I come from a long line of peasants. We are a hearty desert people. Scrappy motherfuckers. I’m reminded of this every time I return to northern Mexico and study the Sierra Madre landscape. The land does not yield nor forgive. According to colonial Spanish accounts, the climate in this region was so extreme that unprotected horses were capable of freezing in the winter. By contrast, the summer months brought a heat so intense that Spaniards claimed it rivaled Africa’s.
I’ve asked my family again and again about the indigenous civilization we descend from, but no one can give me a definite answer. We are poor rural Mexicans, and therefore, muddled beyond simple classification. There is a great-great-great grandfather (or something) who was Spanish, but that’s all I’ve been able to unearth. The best I can do is assume that based on where my family hails from, part of our ancestry is Tepehuán indian. I want to believe this because the Tepehuanes were fierce; tired of overwork and mistreatment, they revolted against the Spanish in 1616, an uprising that the colonizers never saw coming. Andrés Pérez de Ribas, a Jesuit historian and contemporary of the time, described it as “one of the greatest outbreaks of disorder, upheaval and destruction that had been seen in New Spain… since the Conquest.” They fought against the Spanish for four brutal years.
My family contains a wide medley of pigments—from very fair to dark brown. Blue, green, and brown eyes. Red, blond, black, and brown hair. When I hear people say that a person doesn’t “look Mexican,” I’d like to show them a family portrait and suggest they read a history book. Sometimes people tell me this as if it were some sort of compliment. Oh, you can pass for Italian or Greek, they reassure me. Once, a man hitting on me at a bar said I had a very interesting nose, wanted to know where I was “from,” and when I told him I was Mexican, I must have shattered his fantasy because he looked really disappointed. I suppose my origins were much too pedestrian for his erotic imagination. After a poetry reading in Wisconsin several years ago, an older white man asked me where I came from, and when I said “Chicago,” his response was, “Well, you don’t look like it.” Perhaps he had never been to Chicago?
And then, of course, are those who hesitate to use the word “Mexican” because they think it’s pejorative. They whisper it as if it were an embarrassing diagnosis, and I, exasperated, want to yell, “Bitch, he is literally Mexican! From Mexico!”
In my senior year of college, I was itching to leave my home city, so I applied to graduate school, the Peace Corps, and a Fulbright Scholarship. I had no idea where life was going to take me after the comfortable borders of school. All I knew was that I wanted to see the world on my own. My whole life I had fantasized about living alone in an unfamiliar land where I would frantically write until the sun came up. That’s what I imagined the writer’s life to be—full of adventure, writing, booze, sex, cigarettes, and faded black clothing. I constructed this romantic, bohemian image from movies I’d seen and books I’d read, and, in a sense, I made it come true.
I was the first woman on my mom’s side of the family to attend college, and I was the first on either side of the family to live on her own. Leaving home just because I felt like having an adventure was perplexing to everyone. Why in the world would I want to fend for myself? And now I was moving across the ocean? For what? Who did I think I was?
But what I considered an ordinary life, one filled with drudgery, obligation, and social conventions seemed like a slow excruciating death to me. I didn’t want a stable office job after college. I didn’t want to get married and have kids. I didn’t want to be a responsible adult who wore slacks to work and cared about her 401K. (I still don’t know what that is, exactly. I’m a failure of an adult.) Instead, I longed for a strange impossible life that I made up entirely; I had long decided this was my fate even though nothing in the world had ever suggested this was possible.
I originally planned to apply for a Fulbright in a more obscure country like Uruguay (I knew absolutely nothing about Uruguay), because I didn’t believe I could get a scholarship to Spain, which I imagined was a competitive country. My friends, however, coaxed me into doing it. What did I have to lose besides my pride?
When I told people about my upcoming year in Spain, many were impressed that I was going back to my “motherland.” I was excited to understand some of my origins, but to call this place my motherland was an insult to my dark-skinned mother. What did Spain have to do with me? Would it claim me in any way? I suspected not. I arrived in Madrid a breathless and eager 22-year-old. No one in my family, as far as I knew—ever since the savage conquest of the New World—had ever traveled across the Atlantic. The city overwhelmed me, which was exactly what I was searching for. I was restless and wanted to be perpetually stimulated; I wanted loud music, disco balls, and brights lights to follow me everywhere I went. I dove into the nightlife at full force. There was a collective exuberance in the city that I had never experienced. Bengali men sold roses and flashing knick knacks on street corners. Chinese women hawked beers and bocadillos to drunkards stumbling through the street. The throngs of people excited me, and it delighted me that even the elderly were out until all hours, stumbling about after too many glasses of wine. These people really know how to live, I thought to myself. Americans were doing it all wrong.
When I was a kid, my family lived in a back apartment that faced an alley. The building was a two-flat that had been illegally converted into four units. We were separated from our neighbors by sheets of plywood nailed to the wall. My mother worked nights, and my dad, exhausted after work, was usually on the sofa watching TV. Because my brother was five years older, we never played together, and most days I got on his nerves, so I stayed out of his way.
I spent so much of my childhood alone—reading, drawing, and looking out the window. There were times I was so desperate for companionship that I called a toll-free number to listen to a recording of a story, which I now think is both pitiful and hilarious, that I relied on an automated voice to get me through the day.
Our living room window faced north and there was a tree in the distance that I always obsessed over. I thought it was beautiful and I wanted so much to be there, to be elsewhere. There was nothing special about the tree; at the time it seemed like it was so far and inaccessible, but I now realize it couldn’t have been more than a few miles away. I suppose the generic tree just became a symbol of my escape, of what was possible.
When I was 11, we moved into our first house, which was still in our town of Cicero, but in a slightly better neighborhood. (There were some white people left on our block and one of them slashed our tires one night.) In the evenings my best friend Claudia and I would walk to our karate lessons on Roosevelt Road, which was technically in the city, but only a few blocks away. There were times she and I took detours and explored the industrial areas. Claudia always wanted to push boundaries, and I did, too, though I admit that I was often scared. One evening we sneaked into an abandoned factory. I worried that there were homeless people or drug addicts lurking in the dark corners ready to murder us, but I pressed on because my curiosity was stronger than my terror. The building had been damaged in a fire. The second floor was soft and crumbling, ready to cave in, but we still walked across it.
We found a tree growing inside on the first floor, light coming in through a hole in the roof. I thought it was amazing, but fear ran through me like a spike.
My behavior, this desire to always get into some kind of mess, has always been considered unfeminine in traditional Mexican culture. My maternal grandmother often called me “marimacha,” which translates to “butch” or “dyke.” My mother, much less harsh, simply called me “andariega,” which means “wanderer,” or “callejera,” which means a woman of the streets. Girls are not supposed to stray from their homes.
I rented my first apartment in a ritzy part of Madrid, much too far from my school where I was a teaching assistant. I didn’t know anything about the city and took an apartment that seemed nice enough. Had I really understood how bougie and pretentious the neighborhood was, I would have chosen a different location because what I really wanted was noise and grime. I suppose I wanted to feel at home.
Then I found my apartment in Lavapiés, the immigrant neighborhood south of the city center. I immediately appreciated the humility of the name—the act of washing feet. My dour Spanish roommate from my first apartment had warned me about it, said it was dangerous, but once I stepped out of the Metro, I was in love: the fruit stores, the butcher shops, women in saris, people yelling in languages I didn’t recognize. It was so vibrant and noisy and the air smelled like meat and spices. This is where I was meant to live. My roommate was obviously racist, I thought to myself.
Most of the immigrants in the neighborhood were young men, which was not surprising to me. I come from a family of immigrants, so I already knew that the men leave first and the women eventually follow. It’s not unusual for groups of Mexican men to live crammed together in small apartments while they send chunks of their meager paychecks back home.
In the fall I began taking a poetry class at a local literary organization, which turned out to be one of the best decisions of my life. Every Thursday night I would take the train to meet my class in a small conference room downtown. Our teacher, Jesus, was a big fat dude who always wore silly hats and smoked unfiltered cigarettes in class. He was funny and brilliant and gave us the most bizarre writing exercises to awaken our subconscious. One of them was a dada prompt in which we had to write the word “lamp” on a sheet of paper and place it near our bed as we slept. When we awakened, we were to write whatever came to mind without letting our rational selves get in the way. The poem I wrote in response to this exercise was about the man who consumed my thoughts that year. Part of it came to me as I walked alone one night. I stopped in the middle of the street to write an image of lucid semen trailing down a white sheet. There were so many moments like these. I found inspiration was at every turn, and there were times I could hardly stand it. My class built a camaraderie that I had dreamt about. After each session, most of us would head to a nearby bar to drink beer and continue our discussions of poetry. I loved these nights. We were all so different—a goth girl, a teenager, an older business man, a posh woman in her 20s exploring her angst. And then there was María, “the one with the difficult name,” who was my favorite of the group, and who years later became one of the most important contemporary feminist writers in the country. I was known as the American, or “la gringa,” as some affectionately called me. I was the one who wrote the poem about a lynx eating her own young. I had always been a loner, and I felt like I at last found my people.
Some of the other Americans I knew spoke with a Spanish accent and lisp. I tried my best to avoid it, but I suppose it was inevitable that it would seep into my speech. Once on the phone with my mother. I heard myself say “grathias” instead of “gracias,” and I was mortified. I hoped she hadn’t heard because I felt like a pretentious jerk. My mom has humble origins and I didn’t want her to think I was putting on airs.
My racial ambiguity allowed me to blend in. People sometimes ask me if I experienced racism while I was there, which is difficult to answer. My skin is not very dark, so most people didn’t know what to make of me. Had I been black I know I would’ve had a completely different experience. Strangers spoke to me in Arabic and I had to kindly let them know that I didn’t speak their language. The locals laughed at my Mexican Spanish as if I were some sort of yokel. When I would explain that I was Mexican American, Spaniards were often perplexed. How could you be both? they wondered. And why did I have a strange accent? Then I had trouble understanding what was so hard to understand. What I wanted to say was the following: Your people savagely colonized the New World, thus birthing mestizos in the land that became Mexico, then hundreds of years later, thanks to neoliberalism and corruption, these Mexicans—searching for work—immigrated to the United States where they are exploited for their labor and treated like animals. I am the daughter of these immigrants, which is why my accent is not entirely Mexican. I struggled my way through college, and now here I am on a fancy scholarship.
In The Location of Culture, post colonial scholar Homi Bhabha writes about this fluidity of identity for those who are products of conquest: “These ‘in-between’ spaces provide the terrain for elaborating strategies of selfhood—singular or communal—that initiate new signs of identity, and innovative sites of collaboration, and contestation, the act of defining the idea of society itself.” In his highfalutin way, Bhabha is saying that postcolonial products carve out their own identity and culture. I often felt that I belonged nowhere and everywhere all at once. I think we forget that people are composed of multitudes, contain many selves. I was never fully Mexican or American, and in Spain I was even more disoriented, so, in a sense, I became my own home. Virginia Woolf once wrote: “As a woman I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman my country is the whole world.” When you don’t belong, you learn to make a nest in the unknown.
I try not to romanticize indigenous civilizations. There are second generation radicals who like to pretend that pre-Colombian times were the halcyon days of yore. I once got into a futile argument with a man who insisted that machismo was imported from Spain, as if all the native women in the New World were living in some sort of feminist utopia. I don’t deny that the Old World’s flavor of patriarchy was imported to the colonies, but I don’t think we should fool ourselves into believing everyone was better off. (There are times I morbidly ponder how many women were raped for me to exist.) According to one anthropologist, the typical Aztec man expected his woman to be “tied to her metate, the comal, and the preparation of the tortilla.” (Ruiz 24). The women existed to make babies and pass down their culture and traditions. Men valued virginity, were polygamists, and often had concubines. I find it naive to think that Europeans— or anyone, for that matter—have a monopoly on misogyny.
There’s always been a part of me that feels vast and empty. Though I have a vivid inner life and I find so much meaning in books, art, writing, and relationships, there’s something deep inside that feels like a hungry maw. No matter the circumstances, there’s never enough. I suppose that’s one way to describe my depression: a never ending desire that can’t ever be satiated, but I will destroy everything in my path to do so. Depression feels like you can’t stop painting your own corpse. Beauty in its various forms is what makes me feel most complete: a poem that obliterates me, a painting that makes me gasp, a song that fills me with an inexplicable wonder. But once that passes, it’s there again: the absence, the void, the need, the gaping hole of nothingness. I’ve tried to fill it with everything I could: sex, men, drugs, cigarettes, alcohol, travel, food, and generally living recklessly, often harming my body in the process, but these salves are and were only temporary. These salves were not salves at all.
The night before I left I had a big dinner with my classmates, roommate, and the friends I had made during my year in Madrid. It was a beautiful night. My class had made me a poster with sweet and silly messages. I felt loved. Afterward, we spilled out into the night. It was Pride weekend and the streets were filled with people. At times I felt panicked, but I was excited by the energy at all. It was what I had been looking for when I arrived. Bright lights, exuberance, friendship. We staggered throughout the city and danced. I didn’t want it to end.
Cover Image: Street art in Lavapiés, Madrid