It was with heartbreak and terror that I first read the news last weekend. A man, armed with bullets and hatred, stoked by fear mongers like Donald Trump, drove over 600 miles to El Paso to shoot people because the blood that ran in them, and that which runs in me, was despicable to him. It could have been me. If it had been 400 miles to the west of El Paso, where the Wal Mart in my hometown stands. It could have been any of the people in that town that I love. My heart has been heavy and my eyes tired of crying hot tears on red cheeks.
Looking in the mirror as a child, I always wondered what other people saw. I grew up in the small Arizona border town of Nogales, with Mexican parents and a Hispanic surname, speaking Spanish. And yet, part of me never felt quite…Mexican. I’ve got green eyes, pale skin and tons of freckles. I’ve also got odd shaped eyes and high cheekbones. My face, among other things, never quite fit in with the rest of the caramel-colored kids who spoke Spanglish and ate saladitos with chamoy and sunflower seeds with Valentina hot sauce. To them, I was la gringa exotica…the exotic gringa. Something felt off. If anything, it was probably me.
My identity crisis, however, wasn’t unique. In great part it was due to a common factor among many descendents of the Mexican Revolution and the American Repatriation. Three of my grandparents were orphans of one sort of another. With the severance of their links to the past went the answers I craved about mine. My grandparents simply could not say who came before them or whom I favored. My existential crisis separated me from the only culture I knew and made me feel very alone. So I continued to seek answers.
I asked relatives, especially those on my father’s side whom I closely resembled. And the answer they had…well, it seemed a bit ridiculous. We were Taiwanese royalty, they said. The answer didn’t sit well with me. But looking at their faces…the jet black hair, the eye, the cheekbones…it didn’t seem out of the realm of possibilities.
Subconsciously, I think, I looked for answers in college. I studied Latin American history. I felt intrinsically that those Latinx forebearers and I belonged to one another. I felt I had to be the sangre of someone’s sangre, even if I didn’t know their names or faces. But without substantiation, I felt like I was stealing someone else’s history. I felt like a bit of a fraud. And my fellow students, who actually looked Latinx, made sure to let me know that I was an usurper.
It wasn’t until 2015, when Ancestry.com released millions of Mexican records in honor of Dia De Los Muertos, that I finally began to find my answers. I combed through those records with relish, reading scanned documents…civil registers and church books…handwritten in beautiful calligraphy. My great-grandmother Ernestina Valenzuela, I found, lived in Nogales before Nogales was a part of the United States. I rolled the words over my tongue as a I read the names…first, middle, father’s last name, mother’s last name. They felt so formal and elegant. I discovered that my name, Veneranda, had been handed down through the centuries on my mother’s side. And there, on my father’s side, something curious: the Bosticks.
I knew some of them: light-skinned Mexicans, with some European ancestry, who have lived in Southern Arizona since before the United States bought the land at a steal. They were Dutch nobility and Indonesian royalty. Aha! The link! Or maybe not. My grandmother’s father, Cirilio, came from that clan, but maybe wasn’t of that clan. He might have descended from that ancestry, or, and this was entirely possible, he was the product of a previous marriage. The mystery was not solved. The answer, it would seem, would lie in a vial of spit.
I ordered the blood tests from Ancestry. When the results came back, I couldn’t have been more stunned. I, for the most part, was mestiza: a mix of Spanish and indigenous blood. And not one single percent Asian or Dutch.
I shared the information with my father’s relatives. They were not happy with the findings. They discounted the tests. Anything to keep the heritage Asian in persuasion, instead of admitting that they too were indigenous to Mexico. That they too were part Indio.
Passing, the act of living as a different race than one’s own, is common among many Mexicans. You’ll forgive people for wanting to be anything but indigenous. Mexicans even have a racist term for it: con el nopal en la frente (with a nopal on the forehead). It means a self-hating person of indigenous background who tries to pass for white.
But one only need to look at the intricate caste system imposed by the Spanish colonizers to see why people would even try. Under Spanish law, a child was assigned a caste at the time of their baptism by the priest based on the child’s appearance. This determined who they could marry, what amount of taxes they would pay, and even to what level of society they could ever rise. A person’s outer appearance meant everything. People now perpetuate this race-based discrimination themselves. My family members so wanted to pass as Asian so long as it meant our indigenous features did not tie back to our indigenous blood.
For me, learning that I was, in fact, mestiza was a huge deal. With certainty, I could now claim my heritage and my ancestral roots. I am of this continent. It’s mine. My pride, my orgullo. I may be a white-presenting Latina, but what you see is not the entire picture. You do not know that my speech is dotted with Yaqui vocabulary and Sonoran inflection. You do not know that my grandmother taught me to celebrate Dia De Los Muertos before Target ever sold a sugar skull. You do not know that my grandparents were both light and dark-skinned. And that our love for one another was never skin deep.
So it is with pride that I wear my hoops in my ears, red lipstick on my full lips, flowers in my dark hair, and more embroidered on my clothing. In New York, where I now live, I proclaim with joy that I am Mexican. And it is always in earnest that people reply, “Mexicans are the hardest workers.”
The spit test that definitively told me who I was…it wasn’t just about a map with percentages on it. Knowing who I was for the first time in my life contextualized so much more than just my ancestry. It gave me a place in this world, a heritage to honor, and a responsibility to speak out when wrong is done to others like me.
My relatives–the ones that still refuse to acknowledge their ancestry–they are Trump supporters. And this is where another term comes in: Malinchistas. It’s a term that translates roughly to “race traders.” That is what they are. They care only about being Mexican when it means that their children can get affirmative action and scholarships. They speak like Thurston Howell the third in lock-jawed English and anglicize their Hispanic names to have a more Anglo appeal. They are the worst kind of Mexicans. And the worst kind of Americans.
I simply cannot ignore that they would trade their heritage for fidelity to a monster who breeds division and hatred in the same land our ancestors inhabited long before the colonization. You might counsel not to let politics get in the way of family. But I ask you, when should anything get in the way of your principles…your notions of right and wrong…when actual people are dying, and being kept in cages, and suffering all sorts of human indignities we don’t discuss in mixed company? When?
So it is with this essay that I say goodbye to my aunts and uncles and cousins. At least for as long as they continue to support evil. I owe it to the people who came before me and those yet to come to demand nothing less of myself. There’s solace in knowing they’d never put their relationship with me before their principles…if they can even say the word without choking on it at this point.