Robert Joe Stout
You know better than any academic, any government official, any racist redneck, any suburban housewife why you’re in the United States and not in Mexico. You have money in your wallet—not enough but you’ve paid the rent, the kids have school clothes, you have meat almost every meal. You know which neighborhoods to be in, which to stay out of, to be visibly invisible driving to work, in the aisles of a supermarket, taking your kids to the beach. Marinas, luxury condominiums, houses with two garages, landscaped lawns and swimming pools exist only on advertising posters, in TV sitcoms. If either of your children mention them you shrug. Your world is avocados. Packing sheds. Conveyor belts. Playing the guitar.
Like you Patricia, your wife, knows why she is in the United States and not in Mexico. She was born here but her parents were not. She grew up afraid of anyone wearing a uniform. UPS deliverymen terrified her. Meter readers. Soldiers. The fear engendered defiance as a teenager then turned to fear again after your children were born. She carries a copy of her birth certificate in her purse.
Not that you don’t have papers. You know that your employers know that your papers aren’t valid but having them protects them although it doesn’t protect you. Not that you worry excessively. You know the limits and stay within them. Drive carefully. Don’t stick your nose into others business. Play the guitar for family affairs, Chicano parties. Stay out of nightclubs, stripper bars.
Stay grounded and it’s a good life. It wasn’t at first. You were one in a herd of people without names, without identities in a land whose identity excluded you. You were skin color, straight black hair, foreign language. Many in the herd around you were angry, choked with resentments. Many chose la otra puerta—crime, drugs, gangs. Many more didn’t. Because they were excluded they sifted together to create a counter exclusion, an island in the turbulent and antagonistic social ocean that surrounded them. An invisibly walled fortress within which Oaxaca was re-created, Honduras, Michoacan, Guatemala: familiar, comfortable.
Only much later did your second-grader point out, “That’s what the Pilgrims did.” The Pilgrims. The Irish. The Italians. The Poles. The Jews. Island after island. Changing the land around them as it changed them. Changing the identities they were born with.
Identity. Memories of Mexico run through your veins. Whatever happens in life you are what you were born into.
And Patricia? Your children?
“I’m American,” your second-grader insists.
“Mexican-American,” you argue.
“I feel just American,” she shrugs, the words just loud enough that you can hear.
You want her to have roots, belong. Yet you realize that in her way she does belong: She belongs to this ménage of Mexico/U.S.A, this island of exclusion whose borders the young have made into a teenaged land of shortcuts and slurs, Americanisms and Spanglish and twittero, FaceBook photos and cell phone jokes.
A ménage that you don’t—can’t—belong to. You are a thousand years of identity: It’s in your face, in your body, in your brain. But your second-grader, your five-year-old, see that they live in a suburb of a suburb that lacks permanence, parents that like the suburb lack permanence, religion that is peripheral, a now and then Sunday thing, culture defined by dollars and reinvented daily.
You tell them about your heritage but they don’t listen: not really. And in telling you realize that you’re not telling the truth. Or telling only a part of it because your heritage includes your father punching strips of goatskin to make new soles for his shoes, your grandmother’s two-toothed smile as she carries a gallon of masa two kilometers to her house from the mill, your baby sister a mother at fifteen. Your heritage is like the forests in Oaxaca: swept away, clear cut, eroded. It’s just you, alone. Alone in a life that you and those around you are trying to invent.
That’s why you’re here. You and your wife and children. The past a shadow. The future not yours to see.
ROBERT JOE STOUT is a freelance journalist and currently resides in Oaxaca, Mexico. His essays, fiction and poetry appear in a wide variety of commercial and literary magazines.