Floating On The Border
My father was born in Xilitla, a speck near another speck in San Luis Potosi, Mexico. To hear him talk, Xilitla is heaven on earth. The women are lovely, the men are strong, and the children always well behaved. The food may seem simple, but it was always delicious, plentiful and filling. The monkeys that gathered above the terraces where my grandfather once dried coffee beans were friendly and, gosh—so witty! Even death was beautiful in Xilitla. When it came, it was painless and clean, and the subsequent assent into heaven—because everyone in Xilitla is good and honest—only required a few gentle pulses of angel wings. Xilitla was heaven and heaven was Xilitla, my father insisted. The differences were imperceptible.
Because I am my father’s daughter, I indulge him in his gossamer nostalgia. Like a kid stealing sips of rum and Coke at a Mexican wedding reception, I like the warm feelings it brings. It’s one of the few pleasures he has left. Parkinson’s disease ambushed him six years ago, ending his dream of building a house and retiring in Xilitla. He talks less about everything now, but mention Xilitla and his eyes come alive.
I was born and raised in Lincoln, Neb., long before Mexicans were as visible as they are now. When my father’s obligation to the U.S. Air Force ended, he and my mother decided to leave the citrus groves, palm trees and cacti of South Texas for the cottonwoods, prairie grass and four seasons of Nebraska. They thought it was exotic. Though I don’t “look Nebraskan,” I’m a Midwesterner. I’ve never been there, but I’m of Xilitla, too. I know this in the way you hear yourself in your grandmother’s laugh or see yourself in the curve of your cousin’s jaw, and because I have, as they say, el nopal en la frente. Literally, I have a cactus on my forehead. Figuratively, I couldn’t deny being Mexican if I tried.
A community of Huichol Indians lives in the mountains near where my father grew up. I’ve learned this not from my father, but from a painter who lives and works there now. The painter tells me how the Huichols emerge from the mountains on their holy days, the ghost of incense in the air.
When I ask my father about the Huichols, he frowns.
“The Indios? Oh, we had nothing to do with them.”
My parents met as teenage farm workers in 1950s South Texas. My father was newly arrived and thought my Brownsville-born mother was a worldly American. She’d already been as far north as Amarillo. I have one of those colorized photos of them as newlyweds. They look happy, their cheeks and lips tinted rosy and pink. Today it’s clear that, except for two children, they have nothing in common. Before Parkinson’s, my father conversed with anyone who cared to join him. For my mother, talk is an annoying necessity. She fades into the background at will, but cross her and she’ll stab you with a declaration that disarms you with its gall or makes you laugh at its absurdity. One of her most infamous comments was about my then-new boyfriend, a Mexican-American from California. Though they hadn’t met, she clearly didn’t approve of him. I wasn’t sure why, but got a clue when she asked,
“Does he beat you?”
“Does he beat you?”
“Are you sure?”
“I think I would know if someone were beating me.”
She had never asked this about my previous boyfriend, a sweet-but-dull man who was wrong for me. She liked him because of his “good” American surname: “Hendricks.”
I look like my father spit me out. We share the same slope of the nose and rich, brown skin. As a child, I took great pride in our shared features, knowing intuitively that they spoke to a larger kinship.
“So, Dad, you never saw the Huichols when you were growing up?” I pressed him another time. “You never talked to them?”
“Oh no. They were Indios. We’re pure Mexican.”
He previously had insisted we were “pure Spanish.”
“You know, there’s no such thing as ‘pure’ Mexican.”
“Well, we’re as pure as you can get,” he said.
On the phenotypic continuum, my father and I look more Indio than Spanish. So what does he see when he looks into the mirror?
The South Texas border is a concept made tangible by those in power. It’s an unavoidable way station for border-dwellers out to buy Pampers, a cheap drink, or check on relatives in el otro lado. Many Tejanos speak Spanish as well as English (I don’t). For them and other Latinos, the membranes between nations, languages and cultures are permeable. For me, the transition is labored. I’m of that generation of Mexican Americans in which parents chose to raise their children as monolingual English speakers to prove their allegiance to the flag. That the benefits of this decision fall short of the sacrifice is known only in retrospect.
Curious about the Huichols and their holy days, I tell my painter friend I would like to visit.
“Supuesto! Any time,” he says, and adds with a sad smile, “but you would confuse them. They would come up and speak to you, and when you wouldn’t understand, it would make no sense to them: you, with that face, not understanding their words.”
My indignation startles me. I try to ignore it, but it percolates.
I was taken to Mexico once when I was small. All I recall is one room, a dirt floor, a woman in shadow, and bleached sunlight from an open door near where she sat. Her humble surroundings contrasted with the offer of colorful Mexican candies so sweet they made me drool. People are often shocked when they learn I’ve never been back. The short answer is that I’ve never had the resources to make the extended, immersive trip I would like to make. The more complicated answer is that I’m afraid—not by the Mexico overrun by warring drug cartels, but something less rational.
“Golly, you’re so dramatic!” my mother often told me in her Tex-Mex accent. This was typically after I’d reacted with teenage angst to one of her declarations. Some days I was her china doll. She’d cup my face in her hands and stare into it as if she were making a wish. Mostly, as far as she was concerned, it was my misfortune to take after my father.
“You can thank your father for those thick legs,” she’d say, or, “You can thank your father for that muddy skin of yours.” She learned early the value of shielding her skin from the harsh South Texas sun. The lesson preserved more than her light complexion. It provided social mobility. Why she, a fiercely güera-identified Texan, would marry my dark-skinned, Mexican-born father was mystifying. Other simple questions among the many I had as a girl: What was South Texas like? Why did they decide to stay in Nebraska? Do we have family in Mexico? And my most burning question: Why don’t you speak Spanish to me?
“Do you know how complicated English is?” my father said. “I had to learn on my own. But you get to learn in school the right way.”
My mother was more direct about Spanish: “You have no use for it.”
When I told my parents that the Lincoln Public School System encouraged learning a second language, even my father was at a loss for words. I took Spanish classes every semester from junior high through college, but didn’t learn much. What Spanish I do have was gleaned from adult relatives at holiday gatherings. Like many pochos of my generation, I generally understand spoken Spanish, but can’t always respond. This is offensive to some Latinos and shocking to Anglos who think it’s shameful I don’t appreciate my culture. That these Anglos often speak Spanish as well as a Univision newscaster sharpens the twin pangs of frustration and loss. Maybe I’m just not good at languages. Maybe I am as hardheaded as my mother says.
At puberty, my social capital as the “cute little Mexican girl” disappeared. I began sensing the lingering gaze of men, while women seemed to be calculating in their heads: sexual maturity plus brownness equals danger. Desperate to understand how I came to be, I demanded information about my parents’ past. From my father, I heard more mythologizing. My mother ignored me. I was distressed. Wasn’t their past also mine?
When I told my mother I was moving to Texas to finish my bachelor’s degree, she surprised me by looking as though she were going to cry, something I’d only witnessed twice.
“Golly! You’re so dramatic!” I said.
“See there?” she spat. “That mouth will get you in all kinds of trouble! You talk too much. You talk too much there, and you’ll be sorry.”
When I mocked my mother’s reaction for my father, he sighed heavily.
“Be sure to take your papers with you. Your birth certificate. And take your driver’s license. Take your high school diploma, too. Carry them wherever you go.”
I stared at him blankly.
“That’s how it is over there. Be careful. Be nice.”
It was once public policy in South Texas to make sure Mexican-origin children did not attend public school past age 10. Corrupted attendance laws ensured that school districts still earned tax credits for these children. At the same time, child-labor laws were relaxed so these children could work the fields and do other manual labor. These policies were in effect during my parents’ childhoods.
Many years later, my mother admitted to being slapped across the face for speaking Spanish on the school playground. Reconciling this history of second-class citizenship with my own early childhood was disconcerting. My grade-school years in Lincoln weren’t bad. I loved them. After my first week of school, I presented my mother with a folder of class work.
“So, the teacher likes you?”
“Do you raise your hand in class?”
“I’m one of the smart kids.”
“You think so, eh?”
I nodded vigorously.
“I used to be smart, too,” she said.
The incredulous tone in my voice made her wince.
Finally, everything came clear in an unexpected way. One Austin summer, I caused a three-car fender-bender. The Anglo couple in the last car of the pileup leapt from their vintage, banana-cream Cadillac. He was in Ropers, jeans and a chambray shirt, and topped with a bone-white Resistol hat. She had a cloud of cotton-candy hair hovering over her long face. Cotton Candy demanded to know if I had a license and complained about whiplash. Resistol asked me if I had a job. Cotton Candy wondered aloud if I “even” had insurance. I bit my tongue until she started in with the: “If only you people …”
“Look, lady! This is difficult enough without you getting ugly about it!” I screamed in my Midwestern accent. Everything changed. Resistol told Cotton Candy to “git.” We exchanged insurance papers in starched silence. Convinced my documents were real, Resistol marched back to his car. The experience appalled me. When I got home, I called a friend.
“Are you all right?”
“I’m fine. It’s just … I never knew what it was like to be treated like …”
I hung up the phone and burst into tears. I realized what my parents would not cede, what my mother kept clenched in silence and my father drenched with syrupy jocularity. Scorched with anger, I carried the realization around for days, tortured at the thought of my parents being treated like dogs or worse. I understood why it took so long for white sales clerks in Austin shopping malls to wait on me—when they weren’t following my every move. I couldn’t help seeing everything through this new prism. Infected with a fever that wouldn’t break, I began to wonder: Can this kill me? If it doesn’t, what will it leave behind?
I learned to swim as an adult, forcing myself to take a class catering to “scaredy-cats.” When I finally synchronized breathing with strokes, I dared swim to the deep end. I’d start the lap, but just as the shallow end was behind me, I’d panic and flail. Terrified, I’d splash to the edge of the pool, gulping for air. It occurs to me I had a similar experience with my parents. I would wade toward them full of questions only they could answer, but they always shoved me back to the shore. I’m not as shocked by their parental, it’s-for-your-own-good response, as by the ferociousness of the wounds it left. They rise, from time to time, the way deep tissue bruises do: unexpected, ugly, slow to heal.
The first time I swam over the deep end of the pool, my heart pounded with fear. I kept at it. Then, there it was—the distant floor of the pool. For a moment my equilibrium was shaken by the sky-blue water beneath me, but before I could panic, I realized I was held aloft by my own power. Though suspended in water, I felt rooted and resilient, like the stubborn nopal. To recapture that moment, to be open to what I might learn in Mexico, is a constant craving.
I want Mexico to be mine. But I know that time, distance, and history have made me a stepchild to the nation I can only symbolically call home. As for Texas, I hate the summer heat, the non-existent fall, and the cold rains of winter. But I’m still here. It’s where I learned to throw gritos, perfected my swimming stroke, and learned about neplanteras from South Texas’ own Gloria Anzaldúa. She describes them as the seekers, poets and other locas capable of moving between worlds. Am I a neplantera? Pos’ quién sabe? My instincts tell me to keep practicing until I get the strokes just right.
Belinda Acosta currently lives in Austin and writes “TV Eye” for The Austin Chronicle.