The first time I ever went to Mexico City was September of 2011. I was in my first year of teaching, and had just graduated from CC. The Mexican Consulate in Colorado had nominated me to represent the region at a conference of Jovenes Mexicanos en el Exterior, or Young Mexicans abroad. The idea was that the Mexican Secretary of the Exterior (SRE) would bring together young Mexicans who were working to better the lives of migrants in the areas of education, health, politics, finances, or art. In this manner, you could not only build a network of young Mexicans, but also better inform them of the various services local consulates had to offer citizens abroad. By and large, the majority of us were Mexican Americans, maybe not born, but certainly bred in the U.S.-of-A. Other delegates were Mexican nationals who were living or studying abroad in places like Argentina, Brazil, the U.K, and Bosnia. Amidst the discussion of consular services, the unofficial theme of the conference among the Mexican-Americans was our cultural limbo. There is a poignant part of an otherwise wonderfully tacky Selena movie where Edward James Olmos says,
“Listen, being Mexican-American is tough. Anglos jump all over you if you don’t speak English perfectly. Mexicans jump all over you if you don’t speak Spanish perfectly. We gotta be twice as perfect as anybody else. I’m serious…We gotta know about Frank Sinatra and Agustín Lara. We gotta know about Oprah and Cristina. Anglo food is too bland. And yet when we go to Mexico, we get the runs. Now that, to me, is embarrassing. Japanese-Americans, Italian-Americans, German-Americans, their homeland is on the other side of the ocean. Ours … is right next door. Right over there. And we gotta prove to the Mexicans how Mexican we are. And we gotta prove to the Americans how American we are. We gotta be more Mexican than the Mexicans and more American than the Americans both at the same time. It’s exhausting.” (You can hear and see him yourself https://www.facebook.com/video/video.php?v=697533739840)
At the time, I remember feeling especially self-conscious about my Spanish in Mexico City. Who wants to sound like a pocha in front of government officials?! Not I, said the ni gringa, ni chilanga.
When I first started this blog, I acknowledged this limbo and had the hope that in Mexico City, I would not experience that feeling-of-neither-here-nor-there, ni de aquí, ni de allá. That as a Mexicana, I’d blend into society seamlessly, that no one would question my parentage, my ethnic background, and that I would feel as though Mexico was my home because I would finally be part of the majority group. I sought to understand, even quite desperately, what it was like to be a Mexican in Mexico.
I knew all too well what it was like to be a Mexican in the United States. A large part of that experience is precisely that aforementioned cultural limbo, including the pain that comes with being in between, or on the edge of two different cultures. The first time I came back to the United States from Mexico City, I confronted that pain as soon as my plane landed in Sky Habor International Airport in Phoenix.
I had just come back from the three day conference in Mexico City, elated by the people I had met, the chaos of Mexico City, the business men and women walking down Reforma, and feeling as though I had taken a wider step into the Mexican-side of the limbo, of the in-between, of the edge. It was a side I didn’t know as much. I was in this state of joy as I got off the plane, and even as I waited in-line at Immigration, another limbo. Customs and Immigration is the legal limbo (or really, political construction) in between leaving one country and entering another.
At that point, I had just left Mexico and was coming home. I had my layover in Phoenix, but would soon be on my way to Denver, mi casa. Signs told me I couldn’t immediately take out my phone and start checking-in or posting silly statuses on Facebook because there were no cell phones allowed. So instead I looked around me. I was in the line for American citizens and permanent residents. I saw people from my flight in line with me–mostly families coming back from the beach, or businessmen who were away for work. Only myself and the man in front of me stood out. We were neither tourists, nor businessmen. We were also not-white.
I thought nothing of it until one Immigration officer started making her rounds around the line reminding us all, in a flat-monotone voice, to “Please have your documents readily available to present.” I thought it was strange because the line was going super slow, and there were still about ten people in front of me, waiting to be called up to the Immigration officer. Nevertheless, I took my passport out of my bag and stared ahead. She passed by me, stared at me hard, located my passport with her eyes, and kept moving. Then she came back towards me, stopped at the man in front of me, and commanded him to “Sir, take out your documents now.” I looked ahead to see how close we were to the immigration officer, but we were nowhere near the front. The man looked shocked, and started digging into his carry-on, in search of his passport. The Immigration officer stamped her foot, and said, “Come on, sir, take your documents out now where I can see them. If you are in this line, you are not like your friends, you don’t have to hide anymore.”
I felt as though I had been punched in the gut. Her words may not seem like anything unusual, but her tone was unmistakeable. It was cold, it was sarcastic, and she meant he didn’t belong. What did she mean when she said “you don’t have to hide anymore,” or “you are not like your friends”? She assumed that surely the man must have been undocumented at one point, and that if he was not, surely, all of his brown friends were in this country illegally, with no documents, hiding from la migra, ICE, just like he was “hiding” his documents. The man just stared at her, pulled out his passport, and faced forward as the line moved a tiny bit forward.
I’d like to say that at that point, I stamped my foot and asked her very loudly what she meant by telling him he didn’t have to “hide” anymore, and what she was implying about his “friends.” I’d like to say that I pointedly asked her why she was harassing the man in front of me, if he wasn’t anywhere near the front of the queue. I’d like to say that I asked to speak to her supervisor and filed a complaint. But I didn’t. I stared in silence, just like the man in front of me.
At that moment, just coming back from Mexico City, I was reminded that I was not always readily accepted by as American. And neither are people who look like me, and speak the language I speak.
The second time I went to Mexico City was on August 19, 2013. I had packed the night before, and had discovered I was twenty pounds overweight in both of my giant suitcases. As punishment, I had to pay $130, buy another suitcase, move excess baggage into the new one, and then pay to check that third piece of luggage. For the first time in my life I cursed the number of dresses and shoes I own–maybe I do have too many…I arrived in Houston and met this talkative chica, Wendy, who was another Fulbrighter. Also another Mexican American, another ni gringa ni chilanga. This girl’s confidence and attitude had moved her up to first class (or maybe Economy plus?) in her previous flight from Los Angeles. She was also leaving her last year of Teach for America. Esa Wendy also chose to go to Mexico to explore her parent’s country. So much so, she would even be living with her extended family in Aguascalientes.
This time, in Mexico City, I was not around other Mexican-Americans for a mere three days. I was to be around some gringo Fulbrighters and the 25 million who make up the Distrito Federal for the next year of my life. I spent that year teaching, learning, traveling, connecting with a few of those 25 million people, and contemplating my identity and experience in Mexico.
I taught English, American customs like Thanksgiving and Hip Hop as social resistance, pedagogical principles like Expect 100% Attention, 100% of the Time, how teachers can empower their students to use their education to achieve social change in the rural communities of Puebla, and that “bitch don’t kill my vibe,” is the equivalent of “no mates mi vibra.” I taught backwards-planning and multiculturalism in the U.S. public school system. I taught the wonders of debate as a way to learn English, as a rhetorical art-form, professional tool, intellectual game, and exercise in critical thinking. I taught U.S. imperialism then-and-now, and let’s talk about it, but cuidadito if you blame all the world’s woes on the red, white, and blue, because we don’t do it alone, and yeah, you may hate us, or love us, but it’s still an obsession (Gracias, M.I.A).
I learned about Mexican history, like the fathers of the Mexican revolution (that was not really a revolution according to Rius and everyone else), about afters (the bars you go to after the clubs close), The PRI, architecture and design, and the Greats who used murals to teach illiterate Mexicans, about Vasconcelos at UNAM, about how green salsa is spicier than red salsa (unless it’s the orange one, because that means it’s made from habaneros!), that you should always look both ways before you cross the street, that meeting at 5:00 really means 5:30, that chilangos openly engage in public displays of affection with their significant other all the time in public, that propriety requires you to kiss everyone on the cheek (except for that one time my student got way too close to my mouth), that comida corrida is the best thing that has ever existed for a mere 50 pesos, that chronic diarrhea is normal (just take a Treda and a suero), that the waves are more gentle in bays than in mar abierto, that iguana mole is a thing, that Victoria is always better than Corona (and a tie between Bohemia and Leon), and that you can wander DF and learn about it’s history by seeing the ruins of a pyramid, Spanish colonial homes and cathedrals, and refurbished and dilapidated art deco buildings all in the same historic city center with a guapo urbanista as your guide.
I traveled to the turquoise shores of Tulum, to the periwinkle sky of Cozumel, to the disparate dusty desert of Tierra Caliente, to south of Morelos and into a river full of little fish who nip at your skin. I traveled to the top of the pyramids of the Mexica, the Miztec, the Zapotec, the Chichimeca, of those who lived in Caxactla, to the ones whose names I forgot at Tepotzlan. I traveled to the churches built on top of, next to, and behind those pyramids, gilded with the gold of those who were forced to into labor and Christianity. I traveled to the homes of my friends whose parents treated me as one of their own, and encouraged me to eat everything on the table, because estas en tu casa. I traveled to the lakes at Patzcuaro, with the skulls, and the yellow light, and the marigolds that those in India also put on their dead in the Ganges River. I traveled to the north of the DF to the Tepeyac of the virgencita, to the Condesa near the city center, to my home in the south where I might as well be in Cuernavaca. I traveled on the train ligero, on the Metro, on the MetroBus, on the pesero, and by foot. I traveled one last time to Michoacán on the Tuesday before I left, where it meets the state of Mexico and there are blue walls with white trimmed windows and corundas and pink cathedrals, and lots and lots of rain, but who cares because we sat there next to each other laughing. And before that I had traveled to my family’s home in Michoacán, where I smelled the burned trash, heard whispers of the narcos and the did-you-hear-who-was-found-dead by-the-side-of-the-road, where I got on a horse named Hidalgo and trotted down to a waterfall, drank the best coffee there is (from Uruapan), coffee that looks like mud and is called–La Lucha, The Struggle.
I connected with the two Venezolanas who made arepas and those plantane patties, the lady from my favorite Tlacoyo stand, the two best amigos who took me to Cuernavaca and cried before I left, the students who told me about their kids, their families, and about their ex-boyfriends who they hate. I connected with the people who said provecho before I ate, who said salud after I sneezed, who said con perimiso as they walked by, and gracias when they sat in my seat on the bus. I connected with those who called me maestra, señorita, greñuda, chica, morenita, Angelita, chinita, Chicana, pocha (oh-no-you-didn’t), and guerita even though I’m brown. I connected with the ladies on the women-only vagon on the Metrobus, with the boy who I beat at Jenga at the coffee shop near the Francia stop on Insurgentes. I connected with those smart kids like esa Amy who gave up her Friday nights to work at shelters full of Central Americans making their way North, with esa Ellen who runs circles past everyone and their mother like a gazelle, with esa Liz from D.C. who pushes you to think beyond your limits, with esa Claire who knows hip hop trivia and feminism, with ese Col-ton, the real guerito whose southern drawl makes all the boys come to the yard, with the freckled Bay-area Britt who doesn’t care if the embassy says she can’t go there (because she goes anyway), with the real British girl esa Isabella who tells you pants are really underwear, with esa Meredith, the too-cool teacher who sews aprons on a vintage Brother sewing machine, with esa Allie who saves dogs from the streets, with ese Johnny who sits in cafes with you, ese Juan aka Wan who will make you seem like you know how to salsa with ease, with esa Samantha and her story of the conquest on the back of the bus, with esa Mariah who says her last name is Nah-pol-ehs not Nape-lll-s (get it right), with ese Robert who jumps through waves with you in Oaxaca and explains the theory of language (you still don’t get), and with esa Wendy who says she is definitely a gringa grown in Commerce-East-Los-Angeles.
I contemplated my identity on the bus, as I saw the Mexicanas in their heels and felt the (sometimes) silent stares of the men. I contemplated my identity when I saw my prima dance with her new husband at her wedding, when I took my parents to Puebla and we ate the best mole in the world (especially the pipian), and when my brother and I painted our faces like catrinas on the Dia de los Muertos. I contemplated my identity on this very blog. I thought I was neither gringa nor chilanga, but really I am both.
The last time I came back home to mi casa en Denver from Mexico City was on June 1st, 2014. I flew in the aisle seat like always (the window makes me feel claustrophobic, and the middle suffocates me), only paid $40 to check a second bag (no overage fees), and landed in Houston for my layover (no Phoenix, thank goodness). Houston had automatic machines that scanned my passport in place of an Immigration officer, and in customs the friendly man said “Oh you’ve been living in Mexico City and now you’re back? How was that? Oh great. Well, we are happy to have you back. Welcome Home.”
I’ve been in the United States for 25 days and I am still in limbo. When the waiter brought my thai food (YESSSS I GET TO EAT DRUNKEN NOODLES AGAIN), I said “muchas gracias,” and he stared at me weird, and Millie laughed. I speak Spanglish to my parents, but now they don’t mind so-much. One day I cheer for Mexico against Brazil, and the next day I root for the USA against Ghana in the World Cup. I only use my car when I go visit my family in the suburbs, because I miss the miles I walked and thought in the streets of Mexico City (it’s two miles/one hour to work and my new hippie deodorant with no aluminum doesn’t really work). I get upset when I sneeze and no one says bless you or salud in the vicinity. I don’t get money until this Friday, so I’ve been putting everything on my credit the American way. I eat tostadas at my parents house and have already had bacon cheeseburgers (and even an elk burger) on multiple occasions (probably again tomorrow with Lucille and Megan). I listen to NPR as I get dressed and read Proceso and Noticias MVS and CNN Mexico at work. I notice art deco buildings in Denver when I walk, and think about the history of the Mile High City, just like I did in the D.F. My old 720 number now belongs to a woman named Cheryl, my Movistar +52 Mexico +55 DF SIM card is somewhere on my desk, and now I have a new 303 number where I still whatsapp the people who I love in DF. I am doing work I like, with people who I admire, and dance to hip hop with Millie, and live with Megan (my roommate forever) again and a new friend named Cora with-a- flute in a little house with a ghost in the attic (or in my room?). In the fall I don’t know where I’ll be or what I will do.
But I’m 25 and feliz. A gringo who knows nothing about me messaged me saying “Hey there Chilanga” and I loved it. Now I know I’m both. One foot in Mexico, and the other in the States.