Tuesday, October 16, 2012


At the Houston Public Library's "Librofest," September 15th, 2012 Copyright Collin French

Yesterday marked the end of Hispanic heritage month, though much of the mid-September fanfare has diminished in recent weeks to make way for breast cancer awareness. (For those of us who are Hispanic, Black, or Native or for those whose lives have been touched by cancer of any sort, these token months of awareness serve as reminders that every month, indeed every day, should really recognize and memorialize the lives, histories, and legacies of those women and men who have built and strengthened the communities we may sometimes take for granted today.) I had intended to use the blog to track some of the events I attended this month, but, to be honest, I just didn't make time. But I've also been consumed with some identity questions this month, so I thought I would post today about them.

Usually, Hispanic heritage month and the days and weeks leading up to el dia de los muertos and into the Christmas holidays get me thinking about mis antepasados, about who they were and what kind of lives they led, about how they may have informed who I have become. In recent years, I've thought with pride about my tía, Auntie Gogo, and her strength, the tenacity of her faith and of her traditions. She always represented for me the archetype of my family's mexicanidad as she struggled, it seemed, to keep us anchored to our heritage, to our language, to our religious faith. I've wondered about the tíos I never knew, those who passed before I was born or when I was too young to remember. And I've actively sought out information about the early ones, the CdeBacas who first settled in New Mexico.

But those quests usually inspire more guilt than pride. According to Fray Angelico Chavez's Origins of New Mexico Families in the Spanish Colonial Period, for instance, one of my ancestors, a second- or third-generation Nuevo Mexicano whose own ancestors had migrated from Mexico City, was jailed for offenses against the Pueblo Indians in and around the settlement. As an activist-scholar in American Indian and Indigenous studies, I was troubled by this news although not entirely surprised.

In my family there is a long and storied history of internalized racism predicated on the always-shifting ground of racial and ethnic markers and definitions, the risk that proud "Spaniards" will be mistaken for Mexicanos (which means "indios" or "mestizos") instead of whites. Discursive histories of Hispanic ethnic identification--from the articles of citizenship in the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo to the 2010 Census--recur in the stories that circulate in my family. So much so that there remains a remarkable disparity between the oral history of settlement passed down from my great-grandmother (my little grandma, mi abuelita) to my mother on one hand and that represented in Fray Chavez's brief history. The cuentos say we arrived in the 1800s, from Spain, pure-blooded; the historia shows a genealogical migration from Mexico City, wherein, in the 1700s, blood discourse was fraught at best.

From my own personal history, I realized relatively late--in graduate school, in fact--that my mother's attempts to pass me off as white constituted a form of protection. She betrayed in the act of passing her children off as white, her own keen acknowledgment of racial and ethnic hierarchies in this nation and of the opportunities afforded to the privileged and denied to the under-classes. She sought to save my siblings and me from ever having to question our social positions.

It didn't work.

This Hispanic heritage month, I found myself thinking less about mis antepasados and more about my present and future. I found myself wondering how I model a particular negotiation of heritage for my own children and whether my efforts to retain in our lives and home that proud sense of our mexicanidad is understood by my (Southern white) husband and my sons. When, for instance, I speak Spanish in the home or when I'm belting out some Lola Beltrán or Los Tigres del Norte tune, my five-year-old knows that he can get a rise out of me by saying petulantly, "Why are you doing that? We're not even Mexican." This question and statement always saddens me more than it irritates me because it belies his nascent understanding of the still entrenched cultural and social structures, especially the aural markers of voice, language, accent, and music and the visual markers of skin color, from which my mother sought to protect me.

It saddens me because I fear that my attempts at re-integrating that heritage from which I was actively shielded comes across as tokenistic--like Hispanic heritage month. Because own education in and recognition of the value of my cultural heritage arrived late, I present for m'hijo what appears to me at this moment a neatly wrapped package of mariachis, lotería, y tacos, of dia de los muertos y Cinco de Mayo. It feels reductive, oversimplified, watered down--in a word, whitewashed. I feel like a little girl trying to stem the enormous tide of what Chicana activist Cherríe Moraga called "the whitening of a generation."

But it has also been Moraga's articulation of her own negotiations with her mexicanidad that has given me hope. Like Moraga, I strive to cultivate an ethos of listening that allows me not to run from the sins of my ancestors (I've read enough Faulkner to know that's impossible) but instead to own up to them and actively refuse to participate in the kinds of non-listening their sense of power and privilege--however fraught and manufactured--engendered. For me this means actively releasing the hold that the ideology of melting-pot assimilation has had on my family for generations. It means dismantling the logic of cultural assimilation that stipulates that mixed children will necessarily, inevitably, be more American than anything else, or at any rate, than what comes before the hyphen. It means disavowing the cultural value of assimilation in favor of a Mexicanization of our américan lives.

Thus, I have hope that when my son begins his own reconciliation with his heritage he'll remember the many CMAS events he has attended alongside the mariachis at Houston Public Library's Librofest, which kicked off Hispanic heritage month for us this year; that he'll remember the warmth, generosity of spirit, and activism of our friends at the Indigenous Cultures Institute alongside the dia de los muertos calacas we made following the design of visiting artist, Laura Lopez Cano earlier in the month; that he'll remember the play dates with the children at Austin's Posada Esperanza while I was teaching their mothers English; that he'll remember his mother's protests for immigrants' rights and against cutting funding to ethnic studies at UT. In short, I hope that for my sons Hispanic Heritage signifies more than a month of cultural programming; I hope that I can instill in them pride in their own Chican@ heritage, a celebration of the political struggles as well as the cultural value of our People.