthen that bond with my family. I haven’t done a very good job over the years. However, I am fortunate I can still mend these cultural wounds with the help of my people. Mi familia. Because unlike before, distance is no longer a barrier. I can find my Latinx community online. Even though he’s now passed, I can learn more about the history of the Native Peoples of Lake Chapala to discover my grandfather’s heritage. I can call my Amá and Apá in Mexico every night to catch up. I can google how to make pozole if I want to. I have a pathway to find again what once went missing.
We have a responsibility to be honest about who we are, and to do so proudly. So hold on to the voices of your parents, your abuelos, your folks. Don’t get too distracted like me. It’s quite a task in this hectic world, and while I’m certain that someone will inevitably disagree about how you go about celebrating your background, we can’t let external judgment dictate who we are. I’m a Mexican-American husband, father, and writer shaped by Wyoming’s expanse and cold winters. I am shaped by my father’s electric guitar and my grandfather’s Mariachi music. I’m the brown kid in theater class. The man who observes and writes. The family man trying to make his family proud. The guy in the middle. So to us in the middle, those neither here nor there, those straddling two cultures that may embrace us and reject us at once: Every day is an opportunity to reclaim our heritage, and bring it to the forefront boldly; because unfortunately, endless people of color past and the many unseen Others who came before us, did not have a choice at all.