When I think of my abuela, I think of her as a walking gardenia. My grandmother had short, silk-white hair, and would spray gardenia perfume in it as she combed it. She used gardenia soap and lily talcum powder on her clothes. She would wear a rose cardigan with a dusk blouse, wrapped in a thick hibiscus scarf. “Every woman looks most beautiful in different shades of the same color,” she’d often tell me.
“Your mom raised you to be American, which I think was a good thing in many ways. But you were always rebellious and spent a lot of time with your abby, and you wanted to know about your other side,” says my aunt. My aunt, like my mom, is from Mexico City. She has a strong mind of her own, and never lost her Mexican identity. “Abby” was my nickname for my grandmother, a fusion of the Spanish word for grandmother, abuela, and the American fashion of shortening a woman’s name and adding a y at the end to indicate closeness.
My grandmother was always good at casting spells. When she told me stories about Mexico, it was as if I was there—from the beautiful ranch where she grew up in the colonial town of Dolores Hidalgo, with its sprawling lemon trees and bright, painted houses, to the markets of Coyoacán in Mexico City, where she enjoyed the fresh, pink equator juiciness of guanábana ice cream. She told me that, growing up, she wanted to be a politician, but back in the 1950s middle-class women didn’t go to college to get jobs but to become more attractive wives. So she studied oration and painting. When she recited poems to me from memory, I could almost taste the oceans and skies she described.
She also taught me how to speak through cooking. For her, cooking was an art; nothing was ever ordinary. Her albóndigas, or Spanish meatballs, had hints of saffron and fresh tomato picada. Her hot cakes were vanilla and buttery and melted under your fork. And she was a great experimenter. On her little TV she would watch Yan Can Cook or Jacques Pépin and decide to make sweet and sour pork or linguine in clam sauce, and we’d visit the Chinese markets of the Richmond district or the Mexican markets of the Mission in San Francisco before she cooked and served my family a feast.
From her, I would often hear about little snapshots of our family’s life in Mexico. How my grandfather was an architect and built modern churches, and would sometimes bullfight. About how my aunt studied ballet as a little girl, and at one point my mother wanted to be a schoolteacher. About books, and art, and theater that she loved, and what it was like to sit inches away from some of the best stage actors in Mexico.
The Mexico my grandmother described was one I always wanted to see for myself. I wanted to know where my family was from. How busy were the streets? Could you feel all thirty million people like a heartbeat? For years, the only Mexico I had was the one in my imagination, the one my grandmother spoke of.
My mother didn’t want me to have an accent, so she didn’t speak Spanish to me in the home. She wanted me to embrace my father’s white culture. And in some ways, I did—but, like my dad, I also grew up despising mainstream culture and all things popular; all things I knew I wasn’t.
Years before I was born, my dad was a prog-rock musician, and so the house was filled with thousands of records and CDs. My father would play the French avant-garde composer Albert Marcoeur, who rambled strange rhymes against harps and clarinets with whispering women’s voices in the background. Or, if he was in a mischievous mood and wanted my pet cockatoo to start improvising jazz squawking solos, he’d play Sun Ra, and our house would turn into a den of horns, strong bass, Afro-futurist poetry, and bird songs. As a kid, I would watch the videos on MTV and think: This isn’t for me. It would take me years to find music that reflected my own taste.
Growing up I wasn’t blonde, I wasn’t skinny, I wasn’t rich or carefree. And the white girls I saw on television shows never dared to show their smarts—they went with the flow; they smiled at boys; they were always popular. Their ability to blend in made me want to scream. I had thick eyebrows and curly hair that my mother would fiercely brush until it was “wavy,” as if she could brush all the Mexican out of me. Then, at the age of eleven, my hips were too big to fit in “junior” clothes, and I started going to the shops frequented by Latinas just so I could find some goddamn pants. I remember the kids at school calling these shops “hoochie” and “ghetto,” and while they disparaged what they did not know, it was in those shops where I could breathe, where I could find something that would fit.
Speaking Spanish and learning about Mexico was for behind closed doors, and only when I visited my grandmother. She introduced me to Thalia, and to Selena, and to women who were proud of being Mexican. Sometimes I wondered if women like this existed in the America I knew, or if living in the United States you just became a shell of a Mexican, an imitation of a gringa.
I held onto my tapes of Mexican singers and Spanish songs, and listened to them alone at night. When my white girlfriends shared their crushes on the Backstreet Boys or N’Sync, giggling over who was cuter, Justin or Nick, I’d think: A boy like that would never look at me. I’d be invisible to him. Or, he would not look at me as a person— I knew about the male gaze, being sexualized, the ways boys described what they wanted to do to Salma Hayek. They talked like any curvy Mexican woman was really just a dog in a dress, waiting to be owned. Their gazes often scared me.
I retreated from that inhospitable reality into imaginary worlds. I got into punk, and when I came across Suicidal Tendencies and the Casualties and I first saw images of Chicana punk girls in Los Angeles, I thought: These girls are powerful. These girls are beautiful. I started wearing my hair curly and attending MECha (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan) meetings, and I thought: I will create a home for myself, even if it doesn’t already exist.
At the age of thirty, after years of covering music of resistance by Latinx artists as a journalist, I finally got the opportunity to write about the alternative rock scene in Mexico City during Día de Los Muertos.
The afternoon I arrived, I hadn’t eaten anything in eight hours. My cab driver was passing crumbling Mexican ruins that my grandmother had talked to me about—which I saw alongside the young men zig-zagging through cars on bicycles, selling batteries in the street, while their wives carried children on their backs and asked if anyone wanted a bottle of water. Abby had told me about this too, and about the unbearable poverty that would perseguirte en todos lados: follow you without escape.
But that was not all I saw. There were the puestos serving tortas steaming with cochinita pibil and crispy, vinegary onions—a dish that no one made as well as my abby, and that I hungered for, just like I hungered for her. As we were stuck in traffic, I saw a panadería that had a sign for “pan de muertos” and I just couldn’t take it anymore. “Señor, por favor pare, necesito salir por un momento.” He pulled over and I ran toward the panadería.
There were hundreds of sweet breads I had never seen before. Mexican pastries are maligned as dry, hard, and one-note in the US, but in Mexico, at the right panadería, they’re light and fluffy and buttery and beautiful. I walked around the shop several times before I could decide what I wanted. Finally I picked four pastries, one of which was shaped like a croissant football, covered in sugar and stuffed with nata, fresh cream, bigger than a burger. When I got back into the car, I devoured the entire pastry in under two minutes. Butter was all over my face, sugar covered my jacket, and I started laughing like a little girl left home alone who ate brownies and ice cream for breakfast and enjoyed every bite.
Your eyes are bigger than your stomach , my grandmother used to tell me.
In that moment, my stomach was just as big as my craving for all things I could see and experience in Mexico: bottomless.
But Mexico City is not one big sugary dream. I learned this repeatedly, especially on my trip to Xochimilco. Xochimilco has been described by Mexicans with great pride; it’s one of the last remaining pieces of Aztec history. When riding along the canals outside of Mexico City on a trajinera, past floating gardens and surrounded by mariachis and families celebrating their birthdays, you’re supposed to feel special. Perhaps that is all you would feel, if you saw only what you wanted to see.
The older man who rowed our trajinera used a thick wooden pole to steer what looked like an oversized, flamboyant canoe the colors of a super-bloom, which could fit fifteen people on it. I felt guilty for making this poor man work in his old age. I remembered my grandmother taking care of rich people’s children at her daycare into her seventies. I remembered how little those people cared for her, for the children like me that she had to leave behind to pay her bills. I remembered my bitterness and anger toward those children, and how I used to want to ask them: Why is it okay for you to take my abby away from me?
The man told us stories of the brujas that lived in Xochimilco. If you ridiculed las brujas, he said, or doubted their existence, you would be cursed. I didn’t ridicule the brujas. I felt like one of them, a curse to this poor man’s memory and his existence. I eyed the filthy water and the vendors calling out “amigo, amigo” to us and the stray dogs that wandered through the town, and I felt like we were rowing down the river Styx, trapped between poverty and privilege, oblivion and death.
Often, when I took in something particularly spectacular in Mexico City, I was overwhelmed by these feelings of loss and injustice. When I walked inside of Polyforum Cultural Siqueiros, the three-dimensional mural by the communist and former Franco prisoner and artist, I finally understood why you have no business creating art unless you’ve experienced pain. The mural was Mexico’s pain—long years of colonialism and slavery—being burned and turning tortured history into a work of art. Why hadn’t I seen or heard anything about this work before coming to Mexico? I wondered. Tears kept pushing up, but I wouldn’t let myself cry. I felt like it was my fault. Ignorance of culture when you have greater means is your choice.
I was guilty.
American writers have often made themselves either the heroes or the victims when writing about Mexico. When covering the cartels, for example, writers might take a Hunter S. Thompson-like approach to give readers an action-packed, first-hand story about narrowly escaping death. Through street smarts and cleverness, American writers survived to tell the story of the nefarious people who wanted them dead.
And yet there have been thousands of Mexican journalists who have covered the cartels every day, who did not feel the need to announce that the work they did was dangerous. Eight hundred of them, since 2006, have ended up dead. They were not the heroes of their story. They wrote stories for the people who did not live to tell theirs. They wrote because they lived in a country where the police, military, political powers, business interests, and wealthy people have hands stained with murder and dirty money. Their writing was a witness to the suffocating question: When will it end?
There are so many ways to write about people, and allow them to speak for themselves. You don’t need to talk over their voices. Conversations about privilege in America rarely include the acknowledgement that many of us look at the world through the eyes of conquerors. What happens when you recognize the oppressiveness of your gaze? What happens when you stop taking your position for granted?
When I visited Mexico City, I felt this duality. Of being Mexican/American, of being white/Chicana. Of being privileged, but not wanting to look away.
No matter what my mother did to protect me, to Americanize me, she could not protect me from growing up Latina in America, or keep me away from the Mexico I wanted to experience. And I know—awareness cannot be an end unto itself. Now I wish to hold both Mexico and America in my heart, so that others can do the same; not as a means to an end, but as a beginning for those who need to understand.