When I was 18, I joined the Mexican American Culture Committee (MACC) at UT Austin. I wanted to figure out how to be a better Mexican American, someone who was in touch with his culture and cultural history. I also chose Mexican American Studies as my minor and for the same reasons. I am Mexican American, but I often struggle to figure out what that means. Yes, even now the question can quickly become mind-boggling.
As a kid, whenever I had a question, I always knew where to turn: books. You could learn anything from a book. And, while there are several pieces of literature about Mexican Americans, very few of these pieces are about people like me. Classic Chicano literature includes titles like “Dreaming in Cuban,” “How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents,” “The Circuit,” and “With His Pistol in His Hand.” These stories are incredible and masterfully rendered, but their stories are essentially the same: either discussing the plight of immigration or the generational struggles between the migrating parents and their American-born children. Certainly, this is an important topic and still relevant today with the various migrations taking place.
Yet, though the characters are brown and may look like me, their stories are not mine. As far as I know, there’s maybe one or two stories about third or fourth generation Mexican Americans and virtually nothing about fifth or sixth generations. There’s nothing about the families that lived in Texas when it was still Mexico (“the border crossed us”), or about the persecution and disenfranchisement of these families despite the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo (created to protect those very families).
I had to find my own answers to what being Mexican American means. My family has always casually blended the American with the Mexican or the Tejano. My grandmother is as likely to sing along with Elvis or the Beatles as she is to a mariachi band. My mother has a playlist of Madonna and Thalia. We’re as likely to have tamales at Thanksgiving as turkey or green bean casserole. We hung up flags of the U.S., Texas, and Guatemala in the house.
Being Mexican American involves blending cultures, blurring boundaries.
There’s an expectation that other Mexican Americans have of you, though. I’m hopelessly monolingual, but there are other things I’m judged for: my distaste for tamales and menudo; my pure, white-hot hatred of bachata; and my inability to dance. Actually, I can dance okay if the music is right, but being Mexican American in Texas usually means putting on a performance for someone. Other Latino kids judged and critiqued the way I danced and ate food (yes! The way I ate!), my aunt is consistently telling me that I’ll “acquire a taste” for menudo (which won’t happen until they can make it without that damn hominy), and people also expect me to understand the cultural connotations of “la chancla” (my mother never spanked me, so I missed out on that).
So, what does being Mexican American mean? It’s not really a question that can be answered in words, but in moments: dancing at your sister’s fifteenth birthday party; smiling as your dad cheers on the Dallas Cowboys; enduring a two-hour drive listening to merengue because you forgot your headphones; your grandmother slipping into Spanish to tell a story even though you don’t speak it; watching your cousins grow from toddlers to teenagers; laughing as you sneak another tortilla from the rising stack by the stove.
These moments are what form my heritage. They’re how I came to realize that the answer to my question isn’t outside myself or inside myself, but is myself. We are products of our cultures and heritages, the most recent chapters in a long history. Being Mexican American is less an act of being and more an act of becoming.
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