The Mexican in Me

in Culture by

This essay first appeared on Latino Rebels

I’m surrounded by Mexicans.

I married a Mexican, de Juárez, with a Mexican-ass name, too. And she comes from a big-ass Mexican family: four Mexican sisters, Mexican mom and a Mexican dad, with around a dozen Mexican aunts and uncles, plus two amás and two apás, may they rest in peace.

And though she pretends to be part Italian, my stepdaughter is pure Mexican, too.

It’s wild that I ended up marrying a Mexican. When I lived near Humboldt Park in Chicago, most people were other Puerto Ricans, or even Black or white. Looking back now, I assume at least some of the other Brown kids at school must’ve been Mexican, but I don’t remember ever knowingly knowing a Mexican before my Honduran mom left my Puerto Rican dad and took us out to the suburbs.

Out in the burbs, at least the one we moved to, about a third of the kids were Latino, more than half were white, and a few were Black. We moved out there to stay with my mom’s older sister, Titi Ritza, who had married a Mexican. We lived with them and my two half-Mexican cousins in their two-bedroom apartment, just till Mom got on her feet.

Thus began a kind of Mexicanization.

It started with Tío Uriel. He was a cook at Chili’s and took my little brother and me under his wing. He was a bit of an outdoorsman, and would guide us through the forest preserve at the end of our block. He taught us how to fish, how to scale and gut it, then fry it up. I can still see him forking out the eyes and brains and eating it, and when we made barfing noises, he just smiled with his devilishly handsome grin and said, “What? They’re the best part! Good for your eyes and brain!”

He was the kind of guy who pretended to catch bugs and eat them—and sometimes he really did eat them. He caught a snake with his bare hands, only a harmless garter one (but us kids didn’t know they were harmless). He taught us how to swim in the river. He took us to play baseball and soccer.

Last time I saw him, about ten years ago, he’d caught a beaver, butchered it, and made a caldo in a giant pot outside.

Being around him and my cousins was my first introduction to Mexican culture proper. My Honduran aunt had already begun her assimilation into the local Mexican enclave, watching Univision and listening to a lot of Mexican music in her green first-gen Ford Explorer. She still speaks Spanish with a Mexican accent, while my mom and her younger sister, who were both super young when they left Honduras and settled near Humboldt Park, and who both eventually had kids with Puerto Rican men, still speak Spanish with Puerto Rican accents.

It was during the car rides with Titi Ritza that I first heard Mexican music, songs by the likes of Gloria Trevi and Selena, though I didn’t know either by name and couldn’t pick them out in a lineup. I’ve told the story before that, when Selena died and the Mexican girls came to school crying and wearing t-shirts with her face on them, I figured someone’s older sister had been shot.

The first Mexican who would end up being one of my best friends transferred to my school in fifth grade. He and his older brother immediately became the coolest kids on the block, and since they lived in the same complex as us, my brother and I quickly fell in with them. They were Americanized Mexicans—their mom was a four-foot-something Mexican from Arkansas, with a six-foot-something personality—but they called themselves Mexicans. Shit, after a while, all us Latino kids got to calling ourselves “beaners,” or simply “beans.”

We listened to a lot of gangsta rap—Pac, Bone Thugs, No Limit, Hot Boys—and I’ll just say, in our defense, that latchkey kids aren’t known for being sensitive, gentle, or politically correct. We all spoke as though we hated each other’s guts, roasting each other from head to toe, but we loved each other like close cousins.

That’s how it was amongst us kids with no curfew. What’s mine was theirs, and vice versa. We went to whoever’s parents weren’t home and the kid of the house would serve us anything they had in the fridge or pantry, even though he knew he’d get chewed out for it later. We slept over each other’s places a bunch, and when push came to shove back home, I even stayed with my friends’ families. I was an honorary Velázquez for the whole summer after eighth grade, and later for a semester my junior year. Another summer I was an honorary Sánchez.

Which brings me to another Mexican who had a huge impact on my life and the person I’ve become: The Chilango, and my best friend for a chaotic but formative five years.

He taught me about work. He got me a job at Olive Garden, my first server gig, and taught me how to take care of the customers. He was a consummate professional, at least out on the floor. His tables loved him. When the dinner rush came, he was never in the weeds. Whereas it was company policy not to allow a server to work more than three tables at once, exceptions were regularly made for him to take on four, five, even six at a time.

This older clean-cut white guy in a suit came in one night and sat at my buddy’s table. My boy gave him the usual baller service, and when the check came, the guy pulls out his business card. Turns out he owns this classy restaurant and wants to poach my boy from OG. He would’ve quit, too, right then and there, had he had papers.

The Chilango had two birth certificates with different dates on them, but he was still legally undocumented. He told me how, when he was a boy, he was driven across the border by a guy he’d never met before and hasn’t seen or heard from since. Our senior year of high school, the Chilango got into a car accident during lunch period, and he was so afraid that the cops would come to the school, looking to deport him, that he just never went back.

He wasn’t the only undocumented Mexican working at the restaurant either, of course. Nearly all of the cooks and busboys were undocumented Mexicans, or at least Guatemalan. They were some of the hardest-working people I’ve ever witnessed up close.

I remember this one kid, Walter—thin, pale, with thick black hair slicked back. He was only 19 but he had the work ethic of a 40-something. One day, after the lunch rush, I saw him loading up a tray with OG’s heavy-ass plates and glasses. I mean the thing was crammed.

When he saw me watching, he gestured toward the tray, challenging me to lift it in his soft-spoken way. I went to try, but I would’ve had a better chance of lifting the table.

After my feeble attempt, Walter just slid the loaded tray off the table and swung it up onto his shoulder, grinning at me before he lugged it back toward the kitchen, all bent over to one side.

One of the other Mexican busboys—busman, actually, since he really was about 50—he’d been a busboy for so long, his body was permanently bent over to one side.

I was with the Chilango when I met my wife at a horse ranch south of Chicago—a real paisa setting for falling in love. It was August 8, 2009, a mostly sunny Saturday. She was with her five-year-old girl, who I eventually had playing with an American toad I found hopping in the grass. I gave the kid some sticks to toss into a big bonfire, which got me in trouble with her 22-year-old Mexican mom.

The rest has been one helluva ride.

My wife is the Mexican who’s had the greatest impact on me, in ways I’m still beginning to understand. She’s the hardest-working person I know, besides my suegro. And that’s not me trying to win points with you or them, either, because they really get on my nerves at times, too. They’re not perfect, as with any of us, but they’re amazing still.

My suegro is the greatest man I’ve ever met, practically a saint. Tireless. Understanding. Gentle. But unshakeable. He’s taught me about being a virtuous man. Someone who does what he says he’s going to do, and does it to the best of his ability. Someone who keeps himself, his things, and his surroundings in clean working order. Someone who’s always looking to be of service to family and friends. More than a man—a decent human being.

Both my wife and her father have taught me about the people and places they come from. And from what I’ve seen and learned from them and other Mexicans, Mexico is a beautiful land, and the Mexicans are a beautiful people, with a culture to be extremely proud of, full and wide and vibrant.

Not that my American, Puerto Rican and Honduran cultures aren’t those things. Just that Mexican culture is not not those things, either.

As I was reading Homeland: Ethnic Mexican Belonging since 1900, a new history by an old colleague, Aaron E. Sánchez (no relation to the earlier Sánchez), the thought occurred to me: why am I, a Honduran-Puerto Rican American, taking such a keen interest in Mexican history and culture? I guess this tiny essay is me stumbling toward an answer.

Besides the fact that Aaron’s appearing on my show Latinish (he’s already made the Latino Rebels Radio circuit), I looked forward to reading his book, and enjoyed it even more than I thought I would, because I have a profound appreciation for Mexico and its people. Mexico is undoubtedly one of the greatest nations in world history, which is saying a lot, considering that Mexico is still coming into its own, hobbled as it’s been by the bully next door.

Even with my upbringing, all of my exposure to Mexican culture and my experiences with Mexican people, I’m still not nor do I feel Mexican. I am and feel American, Puerto Rican, and Honduran, plus a lot of other things. I feel American because I was born and raised here, so I am an American. I feel Honduran, not only because my mom was born there, but because I grew up listening to stories of the old country, eating foods from there, toured it from coast to capital a few times, and because I’ve studied Honduras and its people. So the fact that I’m Honduran makes sense to me. It’s logical. Same goes for my puertorriqueñidad.

I also read Homeland because, though I know what has happened to the people I come from, I want to know what has happened to other peoples. I can say it’s because I want to compare experiences, but I really just prefer to know rather than not know. I’m not one to read a book only if it was written by or features someone from my same identity group—partly because, for one, I’m not likely to find the Afro-Latino, Honduran-Puerto Rican American, older Millennial from Chicago experience represented anywhere.

But I don’t need to literally see myself in a book to actually see myself in a book. I see a bit of me in Palahniuk, in Bukowski and Thompson, in Baldwin and Fanon, in Hemingway and Salinger, in Céline, in de Burgos and Martí, in Whitman, Twain and Poe, in Cervantes, Shakespeare and Montaigne, a bit of me in Juvenal, a bit of me in Diogenes, a bit of me in Lao Tzu. I see my own essence reflected in other people from all walks of life, whether they’re writing today or dropped their pens before Jesus’s bris. We’re human, after all.

And while I may not be Mexican, Mexicans are my people. They’re my friends and family. They’re the people I love and have loved, among others. Mexicans have helped raise me. Mexicans have taken me in. Mexicans have shown me the ropes.

I haven’t even mentioned all the Mexicans I worked with at Gozamos, an art-activist collective in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, next to La Villita. That’s where Mexicans made me into an artist.

These days my heart belongs to my wife, and she forever belongs to Mexico—her tiny footprint is still clearly visible in the cement outside her grandparents’ humble home on Calle Rododendro. So the bond between me and Mexico is set in stone.

In his book, Aaron talks about how, with a lot of Mexicans fleeing the violence and destruction around the time of the Mexican Revolution, Mexicanness slowly became detached from the land and became linked to the people, to the idea of Mexico. This idea was something that Mexicans could carry with them wherever they lived—México de afuera, a Mexico outside Mexico.

As a Diasporican, a Puerto Rican from outside Puerto Rico, I’m well aware of the concept of a national identity not tied to territory. Being part of the Puerto Rican Diaspora, an exile community from a land under colonial rule, is almost like being a stateless person, or at least descended from a stateless people. The Puerto Rico I have in my heart is not the Puerto Rico that actually exists, which is America’s Puerto Rico, down to the Yankee blue on the so-called Puerto Rican flag.

I know some Mexican Millennials here in the States, and a lot of Diasporicans, who have dreams of moving back to the homeland. But most are perfectly happy living here, or at least resigned to it, because they realize that, despite their Mexicanness or Puerto Ricanness, they don’t belong in Mexico or Puerto Rico—they belong here, in America, for better or worse.

Still, I’ve often heard it said that true Mexicanness is found at the source, in Mexico. I myself have been accused of not being a “real Puerto Rican,” since I’m only a half-blood, and not even from the islands. I guess, then, my Puerto Ricanness exists outside true Puerto Ricanness. I’m sure there are plenty of Mexican Americans who feel the same about their Mexicanness.

So, just as my Puerto Ricanness lies outside Puerto Ricaness, can’t I lay claim to a Mexicanness, at least a little, outside Mexicanness? Is it only our blood and geography that make us who we are, or is it our love?

That question is sure to get some eye-rolls from readers, and oh well. But a lot of astronauts have said that, when they were staring back at our planet from space, they realized how arbitrary things like borders, nations, races and ethnic groups are—that we’re all the same thing in the end.

I’ve seen a lot of me in the Mexican people around me, and I’m proud to say there’s a bit of their Mexicanness in me.

Hector is the editor of MANO. He's also the host of Latinish and Hits from the Brain. A Chicagoan living in Las Vegas, he's a former deputy editor of Latino Rebels, as well as a former managing editor of Gozamos, an art-activism site based in his home town. He has contributed to RedEye, a Tribune-owned daily geared toward millennials. His work has been mentioned by The New Yorker, TIME and other outlets, and his writing was featured in Ricanstruction, a comic book anthology whose proceeds went toward recovery efforts in Puerto Rico. Hector studied history (for some reason) at the University of Illinois-Chicago, where his focus was on ethnic relations in the United States.

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