For years, one side of my family has fully embraced being Mexican. From the foods we ate, the language we sometimes spoke, and the way we created traditions, nicknames, and celebrated the arts was firmly nestled in the Mexican culture and daily life in the Mexico-extended American enclave of Tucson, Arizona where I was born and raised.
During my years growing up I lost “white” friends whose mothers did not want them having a Mexican as a friend. Because my mother was white (well, English, Irish, and Middle Eastern) and I grew up in a split home, Spanish wasn’t common in my house and over time, I lost a bit of my Mexican way, even at times carrying an aversion to the association since it had created more stigmatism outside of my family life than harmony.
At Catalina High School, someone one day wrote on the bathroom stall “Valdez fucks dogs- and go away, beaner.” Years later this person invited me to be their friend on Facebook. I politely declined. They asked again. I politely declined again. Sometimes I wonder if that was their extension of an olive branch for bringing race into the frame in such a crass and vulgar way. Perhaps I should have taken the higher road.
Many of the top universities in the US and Ivy League offered me full scholarships, flying me all over the country to experience their campus life while making my decision. At one ceremony, the superintendent of the Tucson Unified School District awarded me one of dozens of scholarships, pronouncing me “Mexican student numero uno” before handing me a scholarship at the University of Arizona.
Being caught in the crosshairs of being both popular and hated by my classmates, mocked and teased on one side, yet winning every contest availed someone in that murky social tempest, it was hard to not identify being Mexican as a complicated and tormenting force in my early days.
My stepfather, a well-dressed very European Norwegian man, somehow convinced me to attend his alma mater. After learning Smith college not only was a girls only school but also really far from Boston, the idea of heading north up to the golden coast of Santa Barbara seemed like the best possible scenario. I also had the Presidential scholarship in my pocket. I took the leap.
At least when you are in Tucson, almost everyone else is Mexican, too. When I spent my recruiting weekend at Occidental, they put in the dorms with the East L.A. Mexican whiz kids; the militant ones. Although we shared being Mexican, I was nothing like them nor did I share any of their experiences because of the country club lifestyle afforded to me by my stepfather David.
In Montecito, an affluent part of Santa Barbara, the joke at this highly white-washed school was that “Ali is Westmont’s quota.” This also made me laugh. Being lovingly referred to as the “token” was a whim woven through all four years at school. I still remember the other “Mexican” at the school; not his name, but his utter disenfranchisement living in hell at the nexus of paradise. He didn’t even last the year. He was once interviewed under a laughable diversity article, and it wasn’t glowing. I don’t remember what he said but he said he felt very much like a Mexican. I remember thinking that was really sad. How did I escape feeling that way even though pretty much everyone kept me at arm’s distance, even those that didn’t realize the power and undertone of their statements, even if it was the novelty of it all. I had short black hair, wore blue leather Gucci pants and Chanel boots. I looked so different from the other California coast blonde girls with floral patterned skirts. I was aware of this. The rebel in me sort of delighted in it.
Fast forward, forty-six years of people asking me “what are you?” and never being satisfied with my answer (Syrian, Mexican and Lebanese. You know, like Salma Hayek) I have been texting with my cousins. Many of them are in the process of populating data points into Ancestry.com and completing 23 & Me profiles. Much to my surprise, it doesn’t seem that I am Mexican at all.
This was an existential crisis because I had not only made peace with being Mexican, but was proud to install this part of my culture to my daughter who always says she wants to be more Mexican like me.
My family is Greek and Sardinian. Our family names are Espena and Familopoulo. I am awaiting my swab kits so I too can confirm my mother’s background and how it ties to my father’s. No one is my family feels particularly blown away by these insights. It is very business as usual. I tell my students and employees, “by the way, I just found out that I am not Mexican” and they gasp in shock. That’s how Mexican apparently I have become over the years.
So now what? I endured quite a bit of bullying and mockery in my early years. I have traveled throughout Mexico, done business in Mexico, have enjoyed so many elements of this culture and now I feel a little bare without it. I haven’t even been to Sardinia before. There are new elements of my history, my karma of my lineage, my epigenomics to explore, new nomadic pursuits for truth and deep understanding. It’s all up for grabs. These unchartered waters (the Tyrrhenian, Ionian and Aegean, not the Pacific…) keep me open to possibility and appreciative of new cultures, as well as a deep-seeded respect for the one that I have not lost but has been slightly reassigned.
This experience has reminded me how quickly we identify with that which we are taught, the subconscious indoctrinations we receive from where we live and the storytelling or romanticization. I am not resentful of any of this, because science has outpaced the oral tradition and as grandparents pass away and the significance of their stories are outweighed by fascinations of technology and media, we are losing something beautiful even if we can chart DNA and create family trees. These are mere skeletons of insight that run like marrow in the bone and thick like the blood that carries the narrative of generations’ past deep within us. I yearn to find another fragment of my soul washed ashore on Mediterranean waters.
If I were to now be called names like wetback, spik, or beaner, my reply may be, “incidentally, I am actually NOT Mexican; however, they remain my people and I love them still. Please don’t be cruel and unkind to anyone.” In the end, chances are, none of us really know where we truly come from generationally and ancestrally speaking. We all long for connection and to belong to something rich in meaning and purpose. The one truth of origin that I do understand, is that we are all human, and we can only shake away that mortal coil for so long.
NOTE: Ironically as I sit writing this at a bustling French bakery, I am surrounded by three tables of Spanish speakers. I cannot help but smile and feel at home.