After spending years hanging around commies as research for her book Around the Bloc: My Life in Moscow, Beijing, and Havana native Texan Stephanie Elizondo Griest decided it was about darn time to explore her Mexican roots. Like so many other of us poor suckers, she headed down to Mexilandia and the result was her latest book, Mexican Enough: My Life Between the Borderlines. I spoke with Stephanie over the holidays and found out that I’m not the only one who’s accepted the fact that I’ll never loose my pocha accent and that no many how many narco corridos I memorize, I’ll always bleed gabacha blood.
Chilangabacha:What was the most shocking or impressive thing you found about how identity is viewed in Mexico?
Stephanie:I’ve always had hang-ups about being a “bad Mexican.” Even though I grew up 150 miles away from the Mexico border and much of my mother’s family speaks only Spanish, I never learned the language or culture—perhaps because I was so hell-bent on escaping South Texas. In college, I studied Russian and Mandarin and then jetted off on a four-year jaunt across the Communist Bloc (the adventures of which inspired my first book, “Around the Bloc: My Life in Moscow, Beijing, and Havana”). While traveling in those nations, I was struck by how fervently Stalin and Mao tried to destroy centuries of religion, tradition, and ritual by forcing their citizens to conform to socialist culture. Yet hundreds of thousands of people defied them. During the Soviet regime, for example, countless East Europeans risked banishment to the Gulag by illegally distributing newspapers printed in their native tongues. Even today in China, Muslim Uighurs and Buddhist Tibetans gamble with imprisonment by practicing their faith.
All of this made me reflect on how, in the United States, those of us who haven’t needed to fight for our culture have often deserted it. I, for one, had totally abandoned my own Mexican heritage. Gradually, I realized the need to turn inward. So, on Dec. 31, 2004, I quit my day job, put my stuff in storage and flew to Mexico City, hoping that an extended stay there would somehow “Mexify” me.
After eight months of crisscrossing the nation, however, I realized that I will never be truly Mexican, not even if I moved there for the rest of my life and acquired the requisite customs and traditions. Because what binds a people are their bedtime stories. The songs they sing on road trips. Political and historical events. Fads and crazes. Shared memories. Not skills that can be acquired, like language. Which isn’t to suggest that my pursuit was a worthless endeavor. I am proud that I can finally speak the language of my ancestors, and that I intimately know the lay of their land. Yet there is no point striving for an unobtainable state of being.
What impressed me most about Mexicans is how deeply they treasure their mestizo heritage, their blending of bloods. I realized that I should too, for there is a history, culture, and identity on either side of my heritage. In fact, the schizophrenia of being biracial, of straddling two worlds but belonging to neither, probably gives me a deeper understanding of what it means to be Mexican than anything else.
Chilangabacha:You mentioned in your first chapter that the notion of Mexico was terrifying for you at first because of the stories you heard growing up in south Texas. Was there a turning point in which this perception changed?
Stephanie:Aye, it’s true! South Texans are totally afraid of Mexico. And no wonder: practically every week, the media covers another shoot-out in Nuevo Laredo or unsolved femicide in Ciudad Juarez. Newspaper headlines warn of narco-traffickers in every cantina (and explosive diarrhea from every comedor). I might be a seasoned traveler, but I really worried about going there alone.
I discovered, however, that the “danger zones” are generally limited to the border towns (which many Mexicans fear as well) and parts of Mexico City. Much of the rest of the nation is tranquilo. Moreover, the landscapes are stunning, the food is fantastic, the music is hip-swiveling and fun. And the people tell the wildest stories you’ve ever heard. I spent some time with Mayan Indians in Chiapas, and although many of them could not read, they could all recite legends originally written in codices that got destroyed by Spanish conquistadores 500 years ago. Sit with them long enough, and you’ll start to hear cuentos about the Hurricane Woman and the Butterfly Man.
Of the 30-plus countries I have explored, Mexico is hands-down my favorite. And I have yet to set foot on its beaches! The real pulse of this nation beats in the interior – the jungles, the mountains, the desert. And above all, in its vibrant people.
Chilangabacha:Did you ever find yourself explaining your whole family tree when you met new people?
Stephanie:I sure did, and guess what happened: I met some primos!
Chilangabacha:How did your time in Mexico affect they way you interact with your Mexican relatives, friends and readers?
My time in Mexico gave me a deeper intimacy of my people, my family, and ultimately of myself. So it completely revolutionized my interactions with people. No longer are my interactions limited to “Dónde está el baño?” Now, I can tell my tías a funny story, soothe a frightened child, philosophize, sing, pray. I can call myself a Chicana in any crowd — and believe it.
Chilangabacha:I find that I oftentimes confuse people because I’m neither fully white nor fully Mexican. In your experience, what’s the perception Mexican Americans in Mexico?
Stephanie:The year I traveled across Mexico, I was 30, single, childless, jobless, and essentially homeless. Nothing screams “GRINGA” louder than that. Mexicans just live an entirely different reality. In an effort to better connect with people, I tried introducing myself as a Chicana. But that just made them laugh. We’re as foreign as any other gringo. Still, people seemed to appreciate that I didn’t come to Mexico to sip tequila on a beach. They are extremely proud of their culture and eager to share it. At the same time, being perceived as a “wealthy foreigner” granted me passage into places completely inaccessible to most Mexicans. I harbored a lot of guilt about this, especially considering how badly Mexicans can be treated when they visit the United States. I often found
myself trying to fight a system that benefited me.
Chilangabacha: What advice would you have for other Mexican Americans considering a journey to the motherland in search of answers?
Stephanie:Just do it! Take to Madre Camino. She is one of the most formative teachers around. She will push you to your physical, spiritual, and psychological limits — then nudge you one step further. She will teach you to be self-reliant and self-sufficient, which will in turn make you self-confident. And everyone out there should travel to their motherland at some point, to learn from the roots that grow within. Even if you can’t find a living family member, you can ask around for the local historian (or oldest living resident) to see if they know your family name. Request relevant birth, marriage, or death certificates at the equivalent of the county clerk’s office; make rubbings of tombstones engraved with your family name at the local cemetery; fill a jar with earth. If nothing else, you’ll leave with the satisfaction that you witnessed the same sunset as your ancestors. That your boots collected the same dust.