This is a departure from my usual restaurant-centric posts. Today I’m writing about labels. And not food labels. Just…labels. We all use them. Our lives are defined by description: poor, rich, Republican, Democrat, married, single, Anglo, Latino. Single mom, mom and wife, frazzled mom, Tiger Mom. What if you don’t look like who you are? Ever met a person who looked like one of the homeless kids on the Drag only to find out they’re one of the wealthiest software designers in town?
My life has been a never ending assertion of my culture. I am a proud Latina who looks extremely caucasian. I have pale skin that burns easily in the sun, never tanning although I will freckle. I have blue eyes and brown hair. I have my father’s Anglo coloring and my mother’s passion for our ethnicity.
At a recent family reunion, I was struck by how different I look from my relatives. My mother and her siblings all look alike. I resemble my cousins, but only when you carefully compare us. My mother has dark hair and eyes, and her skin is light brown, as are most of my relatives. I’m more like one of the in-laws, related by marriage. As I looked around at the many shades of brown faces, from lightly colored to a deep, nutty hue, I was very aware of my paleness singling me out. The feeling of separation was fleeting, as I reminded myself of my heritage, my family connection and bond.
The children in my family are a mixed bag of coloring. We started out with only a few light skinned cousins, but as we’ve aged, the next generation is bringing forth babies in a range of ethnicities, a peaches and cream to olive tone, golden brown to mahogany rainbow of babies. The mother in me recognizes that they are all distinct little personalities. The Latina mamí in me feels a deep satisfaction in the simple truth of knowing the family will go on. The color of our skin doesn’t matter.
I am the great, great, great granddaughter of Pedro Rosales, who was born in Coahuila, Mexico but founded our family home in Campbellton, Texas. Thrice-great Grandpa, known by his nickname of Po Pira, was married two times on the U.S. side, fathering 8 children who became the building blocks of our family. We know he also had a family in Mexico, another wife and children, but we don’t have much information on them. Somewhere in the nation that adjoins our country, I have family. It’s an odd feeling, but in my family we take it in stride.
I looked at pictures of my ancestors who died long before I was born and see in them the same faces of the elderly relatives around me. I look at a picture of my great grandmother Porfiria and catch a glimpse of my grandmother Dorotea as well as the resemblance to aunts and cousins. I wonder if the unknown family in Mexico looks like us, the Estado Unidos ones. I’m sure we have commonalities, such as our love for food, and the tradition of passing along recipes and cooking tips.
My great grandmother cooked tortillas on her outdated wood-burning stove and didn’t speak any English. Never fluent in Spanish, I managed to communicate well enough with her. Summer vacation meant trips to her tiny home in Campbellton, where the house would be hot and airless, windows and doors open in the vain hope of catching a light breeze but still we’d gather in the kitchen waiting to be handed a warm tortilla, fresh off the comal.
Almost every visit required stopping at El Campo Santo, the cemetery, to pay respects. The joke in Campbellton is that you can tell the Anglo portion of the graveyard from the Hispanic part by the absence of vividly colored artificial flowers and wreaths decorating the plots. The Anglo portion has few if any flowers, real or otherwise. It’s the easiest to mow and edge around, says the caretakers, distant cousins of mine. As it is in the cemetery, so it is in my life. My Anglo relatives are not nearly as colorful and vibrant as my Hispanic ones. The Anglo side has boasted some fairly eccentric and interesting members through the ages, but the current generation is tame in comparison.
I embrace my Latina-ness in all areas of my life. My cooking reflects it, down to menudo in the winter or if a hangover cure is necessary. I treasure my family recipes, even my enchiladas, which are tweaked from a recipe of my Anglo grandmother. She was arrogantly racist, but she could cook enchiladas like she was born to it. Along with feeding my son traditional foods, I talk to him. My every day conversation includes a sprinkling of Spanish words mixed in when there isn’t an English one to convey my meaning, or just out of habit. When my son was born, it was all the more reason to speak Spanish, to build a bridge between his pale skin and our shared heritage. My pride knew no bounds when his first full sentence was “Mama, dame beso, mama.”
I may look different from your average Hispanic mom, but inside I am one of la Raza. Latina, chicana, Mexicana-Americana…a Rosa by any other name would still carry the same sweet fragrance of family, of respect for heritage and a pride in knowing my roots. The strong women in my family have instilled in me the idea that I am in control of my destiny. When I voice dreams aloud, the strong men of my family don’t ask “why?” they say “why not?”. As a Latina friend of mine says, “We’re Mexi-CANS, not Mexi-CAN’Ts!”.
Because of my pride in my heritage, and the fact that I’m much closer to the Mexican American side of the family than I am to my Anglo relatives, I identify as Latina. But my battle is that I’m never Latina enough. I know this is an insecurity within myself that has been nurtured over the years by the many times that people see only my pale skin, not the hot blooded Mexicana-Americana underneath. And it’s a nerve that I hit myself, when I clumsily converse in Spanish.
Although it was my first language, I have never been fluent. Nunca. I want more than ever to become fluent now, with a son to teach to speak Spanish. I want him to be bilingual, to pepper his conversation with Spanish words like I do. Yet for him I want more. I want him to grow up speaking both languages fluently. And for myself, quiero ser bilingüe. I want to be bilingual. It’s important to me to help my three-fourths Anglo son learn about his culture, his familia, his roots. And that involves me learning to speak better Spanish.
We’re on a limited budget, so I’m doing what I can by checking out bilingual books from the library and reading. I’ve found that when I read Spanish it touches some distant memory inside me, sparking a moment of recognition, as if my brain already contains the knowledge but needs me to learn the pathway to fluency.
I wince when I speak aloud, though. I hear my terrible accent and feel like a sham, not Latina enough. But I find myself whispering to my son in Spanish without thinking about it. “Shhh, mi hijito. No llores” and admonishing him to say “por favor“. I sing to him the few songs I know in Spanish, a lullaby and La Cucaracha.
There’s many, many versions of the last verse of La Cucaracha. I think most people have heard of the one that ends “marijuana por fumar”. Interestingly enough, one version pokes fun at American Anglos who can’t deal with the rising tide of bilingual culture:
El tonto Anglo, el tonto Anglo
ya no puede platicar,
porque no tiene, porque le falta,
español que hablar.
I feel like that song was written about me. The silly white girl who can’t make conversation because I don’t have any Spanish to speak.
I can at least take comfort in knowing that mi hijo will grow up eating tortillas, caldos, enchiladas, menudo and other home-cooked ethnic comfort foods. Por la gracia de Dios I will feed him like a Latina mamí. He will have marranitos and pan de huevo, learn to love fiery salsa, and to ask for Mexican hot chocolate whenever possible, because what can be better than Mexican hot chocolate?
Even my husband gently mocks my intense hold on my heritage, calling me “half Mexican” or saying I’m “only half”, which calls to my mind Cher garbed in buckskin, sitting on a horse and singing that quintessential 70’s song. We had a heated discussion in his favorite Tex Mex restaurant one night because I had hit my limit on patience and just could not abide his teasing any longer. He truly didn’t understand why I value my Latina roots so much, when I look like the white girl next door. We went back and forth about ethnicity, until he suddenly blurted out “but what do you fill out on government forms?” He meant race. It suddenly clicked. My own husband didn’t know that white people and Mexican Americans are all considered Caucasian by our government.
And now we are rearing a little white-looking boy, who is asked daily by his mother for a beso, and is reminded often of his roots. It is my goal that he will grow up steeped in our culture, never feeling not Latino enough. I imagine that when he is a father tucking his children into bed we will be one step closer to mixing the skin colors of our nation into one blended hue of tan or beige or golden brown, and all of us mothers will be passionate, proud and fiercely loving, whether Hispanic or not.
One of my son’s favorite things to eat is a warm tortilla. It’s easy to make tortilla dough at home but mastering the art of rolling them into circles takes practice. I’ve fallen out of practice, and need to start re-learning, but our busy schedule means that often I buy store-bought tortillas, known to my family as “alien tortillas”. Alien tortillas often have a smooth, almost plastic-y surface, and they smell odd, compared to preservative-free homemade ones. One of my tips for buying decent tasting alien tortillas is to feel the package. The tortillas should bend and give, and not feel hard. The only exception is for purchasing raw tortilla dough that has been pre-pressed into circles. They should be firm.
Here are a few more tips on making store-bought Mexican products taste more like homemade:
- Buy fresh salsa, from the refrigerated section. Add finely diced serrano or jalapeño to taste, if you get a jar that isn’t spicy enough for you. You can also add a squeeze of lime, to brighten up the flavor, or a bit of chopped cilantro.
- To add some va-va-voom back to canned refried beans, season them with comino (ground cumin), and add a handful of shredded cheese. I mostly use sharp cheddar, but monterey jack and colby work well, too.
- When warming flour tortillas, always use a comal. If you don’t own one, use a dry skillet. Never, ever warm tortillas in a microwave, as you will often end up with a hardened, brittle tortilla.
- When warming corn tortillas, dampen them ever so slightly with water, to bring out the corn flavor.
- Put that can of menudo back on the shelf. Put it back! If you ever find yourself thinking, “hey, maybe I’ll try this canned menudo, since all my friends rave about what a great hangover cure it is” please for the love of all that is holy, leave the aisle immediately, go to the produce section and hang out near the celery while you google the nearest Tex Mex restaurant that sells menudo to go.
- Make enchiladas easy by stacking instead of rolling, and using canned enchilada sauce (I like Hatch Green Chile, or a Tex Mex sauce). Some will insist stacking enchiladas is a New Mexico creation, but my grandmother not only stacked her enchi’s, she topped them with chili and then, lettuce and tomato.
One last bit of advice from this Latina mom: treat your kids to chips and queso but take a leap of faith and make that queso without Velveeta, or any other brand of processed cheese product. I highly recommend the chile con queso recipe found on the Homesick Texan blog. Most of all, pass down the recipes and make the dishes that you feel helps identify your culture. Celebrate your family, and spread the love around.