September 15, 2012

Musings on the Eve of Mexican Independence Day | Binational Family Conversations on Race and Identity

Tonight is the eve of Mexican Independence Day.
According to Wikipedia, "Mexico, in the second article of its Constitution, is defined as a "pluricultural" nation in recognition of the diverse ethnic groups that constitute it, and in which the indigenous peoples are the original foundation." 
So, like its sister country to the north, Mexico is a free state that shook off its European colonial monarchy, that also shares a vast diversity of native North American as well as Old World cultural heritage. But in my opinion, Mexico appear to differ from the U.S. in that a smaller percentage of its people seem to make a point of embracing their racial roots.
My observations are probably skewed by where I've lived previously in the U.S.—mostly in liberal urban areas, and now Mexico—in a region characterized by heavy colonial influence compared to states like Oaxaca or Chiapas where indigenous influence is stronger.
But either way, I’ve always noticed how differently people choose to identify themselves culturally or racially. I know that whole college courses and even degrees are dedicated to this type of topic, and I've had very little formal study of it. But as a dual citizen with two feet planted in both my birth country of the U.S. and my home country of Mexico, with a binational and bilingual daughter and a Mexican husband, these type of questions will never cease to pique my interest. 
A few days ago, my little family and I were listening to music while having lunch. My 2 year old daughter, sitting in her highchair, began bobbing her head to the rhythms of Jay-Z & Alicia Keys' Empire State of Mind.
My husband Margo asked her if she was from New York, and then answered for her "no, you're from Queretaro."
I said, "yeah, well, she's from NY through me—her mama's from NY!" We both laughed. 
As I went over to stir the nopales I was cooking, I thought about how there are millions of people who call themselves African American, even though they themselves aren't from Africa nor do they even have recent relatives from there, although their distant ancestors came from there many generations ago.
"Can you imagine if someone's great-great-great-great-grandparent was from Mexico, do you think they'd call themselves Mexican American?" I asked my husband.
To use myself as an example, my great-grandparents on my father's side are from Mexico, and I even became a naturalized Mexican citizen last year through marriage with my husband. But I haven't yet referred to myself as Mexican American.
Margo is a born and bred Queretano. "Yeah right...they'd probably call themselves something else," he said. 
"Probably white," I replied, "Or Hispanic," I ventured. 
I was thinking of my own "whiteness." After growing up of German and Mexican ancestry in a heavily Italian and Polish neighborhood in Upstate New York, most people assumed Salgado was Italian. On college applications, I checked off "other" and wrote in 3 different races—white/Caucasian, Hispanic, and Native American, to reflect my mixed European ancestry and the mixed mestizo ancestry. Mestizo refers to the indigenous Mexican Indian/Spanish blend that characterizes the great majority of Mexican people, but many people call Mexicans or other Latin Americans "Spanish." In fact, that's the definition of the regularly used term Hispanic. 
Why is that? Why do people choose to identify themselves with one ancestry over another? The answers should be fairly obvious, but there seem to be a lot of exceptions to the rule, depending on where you're from or where you grow up.
"Does that mean that most Mexican Americans have less pride in their heritage than most African Americans?" I asked my husband. I wasn't thinking of the Chicano pride movement back in the 70's, but modern Mexican Americans by definition (such as myself)—I'm not sure if the pride in cultural heritage extends as uniformly to 3rd or 4th generation individuals these days as it does with other minority groups.
"I think so," he said. "I think it's because we have a lot of discrimination in this culture. A lot of Mexicans are embarrassed to say they're indios (Indians or native peoples) because they've been prejudiced against them for so long. So people say they've got a Spanish grandfather, grandmother, etc."
Margo's family didn't exactly raise him to take pride in his Otomi roots, in fact they whipped him to get him to go to Catholic church every Sunday and kiss his godparents' hands. But somehow he saw past the religious zealotry to become more of a free-thinker as a teenager.
"I wonder if because of the civil rights movement in the U.S., people feel safer to show off their heritage," I mused. "If you have an indigenous grandfather or grandmother, you're likely to tell everyone about it, be proud of it."
And yet, in the next song, Lakota singer/songwriter John Trudell laments the isolation of native people of the United States. "Industrial reservations, tyranny stakes its claims. Blue Indians, emotional siege in civilized state....glory and gold lead a desperate chase. Blue Indian, melting pot, ruling classes, haves and have nots." It's from his album Blue Indians, and it's got a lot of good food for thought.
Today for our Independence Eve dinner, my husband made vegetable noodle soup and bean tacos while I worked on finishing a translation for a botanical garden in Sinaloa state. The document I was working on described historical figures in Mexican botany—from Mexican explorers to the Jesuits to Mexican female scientists and even a researcher from Arizona.
When I told my husband about what I was working on, he wondered aloud ¨You mean like conquistadores? The enslavers?"
"No..." I admonished him. "The people were just interested in plants." Safe assumption, right? Being a plant person myself...
Instead of heading out to the festivities downtown, we avoided the crowds and drunk drivers and went for a walk out in his father's cornfield. Back home, I made Mexican chocolate.
I can't claim to truly understand the reasons behind why we choose to embrace some parts of ourselves or why we wish to cast aside the others. But I am glad that I can ask these questions and explore them freely with my partner so we can at least come close to modeling honesty, respect, and pride for our ancestry with our daughter wherever possible—no matter how tangled or frayed our roots end up throughout our lives.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Your comments are welcome!