I arrived in this country as a child almost twenty-eight years ago. Our move was my mother’s long-awaited homecoming after twenty years of living in a foreign country, speaking a foreign language, and building a life with a man completely unlike herself. For me, and my older brother and older sister, all citizens of the United States born abroad by way of our mother’s citizenship, we were told we were also coming “home,” even if “home” was a country alien to us.
As the family of a Mexican immigrant father and an American mother, we settled in Laredo, a town on the U. S. side of the Mexico-Texas border. The city is not a quarter mile from Mexico, the countries separated by 1,050 feet of concrete that make up the Gateway to the Americas International Bridge. For the more than 400,000 people who make their way across it every month, the bridge is just that—a gateway north to “the land of opportunity,” a gateway south to shopping, tourist destinations, or home. But for me, that bridge feels like something more. For me, that stretch of rock and metal feels like life, like the space I inhabit day in and day out as I find myself caught between two worlds—the country of my birth on one side, the one I have come to call home on the other. A life lived somewhere between being Mexican and being American.
My father is Mexican, My mother is white
My father is Mexican, a mestizo—a word used to designate a person whose heritage includes both indigenous and Spanish ancestry. The term is part of a social class system dating back some 500 years to the Spanish colonization of Latin America. Most Mexican people are mestizos, a numerical majority but social minority even in Mexico. But in this country, he’s seen as little more than a stereotype: a short, brown man with a high school education working manual labor. It’s difficult to understand his English. Even on his best days he speaks with an accent thicker than his mustache.
My mother is white. She was born in Washington D. C., which I used to think made her somehow more American than most. My mother is above average height, even in the United States. At five foot nine, she’s five inches taller than my father. She didn’t get her father’s blue eyes. Instead, hers are a warm, hazel-green, which are only accentuated by her dark brown curly hair and the color of her skin—fair and rosy. She speaks perfect English, which is only rivaled by her impeccable Spanish, the natural consequence of having the good fortune of learning a second language early in life. When her parents moved to Mexico just after she graduated from high school, she moved with them. She came back to the States only briefly to complete her undergraduate studies at Peabody School for Teachers, now part of Vanderbilt University, before going back to Mexico and, eventually, marrying my father.
Being my mother’s daughter has its perks. Unlike my father’s, my English is almost flawless. I say almost because, even though I learned English at an early age, I never quite mastered vowels—English has thirteen distinct vowel sounds to Spanish’s five. And I say almost because my accent tends to make an appearance every now and then when I’m nervous—regardless of the language I’m speaking. And unlike my older brother and older sister, I wear my mother’s privilege on my skin, fair and rosy—even lighter than hers.
I wear my mother’s privilege on my skin, but
I wear my mother’s privilege on my skin, but it doesn’t make me American enough. It didn’t do anything to stop the drunken coed who approached me at a party to ask, “You’re Mexican, right?” When I responded that I was, he said, our mutual friend now standing beside him, “Are you going to have a lot of babies so you can collect welfare?” Words don’t often fail me. They did then.
I wear my mother’s privilege on my skin, but that didn’t stop the clerk at the local CVS from noticing my embroidered flowered top—typical of Mexican artistry and a gift from a recent trip my mother made to Guanajuato, Mexico—and offering that she liked tacos. I wear my mother’s privilege on my skin, but that didn’t make things better when, while at a dinner party, I was asked where I was from, and I responded the way all Mexican children are taught to answer that question: by naming the place of my birth. “I was born in Matamoros, Mexico.” I wasn’t prepared for the silence that followed, and before I realized what I was doing, I found myself offering an explanation that felt a lot more like a defense. “My father is Mexican, but my mother is white,” I said. “I’m an American citizen born abroad.” That should have been enough—more than enough, really, but it wasn’t. “My grandparents were missionaries in Mexico. That’s how my parents met,” I add. That seemed to satisfy my host and his guests. It was the first time I’d ever had to affirm my citizenship and my right to be in this country outside a border crossing.
I wear my mother’s privilege on my skin, but I find it’s not enough because I am not just my mother’s daughter. I am also my father’s daughter. I am white, but I am also Mexican, the product of mixed heritage—the new mestiza. I am indigenous and European. I am Spanish and I am Irish. I am Mexican and I am American. I have my mother’s fair and rosy skin but my father’s brow that telegraphs every emotion I feel—permanently branded by years of expressed passion. My father’s brow alters my white skin, infuses it with another identity. An identity I also embody. And this identity means I live in a country that is my own and yet it’s not. A country hospitable to my mother’s fair skin, but hostile to my father’s brown.
As I write this, the United States is more than two weeks into a government shutdown over what it will cost to erect a wall where, up to this point, there have been bridges. Every news media outlet is covering the story and with it, stories of caravans of immigrants heading north seeking life and opportunity and hope. This is not my story. Not really. I came to this country not as an immigrant—not technically—but as a citizen. My story is different. And yet, it’s not different. In a way, the story of every Latino is a part of me, because I am Latina.
Their stories are my story, because it was my father’s story—the story of an immigrant looking to make a better life for himself and for his family. And their stories are my story, because they follow me everywhere I go. I cannot escape them. They become my story every time someone finds out I was born in Mexico. And they become my story every time people look at me and realize there’s more to me than the color of my mother’s skin, every time they realize I embody something other than whiteness, and every time they realize I am not just American. I am Mexican-American, other-American. I am the winner of a genetic lottery—a fair-skinned Mexican. And I am the winner of a nationalistic lottery—the daughter of an American citizen. But I remain a kind of stranger in my own land, a foreigner amongst my own people. I am caught between two worlds, like a bridge suspended over international waters. I cannot escape their stories, but even if I could, I wouldn’t because this is not only what it means to be Latina, but this is also what it means to love one another, to be devoted to one another, and to bear one another’s burdens. And this is what it means to be in Christ.
I was reminded today that it was into a world rife with political and social issues that the gospel was given in order that one day all that is fragmented will be made whole and all that is broken will be set right. And I was reminded that there will come a day when every wall will be torn down and every border eradicated, and there I will be home at last. And that is true. But I was also reminded that the solution to what is fragmented and broken in this world is not awaiting the second coming. The solution arrived with the first coming.
In an act of unparalleled condescension, God stepped into our problem. God, in Christ, hitched himself to humanity for all eternity. Our mess became his mess. Our hurts became his hurts. And ultimately, our death became his death, so that we could have life. The solution was not escape, it was incarnation. And it is in the incarnation that we find the way to reconciliation, as we reflect the heart of God, hitching ourselves to one another. To hitch ourselves to one another is to take on one another’s burdens, as we seek to right the injustices of others as if they were our injustices and obliterate the oppression of others as if it was our oppression. And as we do so, we live even as Jesus taught us to pray, “Our Father, who is in heaven, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
Cover image by Joel Bader