There is a Mexican film entitled Ni De Aqui, Ni De Alla (“Not from Here, Not from There”). It is about an indigenous woman, La India Maria, who leaves Mexico to work in Los Angeles, California. She quickly assimilates to life in the United States. Eventually, she returns to Mexico, where she realizes that her country has changed so much it is unrecognizable. She no longer belongs to the Mexico she left behind, but she does not belong to America, either. Like a lot of Mexican-Americans, I often feel the same way. We frequently feel the weight of that hyphen functioning not as a symbol that we belong to two cultures, but as a reminder that we don’t fully belong to either one. It is no wonder that I was thinking of La India Maria and her journey before I began mine. It was my long awaited homecoming: I was going back to Mexico for the first time in thirteen years.
I expected certain things to happen, which was my first mistake. But how could I not? It was my homeland, after all. My childhood happened there – in a country I no longer knew. I expected people there would not like me. I expected I would not like them.
And I expected to blend in any way. I was wrong.
I arrived in my small town with a plan but was instantly confused by all of the new houses and roads. I missed my own house by a longshot. I asked the taxi driver to stop in the town square, where I slowly began to familiarize myself with the town’s new
layout. The annual parties celebrating our town’s patron saint, Gaspar, were one thing that had not changed. There, parades, dances, bands from all over the region, and, most importantly, bull-riding – twenty-four hours a day for three days. They would
sleep when the festival was over. On the third and last day, the best band played and the best bulls were paraded through the ring. The bullring was a circular fence, an illuminated ring that people crowded all around to watch. The sixth bull in the parade, a black beast with sharp, angry horns, was being prepared while one of the bands played.
In the ring, I saw the bull rider: a young man wearing a cowboy hat and boots. In the dead center, he took a knee. He performed the sign of the cross, grabbed a handful of dirt, and threw it up in the air. The rider jumped on, and out went the bull, running
angrily around the perimeter of the ring as trumpets and clarinets from the band blared along, even as the bull smashed the rider against the door of the ring. The rider tried clinging to the door to keep it shut. It opened instead.
“Quick!” yelled the commentator, “close the door
before he gets out.”
But the bull did get out.
The crowd gave a collective shout: there was no longer a barrier between us and the bull. Suddenly, we were all aware of our vulnerability: we were only safe when the bull was caged. Men on horseback raced out into the dark, looking for the bull that was now headed for town. Soon enough, they caught the bull and brought him back, but it was all anyone could talk about.
Despite my surprise and sudden vulnerability, I felt at home in this environment. After the festivities ended, I headed to Guadalajara. I asked some locals where I should go,
and was quickly told to go to the city center. It made sense: the center of every Mexican town is the town. Mexican town centers often include a gorgeous gazebo
and a beautiful church. Guadalajara’s center was like a small town on steroids: riddled with monuments, fountains, museums, vendors, and tourists from all over the world. In the gazebo, a symphonic band played for pedestrians who seemed to have no interest in their music. All of the benches were taken, so my buddy and I sat on the floor. We were in no hurry. As far as we were concerned, we were right where we needed to be. The stone roads of the town complemented the European-style government buildings, their beauty a scar from colonial days. Rich and poor living and working side by side, taco vendors next to sushi restaurants. Never before had I felt so much like a small-town
kid in a big city. Even though I have lived in much larger cities, there was a distinct feeling to Guadalajara. It was a big city where everyone spoke my mother tongue much better than I could. The feeling was a confused one of both belonging and being foreign.
Those first few days, I got around with ease, taking the bus everywhere and avoiding the overpriced taxis. On one bus ride, after a long day, my buddy and I were standing toward the back of the rocking bus when a drunk man began to give a speech about drug and
alcohol abuse. He gave us the addresses and contact information of several help centers. We speculated about his motives: maybe he was bored, maybe he was mocking the help centers, or maybe he had just relapsed and this was his cry for help. We didn’t get a chance to ask him, though, as his rant ended and we were distracted by a man and woman who jumped onto the bus from the rear exit.
“I didn’t know you could do that,” I told my buddy. “Sweet
deal not having to pay seven pesos for public
transport. I guess you don’t have to pay as long as
the driver doesn’t see you?”
The man and woman handed us two ten-peso coins and signaled for us to pass them forward. We wondered what they were doing – just giving money to the crowd? Or were they really expecting it to reach the driver? Even if the money reached the driver, I
couldn’t imagine how they would get their change back. Maybe getting on from the back just meant losing three pesos.
The drunk man began singing.
“Do you think the money is going to make it
back?” I asked my friend.
As we approached our stop, another passenger handed three pesos to my friend, indicating that they were for the man and woman who had gotten on through the exit.
Two different bus fares had made their way from the back of a crowded bus to the driver, who had made exact change and returned it to each of its rightful owners – all while driving, shifting, and navigating. My friend and I were the only ones amazed by
these two events.
A few days later, my cousin took me to eat tacos for breakfast. When the shop owner heard me talk, she asked where in the United States I was from, dealing a blow to what I thought was my authentic Mexican accent. This led to a polite conversation, in which I learned that her family had lived in San Francisco for seven years. When I asked her why she left, she told me that work in the United States was enslavement, but here, in Mexico, she was free. I asked my cousin how the woman had been able to tell that I was American, and she suggested that it had something to do with the way I pause before some words in order to think of the right one – a habit that is very common in English, but not Spanish, where the flow of a sentence is much more important. It was then that I realized that I wasn’t a zebra among a herd of horses, but a splash of red on a white canvas. I felt watched, like a tourist, which is precisely what I was but refused to see. I was a tourist with a special insight, though. I didn’t feel like La India Maria, “not from here and not from there.”
I felt like a Mexican-American. And now the hyphen reminded
me of the privilege that it is to live in two cultures, to
be both from here and from there.
First published in Tumbleweird Volume 3, Issue 6 June- 2018