Macondo, Mestizaje, and Fear, oh my!
This has been a year of change. And not minor changes like my hair color, or a different mole recipe, but of things ending (big things). Luckily these have been followed up with beginnings. I know for that, I am incredibly lucky. Even though I worked my ass off for what I have, I know there are many others who work equally as hard and do not experience the same outcome. However, acknowledging my good fortune does not take away from the fact that starting something new is frightening as hell and the realization that this stage of my career is only the beginning of the beginnings sometimes makes me want to crawl into a hole.
One beginning that I have been thinking a lot about – largely because it’s been a month and a half since it happened – is my experience at the Macondo Writers Workshop. (I can’t even begin to wrap my mind around the beginning I am currently in of new job, new state, new students, new grocery stores, new landscape, new accents, new house, new neighbors, new coworkers, new office, new coffee . . .).
I’m not afraid to admit that I was afraid to go to this workshop. El miedo. Fear. At the worst times it follows me like a hungry stray, eyes round and bright, a bite’s length from my heel. I know this is sick, but El Miedo has been there so long, the warm stink of matted fur is familiar and without it, something like the hollow of loneliness can begin to take hold.
I wasn’t afraid of the actual work for the workshop. I’ve been in a lot of workshops, worked with some of my writer-heroes, and had the pleasure to have already worked with the leader of the workshop I registered for. I wasn’t afraid of working with people whose writing I have ordered through interlibrary loan, read for my comprehensive exams, taught in classes, been awed by in my personal searches for literature that would speak to me – that feeling was intimidation. Deep intimidation. But that is different from fear. What kept me up at night a handful of evenings before flying out was that even though nothing in the advertisement or description of the workshop states that a Macondista requirement is to be Latin@, most of the members I knew of are. And on top of that, the administrative logistics of the workshop in its new incarnation was adopted by the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center (whose request for membership asks for members to help “move Latino Arts forward”), it takes place in San Antonio, TX, a state (in)famous for its connection to Mexican and U.S. history, and lastly, the workshop was begun by one of the most famous Chicana authors of the 20th and 21st century. That’s pretty pinche Latin@!
Okay, so if I’m being really honest, it was meeting these people that was making me nervous. I mean, most of them already knew each other, many of them lived either in the same city or similar parts of country. But more than that, what if they thought I was too gringada.
I was dreading the “what are you” question. This is a question I have been asked in just about every space I have ever inhabited. And choosing the words, “what are you” is such an alienating way to phrase what I know they’re actually asking: why are you so white-looking with a Mexican last name.
On some level, I think relatively well-meaning (but ultimately rude and invasive) people think the broad-stroke question is more polite. That way they aren’t asking anything directly personal that I can take offense to. Of course there are other variations of the same inquiry: So, where are you from? No, where are you originally from? Did you meet your husband in the U.S.? People I have never met before feel perfectly entitled to question my genealogy, to inquire about the legal status of my relatives, to ask the skin color of my parents. There are two answers I think most often (but never say).
First – Stranger: So, what exactly are you?
Me: Human, what are you?
When I told my dad this, he suggested I tell people I am Klingon. That’s been a running joke since I was a kid. Basically Klingons are the cause of and solution to all problems and inquiries.
Kid Me: Why were you so late picking us up?
Dad: The Klingons captured me and took me to their home planet.
Adult Me: The Vice Chair, once again, passed me over for that class I was supposed to teach a year ago.
Dad: We should tell Worf so he can get all his Klingon buddies to pay her a visit.
Getting back to my original point:
Second– Stranger: So, what exactly are you?
Me: Your worst nightmare.
At this point, I think it’s important to make it clear that though I feel weary and scared of rejection when being asked these kinds of questions, at least when Latin@s ask me, I understand there are more complicated factors than them being a Nosy Rosy. When Latin@s ask, it’s because they want to know if I’m “one of them” or not. Latinidad by marriage is not the same (as I have reminded my mom. And it sure as hell doesn’t count when you’re divorced). If I’m the white sympathizer married to a Mexican, there’s the possibility I’m an annoying super liberal who thinks they’re “down” by association. But if the last name is mine, and the blood is and the name are connected, then I’m one of the clan. At least for some people. Most people, though there are the occasional pendejos who drop the “whitening of the race” argument in my presence. Those people can besa mi culo.
I think more than anything, what I want to avoid is that look of suspicion, their eyes narrowing, their arms crossing against their chest, physically blocking their heart. That makes me re-feel over twenty years of rejection like it’s brand new. But like I said, I really do get it. People in positions of privilege are constantly claiming minority group status for one reason or another. And sometimes they work the system to their advantage; they get a scholarship or brief street cred, but the rub is that they don’t have to live the identity. They don’t get treated like a minority. They don’t get followed around 7 Eleven. They don’t get passed over for promotions. They don’t get mistaken for the server at a nice restaurant. And partly that’s what I’m afraid of: being perceived as an appropriating opportunist.
So, I was ready for it. I steeled myself. I practiced trying not to sound defensive. If anyone deserved to test my Chicanidad, I thought, it was this group who had offered me a lifetime membership into this rich literary and cultural community. But it never happened. Not like that at least.
“What’s your story?” one of the Macondistas asked me at a party near the end of the week.
What’s your story?
And she said it with eyes and arms open. Shoulders comfortable, body facing me. “What’s your story?” It’s so simple, but the wording of the question doesn’t boil down my existence to one of ethnic membership or genealogy. It was open-ended and inviting. And more than that, rhetorically, it recognizes the construction of identity. Mexican, Mexican-American (with or without the hyphen), Latin@, these are social, national, and cultural constructions built through the story of what brought us to a particular moment. Yes, there are shared cultural characteristics: language, food, approaches to family, shared trauma, but we don’t all experience them in the exact same way and we sure as hell don’t all look the same. With the mixture of Spanish and Indio, to Mexican to Spanish to Indio it’s impossible to standardized phenotype. And my story is that of a hybrid hybrid. Of displacement and migration not over the physical Mexico/U.S. border, but the borderland of culture my families pulled and pushed my sister and I between. The first discrimination I ever experienced was from family. The first slur I heard was from a family member on one side referring to another family member on the other. Sure, it’s irritating at a university mixer to be asked what I am, but it’s downright painful coming from a space that I hope will be(come) community.
The question “What’s your story?” is largely what I took away from my first experience at the Macondo Writers Workshop; that it’s okay to tell your story. That there are people who will listen to it. There’s a community invested in the varied tellings, the varied experiences. There is a safe space to explore the themes and conflicts that have become integral to my work as a poet and a scholar. I’ve never felt so comfortable around a group of writers as I did that week. Never had so much fun, been part of so many conversations that I was genuinely interested in, that overlapped with my writing and teaching concerns.
It was a great experience to have before leaving what had been my home for five years. Leaving a group who already knew what I was, to enter an environment where people say to me, “you’re not from around here, are you?”