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Who Are We?

Sandra Cisneros was in San Antonio last week, back from The White House after receiving  the National Medal of Arts, to speak and read from her new book of essays, A House of My Own.  As always, she was warm, funny, articulate, and very serious about her causes and concerns. Ever an advocate for women’s rights and Chicano culture, she is now engaged  in a cause célèbre against the phobias dividing our nation, especially what she calls Mexiphobia.

Her early bestseller, The House on Mango Street, (1984) has been translated into over 20 languages worldwide and is taught in almost every junior/high school in the country, even in college. Her stories of a girl in a Chicano neighborhood allow youngsters to see themselves and to identify with their culture, but the book has remained popular and relevant for more than 30 years because it deals with larger issues facing people everywhere, in every culture: race, class, gender, power, and poverty. When I met Cisneros the other night, I told her I had taught her work and had found it infinitely “teachable” on several levels. She gave me a big hug and said, “Thank you for your service to our young people.” I came away teary-eyed.

Like so many Americans whose ancestors immigrated here (or were indigenous) generations ago, I don’t especially identify with my English, Irish, German, French, Swedish, or Cherokee roots. Other than the fact that I speak English and am blond-haired and blue-eyed, I wouldn’t be readily placed in any one of these groups — except when I’m in Sweden, where almost everybody looks like me.

No, I am simply an American, with all the mixed ancestry and assimilated tastes that implies. My cultural identity is not formed by my family’s ethnic roots, but by the milieus in which I have lived and worked.  As the famous line from “Ulysses” states, “I am a part of all that I have met.” Indeed, how could it be otherwise in a land that is as vast and as diverse as America?

Having grown up in Southwest Texas, I describe my cultural background as Tex-Mex. We lived with my grandmother in an old farmhouse with a big wrap-around porch that stood on the last couple remaining acres of what had once been her family’s sizable ranch. It was in the oldest section of town known  as “Dutch Lane,” not because any Dutch ever lived there, but because the Germans who settled that area in the 1840s were referred to (erroneously) as Dutchmen. My mother was raised in that house and our family had been on the land for five generations.

Many of our neighbors were the descendants of people who had worked that ranch, mostly Mexicans who had lived there forever or who, over time, had left and then returned to establish new homes and businesses.  Needless to say, everyone knew us and we knew them. My grandmother spoke fluent Spanish, as well as German,  and  I was accustomed to hearing her engage in conversations with passers-by. Thus, I picked up the sounds, the rhythms, and the common vocabulary of Spanish. On warm summer nights, música norteña  floated through the air; on Saturday mornings, I was sent down the street to buy freshly-made corn tortillas.  We never ate wienerschnitzel or sauerbraten at my house, but we had enchiladas or tamales several times a week!

Hand-tooled leather, hammered silver, wrought-iron gates, tin ceilings, papel picados, cascarones,  pequeño peppers, cumbia dancing, tres leches cakes, La Semana Sancta, lace mantillas (which I wore instead of a wedding veil) — these are the familiars of my background. The sights, the sounds, the colors, the tastes, the duende of who I am are largely Mexican in origin, though I am not, in fact, of Mexican descent.

Now before somebody gets all “cultural appropriation” on me, let me suggest that the notion of America as a melting pot presumes that centuries of immigration will, if successful, produce a blended family of citizens who hold basic principles in common, while preserving and sharing the best of their own heritage and traditions with each other. That we are no longer a homogeneous society in terms of national origins seems,  to me, a positive sign that our grand experiment in democracy is  working — sometimes overtime, but working nonetheless. The key to success is remembering the “we.”

Sandra Cisneros has taken to wearing huipiles as a statement of her pride and identity as a Mexican American of las Americas, North and South; ironically, she has moved from San Antonio to an American ex-pat community in Mexico. And I find myself back in South Texas after decades in the Northeast, where I formed new tastes, new attitudes, and new traditions that now have to be reincorporated into my current Tex-Mex life.  If that’s appropriation, then so be it; I call it being American.

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