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Some Of Us Just Got Here Sooner
Stop making assumptions about where I'm from
Every year my children get a school assignment to build a presentation about where we’re from. But the paper always ends with “and unless you’re Indigenous, don’t tell us you’re from the U.S. or Canada.”
The assignment infuriates me because it’s overly simplistic, reducing the complexity of race and belonging to a reductive racial purity test. Like many Mexican-Americans, my personal lineage is a mixture of Indigenous and Spanish peoples. How much Indigenous blood do I have to have before it’s okay for me to claim California as the place I’m from?
And more importantly, by what right does my kids’ school get to decide this? There isn’t much difference between a liberal pundit asserting that only Indigenous people are genuinely from North America and a racist on the street yelling, “Go back where you came from!” Both put the speaker in the decision-making seat.
In the case of the liberal, the statement is a performative mea culpa—look at how enlightened I am!—that ignores how other people of color have had to fight for belonging in society at large.
The first year I swallowed my outrage and helped my son cut out a cardboard picture of a little boy in a poncho and sombrero. I didn’t point out the ridiculousness of allowing my family to be from a place that was also colonized, and as late as 1821, had its northern-most border just under Oregon.
I have a lot of experience letting these things slide. I’m a light-skinned Latina whose married last name is Douglas. My dad used to tell me I was lucky that I looked so white. He was right—I don’t worry about the police gunning me down as I go for a run or sleep in my house.
As long as I don’t stop moving, I can pass through predominantly white spaces as if I were white. But linger too long, and I’m reminded, over and over again, that I don’t belong.
About a month after I moved to New York in 2004, I was at the Walbaum’s in Howard Beach, chatting with the checkout person ringing up my groceries, when she leaned in and asked in a thick Queens accent, “Where you from?”
Hoping that she was talking about my accent, I replied, “California.”
“No, Hollywood, I mean, where’s your family from.”
“They were also born in California.” I wanted to leave it there. But Waldbaum’s was the closest grocery store to my apartment. And Howard Beach was known for two things when I first moved there. First, it was the former home of the organized crime boss John Gotti. Second, twelve years before I showed up in that grocery store, it was the place where a group of white teens beat three Black men outside of the pizza parlor next door and chased one of them into traffic, where he was hit by a car and died. I needed to know if my race would be a problem, so I added, “But our background is Mexican.”
“Oh. You speak good English.”
“It’s my first language,” I said before collecting my plastic bags and walking out.
The truth is, I don’t know how to react when someone says stupid stuff after finding out I’m Mexican. I think, You’re lucky it’s just talk, and why do I need to be grateful for this garbage, and my face locks into the pleasant smile that I use to protect my thoughts and feelings from other people. I’m always sure I’m handling the situation wrong. Not like my Grandpa Pete, who moved his family into an all-white neighborhood in San Jose. When a neighbor said he didn’t want to live next to Mexicans, Grandpa recoiled in horror and said, “There are Mexicans here? Where?!”
When he found out a petition was going around to “get the Mexican family out of the neighborhood,” he insisted on signing it in big letters: Pete Hernandez, like he was a brown John Hancock.
Grandpa always knew what to say. He was charming, ballsy, and utterly implacable in his worldview. From him, I learned that most people are deeply insecure and unwilling to look foolish, so if you walked like you knew where you were going and stood like you owned the room, people would fall in line with your version of reality. Grandpa Pete was the first person in his family to finish high school. I was the first person in my family to go to college and then move across the country to get a graduate degree. I spent a lot of time trying to look like I knew where I was going.
It was all a lie.
But I could maintain the fiction until someone asked me where I was from as if I was too alien looking to be a real American. Then I had to deal with the fallout. Like when my soon-to-be mother-in-law talked in an artificially bright voice about all the wonderful flavors in Mexican cuisine. I smiled and nodded along like she wasn’t revealing how uncomfortable she was with the prospect of a Latina daughter-in-law.
In 2014 my husband, two children, and I moved to Vancouver, Canada, so he could get a Ph.D. My children are growing up culturally Canadian. I thought I knew what that would mean. They would pronounce certain words differently than I do and think putting cheese curds on fries makes sense. Back in the U.S., this seemed a small price to pay for subsidized healthcare and lush forests.
But there are other costs. We can’t go to my family’s tamale-making parties during American Thanksgiving unless we spend seventeen hours in a car and a thousand dollars in travel costs. The kids can’t absorb the family stories and the Spanglish the way I did, listening to the grown-ups talk at the dinner table. They won’t see Ballet Folklorico or Mariachis in school. I’m solely responsible for connecting my children to their Mexican heritage in California. When we first moved here, all I could think about was how completely inadequate I was to the task.
I don’t need strangers telling them they aren’t from where they’re from.
The first year I let it slide. We were immigrants, and I didn’t want to make waves. The second year, after the kids went to bed, I shook the paper at my husband. “We live in the Americas! Everyone came from somewhere else. Some of us just got here sooner. By this logic, we should all be talking about Mesopotamia!”
I went to bed thinking, What would Grandpa Pete do? Just as I fell asleep, my brain answered, You go in there and own that room.
So I showed up at my son’s classroom at the appointed time, laptop in one hand, a container of pan dulce in the other, ready to do battle. When the teacher asked which country we were going to talk about, I said, “California.”
She said, “Ah, the United States,” and wrote that down.
I smiled and corrected her. “No, California. We’re California Mexicans.”
The look on her face said she wasn’t sure what to say to someone whose response to “What country are you from?” is the name of a state. My son and I launched into our presentation. We talked about the people who walked to California before it belonged to the U.S. or Mexico, the Mission system as a tool of conquest and assimilation, and the proud people who are from nowhere else. Then we fed everyone a traditional Mexican dessert with ties to French cuisine.
Did I change anyone’s mind about where we’re from? I don’t know. After our presentation, my son’s teacher said, “I never knew that about California.”
If nothing else, I hope some of those second graders went home and told their parents that their classmate was from the country of California. Because even though I love people and am full of good intentions, I’m also capable of being petty.
More importantly, I proved to myself that I could own the room long enough to transmit my cultural identity to my children. I am not the perfect Mexican woman. But I can share all of the family stories, and the kids are learning how to make the foods that I grew up eating.
Grandpa Pete probably wasn’t born knowing the exact right thing to say to people who thought they could define where he was from. He built that toolbox of strategies bit by bit, one unwanted encounter at a time. It’s an idea that gives me a lot of hope.
I shouldn’t have to fight against people negating my family’s cultural identity. I’m not grateful for the opportunity. But it’s a fight I’m going to win, because I’m the only one who gets to decide where I’m from.
Teresa Douglas is a Mexican American woman living in Canada. She has an MFA in Fiction from Sarah Lawrence College. Her work has appeared in Flashflood Journal, Epoch press, and (Mac)ro(mic). She is the editor of Latinx Lit Audio Mag.
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