I get this a lot. And there are very few people who can understand.
Growing up in Nogales is a unique experience. Nogales is two towns divided by an international border. On one side, Arizona. On the other side, Sonora, Mexico. Nogales came first. The border came later in 1854 with the Gadsden Purchase.
I was born on the American side in Tucson. The house I grew up in is a mile in on the American side from the border. You can see Mexico through the hallway windows of my childhood home.
I am American. I watched American TV. I listened to American pop music. I studied in American schools. My primary language is English. But that is not all I am.
I am Mexican. I grew up eating Mexican food. I spent a lot of my childhood in Mexico. Our family traditions were Mexican. Everyone around us spoke Spanish. Most people switched back and forth between Spanish and English. But that is not all I am.
My mother is American, born in Nogales, Arizona. My father is a Mexican naturalized citizen. My mother came from an affluent Catholic family with a ranch in Sinaloa, Mexico. Her father was a dark-skinned airplane mechanic in WWII. Her mother was light-skinned and a member of the Women’s Auxiliary to the Veterans of Foreign Wars. I come from a family of patriots.
My father was born in Cananea, Sonora. Not too far from the American border. His mother was dark-skinned and American born. His father a light-skinned Mexican. They were poor. They were evangelical Christians. My father immigrated to Tucson at five-years old. He learned perfect English. He spent his summers growing up in Imuris, Sonora and Culiacán, Sinaloa. He and his brothers all served the United States in Vietnam. I come from a family of patriots.
My mother’s family were Democrats. My father’s family were Republicans. They both believed in the good in America.
My parents’ social life was concentrated on the Mexican side of the border. We ate Sunday dinners in Mexico, less than a mile from the border, eating Mexican food and listening to trios and mariachis and Luis Miguel. My childhood summers were spent on the Mexican coastline of the Sea of Cortez. I grew up amongst the very privileged of Mexico while living in a two bedroom home with four other people.
I grew up between the elegance of plush bespoke furniture and marble floors where I wore lace-trimmed dresses and dusty ranches where I rode horses while wearing denim and boots and desert beaches where I wore brightly-hued bathing suits and stuffy cafetoriums where I wore baby tees, Guess jeans and Doc Martens.
As a child I crossed to Mexico for dance lessons, for tortillas, for cheap antibiotics. I saw Mexicans cross for shopping trips and cheap labor. It was symbiosis. It was a natural ecosystem. We did not question it. It just was.
I saw the very poor of Mexico, especially after American trade policy vastly altered the landscape of border towns, first with polluting maquiladoras and then with NAFTA. I saw the disintegration of my American town’s economy, especially after Mexico devalued its currency, first in the 1980’s and then again in the mid 90’s.
I never felt “other” until I came into contact with Americans and Mexicans who were unfamiliar with border life. I was rejected by both for not being enough of either. My skin was too white and my accent too strong to be Mexican. My name too ethnic and my features too exotic to be American.
I went to American schools and married an American man. But my friends married Mexicans and raised their American born children, sending them to English language schools, but reinforcing their Mexicanness.
If an objective observer came to dinner with my childhood friends and me, they’d see Mexican-Americans and Mexican Lebanese, Mexican French, Mexican Greeks. We’d look light and dark and every shade in between. Each one of us would have different accents, even though we grew up together because each one of us had a unique experience. The thing that would tie us together is that there is no one else in the world quite like us.
The border defines us. Each one of us is an amalgam of our Mexican and American parts. We are not immigrants. We are not Chicanas. We are not refugees. We are not usurpers. We were here before there was a wall. We are not one single thing. This puzzles everyone around us. The math is too complex for most people’s mental slide rules.
You ask me what I am. I tell you I am all this. I am ambos. I am both. But also neither. I am more. To ask me to choose one over the other would be to ask me to deny the meist me I am.
What I am not is a fence made of steel and concertina wire. I am not this.
This wall is the American rejection of my most integral self. It is a statement that I am an aberration. That I am wrong. That I should not exist.
I respect borders. I abhor aggression.
I leave you with words that speak in more poetic tones when my own words fail to convey my sorrow, my shame, my rage.
I leave you with Robert Frost:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.