Growing up third or fourth generation Mexican American in Southern California is as usual an occurrence as 70-degree winters, Santa Ana winds and scorching summer fires. It’s an ethnic identity so common that it doesn’t feel like an identity at all. Spanish streets, cities and surnames are as omnipresent as we are, and yet my mixed ethnicity followed and shaped my childhood. My father’s attitude toward day laborers standing pensively on suburban street corners to his overly respectful interactions with policemen, gave me a sympathy and wariness I subconsciously internalized. Moving away—to the midwest, abroad, down south, back east—this identity faded as quickly and unexpectedly as childhood.
With so much Native American mixed into my father’s heritage, and too much English blood in my mother’s, elsewhere I was Russian, German or Spanish, and it’s been a long time now since was anything but Caucasian. I still vividly remember the day, living in the south of France, when a Mexican woman with a little boy looked at me across the aisle of a supermarché and knowingly said, “chicana.” Like a familiar greeting, the word elicited waves of homesickness. I’ve always dreamed of going to Mexico, of seeing cities that sounded so mystical and remote, yet lay just beyond the border: Baja California, Guadalajara, Oaxaca, Ixtapa. I wanted to visit a country and a culture both stereotyped and celebrated out west. Decades later, flying into Mexico City for the first time, I wondered if I would have an affinity with the people I found there.
Mexico City, gloriously empty over the holidays, is an intriguing mix of beautiful neighborhoods, expansive parks, eclectic markets and bouts of crime that leave the locals a bit wary. Street culture is everywhere, like pop-ups taking over in the midst of a city full of statuesque and European architecture. Claustrophobic subways, buskers, tiny taco stands and trucks selling produce with loudspeakers permeate the city. The fashions are strange, their crafts are exquisite, general unrest is palpable and the tequila is deceptively strong. However little I understood them, linguistically or otherwise, I wondered most about the people. Immigrants are worlds apart, it seems, from those who stay home. Living in the east, having grown up west, it’s a feeling I can understand, and after all my fading identity it turns out I am only Mexican in California.
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