Lament of a Modern-day Mestiza

Lament of a Modern-day Mestiza


In my veins runs the blood of at least six different peoples: Spanish, Mexican, Scottish, Irish, English and German. My paternal grandparents were mestizos from Chihuahua and Durango. They had grown up in the towns and attended school up to the eighth grade. They came to the U.S. in 1911 during the Mexican revolution.


“Ah, that’s why you are so tall,” smiled the short, rotund senora who ran the Salsa Cafe on East Hastings. “Nortenos. The people from there are taller. There have been lots of Europeans there for a long time, Germans, French, Spanish, Dutch.”


Visions of fiestas, of paper flowers, brightly coloured pinatas, dancing, music, children, tamales, cerveza. The marketplace with fruits piled into pyramids, the shape of Mayan temples. Vivid weavings, rich colours, streets of stone and dust, dogs barking, and the slap-slap sound of tortillas being made by hand. All these visions I have seen – on TV.


I have been to Mexico a few times. The first time I went to Tijuana, I wept on the street, I was so shocked by the poverty of the people. Some lived in the riverbed, mostly dry but occasionally flooded. Cardboard and plywood shacks, corrugated metal or plastic tarps for roofs. Children with ragged clothes, no shoes, sores around their mouths. Big beautiful brown eyes. They approached me selling paper flowers, speaking Spanish because they thought I was Mexican.


I never learned Spanish. Even though both my parents spoke it occasionally at home, they never taught us how. They had books of poetry in Spanish, and a Spanish-English dictionary. Aside from learning “buenas dias, buenas tardes, buenas noches”, counting from one to twenty, and the names of various foods and a few animals, my brother and I could not speak the language. I could not communicate with my grandmother. My mother translated for me so I could talk to her a little.


It wasn’t that my parents didn’t have time to teach us Spanish. Rather, they allowed us to pursue whatever we were interested in. There were books we could have studied if we’d wanted to, but it was not a case where my parents pushed it to us. My brother was interested in music and art, and I spent much of my free time drawing or painting, when I wasn’t pretending to be a horse, a cowgirl, an Indian, or Kitty the barmaid from Gunsmoke on TV.


Growing up in Fresno, my father and his siblings dissociated themselves from their parents, whom they hardly saw anyway, since everybody had to work hard and long hours to scrape together a living. The house was just a place to eat and sleep. Grandma kept a pot of beans on the stove, and made tortillas for each person whenever they needed to eat, coming and going during the day.


My father and his brothers were all athletic. They took up sports – baseball, basketball, tennis – and tried to fit in to the American way of life. They spent their money on clothes, Ivy league shirts and sweaters, tried to look good, not like peasants.  They told people they were Spanish, not Mexican. They chided their mother for going “across the tracks” to spend time with her cronies, other Mexican women. It was a story of a family, of a culture, coming apart and re-forming itself in the American image: the great melting pot, where everyone was encouraged to leave their old-fashioned ways behind, and become modern Americans. Don’t speak Spanish outside the home – that makes you seem more Mexican.


My parents told me that I was part Indian. They gave me a book about Indians in North America, full of beautiful illustrations of warriors on horseback, feathers on their heads, paint on their faces. The horses were striking, pintos and appaloosas, galloping wildly across the inside covers of the book. There were tepees and hogans, pueblos and metates, kachina dolls and war bonnets, papooses, medicine men wearing buffalo headdresses. I understood that I was to be proud of my Indian heritage.


But which kind of Indian was I? There were so many different tribal groups. The book didn’t detail the tribes in Mexico. After 400 years of colonization and intermarriage, there was no way to determine from which groups my grandparents were descended.


In the movies, the Indians were mostly represented as wild, vicious heathens who massacred white settlers. The Caucasians plugged as many as they could, to protect the brave pioneers coming West. It seemed unfair to me that the people who lived here were pushed out by the newcomers. Later I discovered that it was more than that. Hideous crimes were perpetrated upon the Indians by the whites, devastating their culture. The full realization of the tragedy came to me. My empathy for native people is only a second-hand experience compared to their legacy of pain and injustice. Nevertheless I feel connected to it, by the fact of my own heritage, by the fact that it is visible to those who look at me.


I have a chameleon face. Native people think I’m part native; Italians think I’m Italian; East Indians think I’m East Indian. I look Greek, Spanish, Mediterranean, or Middle Eastern. My college friends invited me to a Seder dinner, thinking I was Jewish. After graduating from high school, one classmate observed that “we weren’t sure about you at first.” Why? I asked. “Oh, we thought you were black.” I guess when my summer tan, gained from swimming every day, wore off during the winter they decided I was OK to relate to. I had wondered why it was hard to make friends there in the fall.


As a kid, the neighbours’ grandchildren called me a nigger; and a blonde girlfriend’s mother refused to let me in their house. “We don’t want Connie to play with your kind,” she said. I collected a bunch of broken glass and placed it in front of their door. These incidents were nothing compared to what most people of colour suffered every day. Yet they connected me to that experience, made it a shared reality.


I was skeptical about the American dream. I saw that it was achieved at great human cost. From slavery and genocide and war, America was born and grew into a giant. I had a hard time feeling proud to be an American when I saw Raymond, a black classmate in the fourth grade, going through the garbage can at lunchtime to find something to eat. He got sick one day from eating orange peelings. My heart ached and a deep sadness was instilled in me.


In elementary school we had to say the flag salute every morning. Soon after I began school, the flag salute was changed to add the words, “under God” in between the “One nation” and “indivisible.” I balked at saying this pledge to a God I didn’t believe in. I thought there was supposed to be a division between church and state, and only kids who went to Catholic schools had to pay their respects to God on a daily basis. In high school, I decided to stop saying the Pledge of Allegiance every morning. First I began by silently mouthing the words; then I progressed to just standing there, hand over heart. Then I dropped the hand, just stood there. Finally, I simply remained seated while everyone else stood and pledged. I got a C in American history the first semester, despite A’s on all the tests and papers. It was my attitude they didn’t like. But the next semester, I got my A. I imagine now, looking back on it, that word filtered down to the principal: don’t mess with her, she’s the school psychologist’s daughter. Later, my mother told me that she had to say the flag salute at staff meetings, and she always said, “with liberty and justice for some.”


In high school I wrote term papers on the plight of farm workers. In college I wrote term papers on the effects of Catholicism on the Indians of New Spain. As a media consultant I produced materials on racism and cultural discrimination, on legal rights of farm workers and domestic workers. The themes of oppression and injustice have been central to my expression.


It was not until much later in life, when my mother retired and started researching her family history, that the full import of my heritage became known to me. My great-uncle seven times removed was General Mariano Vallejo, the last Mexican governor of California. So on my mother’s side I am descended from the Spanish ruling class in Mexico, while on my father’s side I come from a long line of mestizos y mestizas. Half the children in my father’s family resembled Indios, while the other half looked more Spanish.


So what is the point of all this? Why do I spend time pondering my roots? It is a way of positing myself in the world, a way of saying, “This is who I am. These are the people I come from.” It is a curiosity to me that a university-educated, art-school-educated, political war exile to Canada, with all those connections to a Latino past, still does not speak Spanish. A large part of my family history is unknown to me. But then, after all, Spanish is the language of the conquerors; many of my ancestors never spoke it either.


Sheila Cano

(edited 2013)



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