Las Comadres National Latino Book Club Selection
Mexican Enough: Q&A
1. You call yourself a “globe-trotting nomad” who has explored 30 countries and 47 of the United States. Tell us about your travels and how they have shaped you.
My great-great Uncle Jake was a hobo who saw America from the peepholes of boxcars, so wanderlust is encoded in my DNA! My travels began in 1996 in Moscow, where I mingled with the Russian Mafiya. (My boyfriend’s best friend was a freelance hit man.) Next stop was Beijing, where I spent a year polishing propaganda at the English mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party. Then I jetted off to Havana, where I belly danced with rumba queens. These adventures are the subject of my first memoir: Around the Bloc: My Life in Moscow, Beijing, and Havana.
While traveling in the Communist Bloc, I was struck by how fervently Stalin, Mao, and Castro tried to vanquish centuries of religion, tradition, and ritual by forcing their citizens to conform to socialist culture. Yet hundreds of thousands of people defied them. During the Soviet regime, East Europeans risked being banished to the Gulag by illegally distributing newspapers printed in their native language. Even today in China, Muslim Uighurs and Buddhist Tibetans gamble with imprisonment by worshipping in the officially atheist nation.
All of this made me reflect on how, in the United States, those of us who haven’t needed to fight for our culture have often deserted it. I, for instance, had invested little time or energy in learning about my Mexican heritage. I couldn’t even speak Spanish! So after traveling all over the world, I realized the need to turn inward.
2. But you grew up in Corpus Christi, Texas, just 150 miles from the Mexico border. Why didn’t you learn Spanish as a kid?
My mother faced so much ridicule for her Spanish accent growing up, she never spoke it at home. She wanted to spare my sister and me the humiliation of mispronouncing our ch ‘s and sh ‘s. There wasn’t much incentive to learn Spanish at school, either. Back then, “acting Mexican” was considered an insult in South Texas schoolyards. Moreover, I had a serious case of wanderlust. Spanish was the language of the place I wanted to leave. That’s why I majored in Russian in college and then studied Mandarin.
3. So how did you finally decide to move to Mexico in 2005?
After completing my road-trip/book tour for Around the Bloc in 2004, I had to drop off my rattle-trap car at my parent’s house in Texas. (I was living in Brooklyn at the time.) While driving down I-10 between Tucson and El Paso, I took what appeared to be a scenic farm road curving along the Mexican border and wound up deep in the desert. After about half an hour, it occurred to me that not one car – or anything else – had passed by on that desolate road. Moreover, my gas gage was nearly empty, my cell phone was out of range, and it was about 100 degrees outside. If my car broke down, I was toast. I was just about to turn around and rejoin the main highway when objects appeared in the distance, in the middle of the road. Moving sluggishly, then quickly. When I realized they were people – most likely Mexicans fleeing the border – I squeezed the brakes and blared the horn. My first thought was that they needed water, so I started slowing down, in order to offer them a bottle. But then my mind started racing. What if water wasn’t all they needed? What if they asked me to take them somewhere? Of course I would say yes. How could I deny a ride to people in the middle of the desert?
But…. what if they didn’t just want a lift? What if they wanted my car? Or what if they just took it? Tossed me into the cactus and roared away? That’s what I would be tempted to do, if the tables were turned: Throw out the gringa and go.
The irony of the situation was immediate. Nearly every accolade I had received in life – from minority-based scholarships to book contracts – was due in part to the genetic link I shared with those people frantically charging through the brush. What mainly distinguished us was a twist of geographical fate that birthed me on one side of the border and them on El Otro Lado. They were too Mexican; I was just enough. When I looked into the desert mountains from which they descended, I realized that it was time to go to Mexico. So I bought a plane ticket and flew out a few months later.
4. Your first stop was Querétaro, where you lived in a house full of gay men. Tell us about that. How do gays and lesbians fare in Mexico?
A Chicano artist friend of mine had been living in Querétaro for years, but was about to leave when I arrived. He offered me his space: a bedroom in a house shared by three Mexican artists, two of whom were gay. I moved in and discovered that my new home was the epicenter of the city’s gay community. Young gay men flocked in at all hours of the day and night. Since the majority lived with their parents (most of whom didn’t know they were gay), our house was their oasis. Upon crossing our threshold, they’d beeline for the bathroom, where they’d dip into the communal jar of gel and spike their hair into tufts. Then they’d blast Dead Can Dance, flip through fashion magazines, hold their boyfriend’s hand, tell stories. I loved it: not only were they entertaining, they taught me a far more colorful vocabulary than I was learning at the language school down the street! I lived there for four months, and it was like a seminar on Gay Mexico.
The gay rights movement is actually making strides there, especially in the capital. In 2006, Mexico City passed a same-sex civil union law that gave gay couples the right to inherit pensions and property, join health and life insurance policies, and make medical decisions for each other. The border state of Coahuila has since passed similar legislation. But even so, Mexico is a fervently Catholic nation led by clergy who aggressively campaign against alternative lifestyles. It is also infested with “macho” men who torment homosexuals. Nearly 300 Mexicans were murdered because of their sexual orientation between 1995-2003. In fact, the foremost gay activist in Querétaro – a 28-year-old clinical psychologist named Octavio Rubio Acuña – was assassinated in his condom shop just a few months after I moved away. I investigated his slaying, and nearly everyone I interviewed believed that the local police were responsible.
5. You befriended a number of undocumented Mexicans living in the United States and then visited their families back in Mexico. What do those families think of immigration? How has it impacted them?
It is pretty devastating, actually. One in ten Mexicans currently lives in the United States, and hundreds of thousands more migrate every year. The bulk do so by crossing the 2,000-mile border with a human smuggler, and at least 500 perish annually along the way. With one phone call, their families back in Mexico learn that they will never return. That they vanished in the desert. That they got arrested, no one knows why. So the United States seems like a black hole to these families. An abyss that sucks people away. They don’t know where their loved ones work, what they do, who they live with, who they cross with. They don’t know the name of their new hometown, which state it is in, or even what side of the country. They just pocket the paychecks they wire home every 15 days and wait for their return. Some don’t. Tightened security at the U.S. border has made it much more difficult, dangerous, and costly to cross. Rather than being deterred from entering, migrants who’ve already made it are staying for longer periods of time (if not permanently) to amortize the expense. This is the terrible irony of immigration: people go in order to help their families, but sometimes end up abandoning them.
6. Has NAFTA helped the situation at all? When it was passed in 1994, Mexico‘s then-President Carlos Salinas declared that it would create jobs instead of migrants.
I hate to simplify such a complex trade agreement, but NAFTA has essentially brought great riches to the wealthy and further impoverished the poor. I met countless farmers who were able to support their families just fine – until NAFTA. The price of staples like corn and coffee have since been driven so low, it costs farmers more to grow than what they would earn selling. Many are now subsistence farmers, tending only what their family can eat and allowing the rest to go fallow. According to a 2003 Carnegie Endowment report, some 1.3 million Mexican farmers were forced to quit their fields within the first decade of NAFTA alone. The bulk migrated to the United States.
If the United States truly wants to curb the flow of immigration, it is imperative that NAFTA be amended. U.S. economic policies are actually a major reason why so many Mexicans migrate in the first place.
7. You traveled to Oaxaca at a momentous time. Tell us about it.
Oaxaca is a fiery state, and a populist rebellion has been fomenting there for years. But it shifted into high gear in May 2006, when tens of thousands of public school teachers from around the state descended upon the capital, erected tarps throughout the downtown area, unrolled their sleeping bags, and refused to budge until they got a pay raise. They had actually done this every summer for the past 26 years, but because 2006 was an election year, their strike lasted longer than usual. Not only did this threaten to leave a million students without a teacher once classes resumed, but it was an eyesore for tourists. So, in the predawn hours of June 14, Governor Ulises Ruiz dispatched 1,700 state police to clear out the teachers. You cannot underestimate the tenacity of a Mexican striker, however. The teachers defended their turf with sticks and stones, aided by activist groups who later formed a coalition called Asamblea Popular de los Pueblos de Oaxaca (Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca, or APPO). The police fled town and APPO seized control of the city. I arrived two weeks later, and participated in a march of more than half a million people – or 20 percent of the state’s population. They resolved to continue striking until Governor Ruiz resigned. (He was fiercely unpopular even before the strikes, as he is widely believed to have stolen the election that landed him in office.)
APPO ruled Oaxaca until October 27, when plainclothes government agents battled protesters in a residential neighborhood and ended up killing five, including a U.S. journalist named Bradley Will. He filmed his own shooting, dying with his camera in his hands. President Fox responded by dispatching 4,500 Federal Preventative Police, an elite military force that arrested hundreds of protesters, including many innocent bystanders. Scores were beaten. The police took over the city and are still omnipresent today. Oaxaca is much calmer now, but flair-ups do occur. In June 2008, for instance, death squads killed two Mexican radio journalists.
8. You also sneaked into prison while in Oaxaca. What was that like?
Overwhelming. For starters, the prisoners weren’t inside their cells. When I walked in, a large group bum-rushed me, waving handicrafts in the air. None wore uniforms or handcuffs or even similar haircuts, so I initially thought they were vendors who somehow smuggled their goods inside. When I discovered they were inmates, every prison movie I’d ever seen flooded my brain. But Mexican prisons differ starkly from prisons in the United States. They only give their inmates enough food so they don’t starve and enough clothes so they aren’t naked. If they want to survive, they have to hustle.
The prison itself actually reminded me of a Chinese student dorm. Inmates sleep in bunk beds, six or eight to a room, and they can choose their cellmates. There seems to be few regulations about personal possessions: I saw crockpots, hot plates, cutlery, kitchen knives. I couldn’t help but contemplate how many different ways they could kill the guards, each other, or themselves – but apparently they don’t. They can also receive visitors inside their cells for three to four-hour intervals a day, and married couples can request private rooms for conjugal visits one weekend a month. Three of my cousins are currently imprisoned in the United States, and as far as I could tell, their Mexican counterparts enjoy a far more humane experience!
Mexico‘s judicial system is another story, however. Human Rights Watch estimates that more than 40 percent of Mexico‘s prison population hasn’t even been convicted of a crime. Torture-induced confessions are employed to solve about one-third of cases, and defendants are rarely granted much access to the judges who decide their fate. The justice system also tends to persecute the wrong people. In Mexico City, for instance, more than half of the 22,000 prisoners have committed crimes as heinous as stealing a loaf of bread. Politicians and businessmen who pilfer millions, meanwhile, either slip by unpunished or bribe their way to freedom. As the martyred Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero once said: “The law is like a serpent. It bites the feet which have no shoes on.”
9. Did your year in Mexico make you “Mexican enough”? What does it mean to be “enough” of a culture, anyway?
It goes without saying that I will never be truly Mexican, not even if I moved there for the rest of my life and acquired the requisite customs and traditions. Because what binds a people are their bedtime stories. The songs they sing on road trips. Political and historical events. Fads and crazes. Shared memories. Not skills that can be acquired, like language. Which isn’t to suggest that my pursuit was a worthless endeavor. I am deeply proud that I can now speak the language of my ancestors. But I’ve learned the hard way that there is no point striving for an unobtainable state of being.
Identity crisis is actually endemic to the U. S. Latino community. I am a long-time member of Las Comadres, a national organization that networks Latinas from all nations. At practically every meeting, I encounter another caramel-skinned woman who speaks Spanish fluently, cooks arroz con pollo, and salsa dances on weekends, yet still doesn’t feel Latina enough. This is especially ironic considering that white society created what it means to be Latino in the first place. Colonists diluted indigenous blood through conquest and rape; the U. S. government drew up categories like “Hispanic,” “White,” “Black,” and “Other” and made us choose. Hollywood created the cholo while MTV gave us J. Lo. For generations, we’ve felt pressured to emulate these role models because they were our only ones.
But poco a poco, we are coming into our own as a people. We’re making strides in film, literature, non-profits, politics, science, music. Creating our own definitions of who we are and who we can aspire to be. Fulfilling the dreams of ancestors who struggled to root (or keep) us here. Striving to believe that – whatever we are – it is enough.
10. I was struck by the fact that you traveled alone throughout Mexico, and that your guidebook “100 Places Every Woman Should Go” strongly encourages women to do the same. Why?
Every woman should travel alone at least once in life, to better hear “Mother Road.” She is one of the most formative teachers around. She will push you to your physical, spiritual, and psychological limits – then nudge you one step further. She will teach you to be self-reliant and self-sufficient, which will allow you to stroll the world’s passageways with confidence. I personally have become such a self-sustained, self-contained unit, I’m expecting to self-pollinate any day now!
And I deeply encourage everyone out there to travel to their motherland at some point in life, to learn from the roots that grow within you. Even if you can’t find a living family member, you can ask around for the local historian (or oldest living resident) to see if they know your family name. Request relevant birth, marriage, or death certificates at the equivalent of the county clerk’s office; make rubbings of tombstones engraved with your family name at the local cemetery; fill a jar with earth. If nothing else, you’ll leave with the satisfaction that you witnessed the same sunset as your ancestors. That your boots collected the same dust.
© Stephanie Elizondo Griest