Tag Archives: bicultural children

This Magic Moment Called the Present

1 Oct

I ate the WORST “tacos” of my life today. So, clearly, we are not in Puerto anymore, Toto. There are no fresh tortillas. No dogs and chickens and turkeys running the streets. People expect you to wear shoes everywhere. There are huge roads and huge parking lots and huge buildings. The coffee comes in shiny, tiny bags with labels and supposed flavors. This is not my adopted town- nada que ver– not even close. And this guacala muck they sold me from a taco truck today, with flour tortillas and devoid of any flavor, can stop claiming any relation with my family’s usual hometown flare.

The planned return trip to Puerto Escondido has come and gone, and yet here we are still, in Savannah, Georgia. Not that I’m complaining. This is exactly where we need to be right now. The positive far outweighs the negative. Khalil is making amazing strides in his speech. My kids are ecstatic to have concrete outside to ride their bikes on (yes, some neighborhoods in Puerto have concrete; mine doesn’t). We are exploring museums and parks and activities almost daily, with lots more on the list. And now, indispensable icing on the cake, my kids will be receiving health insurance, and I finally have a job. Yep, we are residents of Gringolandia. For the moment. This magical, unique, special moment, that will not, cannot last, and will never be the same. Sigh.

Yet I have to say, I miss my beloved costa, much more than I imagined I could. Sure, I knew I would miss my people there; that’s a given I don’t even want to discuss right now. But on top of that I miss certain foods, our house, the culture in general. Especially now that I was supposed to be back “home” already. (Where is “home” at this point? Who really knows? What a loaded word.)

I miss my friend Becka and our gaming club. I miss playing volleyball every week. I miss my (ex)job- my coworkers, my students, the bliss that is teaching. I miss our trusted babysitters. I miss my molcajete and the delicious salsas I could make in it. Side note: I even accosted some neighbors with Mexican accents to see if they had a molcajete (mortal and postal) they could lend me to make decent salsa. (True story.) And yes, molcajetes are sold here but one cannot buy everything that one wants all the time. (Because my mom doesn’t actually want me to treat her space as my personal storage unit when I leave.)

My kids are definitely feeling the frustration. Khalil was all pissed off because we went almost two months without enfrijoladas, his favorite food. (Lucia is thrilled to be eating pasta all the time, though, let me tell you.) And I did eventually break down and buy the crappy things that pass for tortillas here, although none of us want to get too accustomed to them. They are sad, sad, sad. I mean, in our neck of the woods- in Puerto- you get tortillas that are made from corn that was ground that dawn, prepared by hand, toasted on the comal (griddle) and delivered hot to your door. The packaged tortillas here are like eating 25 cent ramen noodles instead of grandma’s chicken noodle soup made from the chicken she killed that morning. They’re like drinking orange kool-aid instead of fresh squeezed orange juice. Like many unfortunate realities in the US, they’re a pathetic, canned imitation of the real thing.

Tortillas aren’t the only thing we’re missing. We dreadfully miss our familia in Mexico, first and foremost, starting with Papi. (But I repeat: we’re not gonna talk about how badly we miss the people right now.) I miss shipping my kids off to their cool school every day, where they can learn through play and go barefoot and take long walks through the woods to the beach. I miss our neighbors- especially our kids playing all the time without any scheduling or effort on the grownups’ part. I miss the general culture of people spending most of their time outside, trying to catch a breeze, instead of shut up in their eternally controlled climate. (And don’t even get me started on how sick I am of ridiculously, artificially cold spaces in the middle of summer.) I think I might even miss the nosiness / lack of privacy of Puerto. Everyone here seems so secluded. They’re shut up in their isolated homes, only coming out to get from point A to point B. It’s not as isolating as Juquila was, by any stretch, but it’s been far more difficult than I ever dreamed of for my kids and me to have social interaction.

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My kids are, tragically, the only ones we see out digging in the dirt around here. 

I know that it is a serious privilege to be living the way I am now. Okay, so I don’t have any money to speak of. But I don’t have housing or transportation problems, thanks to my family help. I only have to work part time, in the evening, doing work that I don’t love but also don’t hate. I am homeschooling (well, unschooling) Lucia, and she’s flourishing in it. I am taking Khalil to speech therapy three times a week, and his talking ability is blooming like daffodils in spring. I have more time to spend with my children than I’ve had in years, since before Khalil was born. As the primary earner in our family, I hadn’t even dreamt of all this as a possibility, and it’s certainly a gift. Granted, I’m also grateful to get to go to work and leave them with my mom for a bit. My life is so full of joy and promise I might burst at the seams.

Lots of other things are coming together for us here, too. I almost cried from glee and self-recognition when I finally got my bicycle out of storage (thank you, Mom and Dee) and found time to ride it. I found a volleyball league that is just starting, and my muscles and my spirit are still thanking me for returning after a 3 month hiatus. I know it won’t be like the laid-back see-who-shows-up games after work on Fridays, where half of the fun was giggling. Still, it’s a good start to a life here. I’m taking an ASL (American Sign Language) class, and I feel like a kid stealing candy from the jar just by being in a class again. I finally got time to have a real conversation with someone at work, with someone who feels very much like “my people.” I’m excited at the prospect of hanging out and conversing with her. So many of the things that I want and need out of life are lining up at my doorstep, and I feel eternally grateful.

I signed up to do some online tutoring, because I’ve now been nearly three months without teaching and the lack of that feels like a punishment- stifling, like trying to tame my wavy hair with a clothes iron. That said, everytime I moan about it, I stop and think about refugees who were surgeons or teachers or stay at home moms by choice, who are fleeing and living in camps or working horrendously exploitative jobs, ripped away from their life’s calling, and often, from their dignity. I try to keep in mind that my life is full of opportunity and growth, that I’m so privileged and lucky to be able to change countries at the drop of a hat without any true suffering for me or for my children. How amazing it is that I can jump right into making a space for us here. And yet… I’m not any kind of yogi. I’m like light years away from Ghandi-like wisdom. As I take all these steps to build a life here, I get all psyched and positive for a minute, and just as quickly I fall into disarray and despair, dwelling on how it’s all so fleeting. As soon as I’ve built something just right, we’ll be packing up to go, and I don’t even know what will happen after that.

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There’s no time like the present to eat cupcakes, while celebrating everyone’s pretend birthday. 

For perhaps the first time in my life, I don’t have a long term plan. I know we’re all going back to Puerto, at least for a few months. I have no idea what the next, best decision is from there. I don’t know how long we’re staying. I’m not totally sure where we’re going if we’re not staying in Puerto. I don’t know what will happen with our immigration plans. Much depends on Khalil’s speech status come January. I have a weight on my shoulders so persistent it’s a shadow burden in my sleep.

I basically have no choice but to keep living in this moment, because that’s all I have a clue about. I know at some point I will have to pay school fees or apply at different schools. I know I will need to make housing arrangements, in one town or another. I know that I just don’t know what we’re doing or where we’ll be in the future. That’s it. That’s all I’ve got. It’s kind of terrifying, and kind of liberating. Being forced to live in the present, for the present.

And here in the present tense, for the record, I won’t even attempt to eat tacos that weren’t made by me until we’re back in Puerto. Me and you and Toto, too.

 

Rejecting Compliments, Resisting White Privilege: A Call for Help

1 Nov

I first realized just how disgustingly prized and privileged being light-skinned is here when we lived in Juquila. When people commented about my appearance, I could never quite separate out how much of their impression was just because I was foreign. A gringa living amongst us! Can you imagine! Men would congratulate Conan in the street for bringing home this rare, first-class acquisition. (I know. Patriarchy on top of it all. Sigh.) That was bad enough, but at least I could blame some of my ill-gotten fame on the small town, we’ve-never-seen-foreigners factor.

When people complimented baby Lucia, though, it made me particularly uncomfortable and embarrassed. “Look at her!” They’d say, “Just like the Gerber Baby! So adorable!” Which might seem innocuous enough, until you saw the larger trend of comments. “She looks just like her mama,” they’d say, totally negating all the obvious facial features that she inherited from her Papi, which to us were plain as day. “She got the light-skin from her mama; how beautiful!” and even things like, “Look how white she is! It’s a shame she didn’t get her mama’s eye color, though!”

Just look at these two. There’s no way you could deny their resemblance. Except people did!

I couldn’t say thank you, because it felt awful. It was like they were negating my husband. Like they were lessening themselves. Like they were denying part of Lucia- specifically the Mexican part of her. Like they or their child’s brown skin, brown eyes, black hair wasn’t as beautiful. How could I say thank you for that? I needed to respond, and I didn’t know how.

I still don’t know how. “Look at that precious guerito!” people gush over Khalil. When it’s another parent and they’re with their child, I am quick to pay some adoring compliment to their child, but beyond that I’m not sure what to do. I second-guess every compliment aimed at my kids. Obviously, I think they are adorable, because they’re my kids and I adore them, but I don’t want them to be taught that they’re good-looking because they’re “white.”

If it sounds like I’m over-reacting, let me give you a clearer example of the problem:

“I wish I were guerita (light-skinned) like Lucia,” Evelyn, one of the kids’ cousins, told me one day. It wasn’t the first time our 8 year old niece had mentioned skin color to me, but it was the moment that it was painfully obvious to me just how deeply society’s systemic racism had penetrated her little-girl psyche already. Just in case I didn’t get it, she bemoaned herself further, complaining, “I don’t want to be morena (dark-skinned). It’s ugly.”

The ambulance in my head switched on the siren and roared into gear. Help! Emergency! Pre-pubescent girl already hating herself! Code red! All hands on deck! (Okay, obviously I’ve never worked in health care and I know zero emergency slang. Forgive me. This is totally the kind of blubbering idiot that I am when in a panic. Which I was.) “What?!” I asked her, trying not to yell and shake her.

I took a breath and tried to talk and look normal. “You don’t need to be guera,” I started. “You’re already beautiful, just like you are.” Cliché, I know. But it’s true, it’s so true- Evelyn with her friendly, extroverted spirit. She’s who always comes and takes the hand of whatever family member of mine is visiting, to lead them around, to show them all they need to know, entrusting them with her wide open heart. Evelyn who’s curious and unapologetically opinionated. Evelyn who also has gorgeous wide eyes and a lovely smirk, among other radiant attributes. Evelyn who is brown-skinned and beautiful.

“Yeah?” she asked, sounding as hopeful as I felt disheartened by her remark. “I’m beautiful?” I reiterated that she was, and that I love her. She smiled and swept me away to show me something her parents had bought her.

I wanted to sit her down to talk about all the shades of beautiful. I wanted to talk about beauty’s source, about how it’s what’s on the inside, and how you feel about yourself that makes or breaks beauty. I wanted to say that society’s views on beauty are a total load of horseshit anyway. I wanted to sit down and have a long, age-appropriate talk about racism and prejudice and discrimination. I wanted to find time to walk around together, surf the internet together, and point out all the beautiful women with skin like hers. I wanted to find princesses and doctors and fairy godmothers and warriors and presidents and other Wonderful Women with brown skin like hers, and talk about how beautiful they are, to discuss the different forms of beauty. I wanted to rant and rave about the system and how fucked up it is that an 8 year old girl has already gotten the message that she’s not worth as much as another little girl. I started to say a whole lot of stuff to her, but I was so overwhelmed with how to go about it all, and she had already changed the subject.

Race in Mexico is fairly homogenous, in the sense that the grand majority of Mexicans are a mix of indigenous genes and European genes, with some African and some Asian genes in a few places. Despite this theoretical “sameness” there is a huge variation in skin tones and other aspects of appearance that people attribute to race. And there is absolutely a racism problem in Mexico. This is what racism looks like here. It has a different history than in the US, but the resulting prizing and privileging of all that is white is the same. It’s deeply rooted and entrenched in the culture, just like in the US.

So what does it matter, that I, the exotic foreign white girl auntie, am trying to tell Evelyn that she’s beautiful and valued? It’s so far from sufficient. She’s already learned and internalized the message that she’s not beautiful, because of her lovely brown eyes, because of her shiny black hair, because of her very own skin, the blanket enveloping her beautiful existence, that’s already betraying her, making her other, less-than beautiful. And if here in Mexico, where some shade or another of brown skin is the majority and the norm, if even here her brown skin is not valued, what must it be like in the U.S., in England, in Ireland, in all the places where brown skin is “other?” The injustice of it is maddening.

I’m not worrying about her beauty in terms of how many people might ask her out to dance, but I am worried about her feeling as valued and worthy as anybody. Even if it were “just” about a little girl’s body image, it still wouldn’t be okay to teach a girl to hate herself in the body that she lives in. But it’s so far beyond that.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, in his book Between the World and Me, talks about how it’s absolutely that kind of prejudice that is part of what leads us down the path to the devaluing and dehumanizing of a whole people. It really struck a chord with me when I read that he realized that “…the larger culture’s erasure of black beauty was intimately connected to the destruction of black bodies.”

This has severe consequences. It’s why people of color are constantly being killed by police officers in the US. It’s why there are so many cases of indigenous women here giving birth on the lawn or in the bathroom of the hospital, because no one could be bothered to receive their precious baby, who’s already being valued and cared for less, starting at birth. It’s why Conan got stopped by the police for walking with his own daughter (read about it here). It’s the kind of thing that they talk about in this study, where they found that teachers expect more bad behavior from African American boys in preschool. The effects of prejudice are so far-reaching, so consequential.

And prejudice starts with precisely this kind of attitude: that the lighter your skin is, the better-looking you are. I’m not blaming the entire institution of racism on friends’ and family’s comments, but I do think that what we say- especially in front of children- makes a difference. These seemingly well-intentioned compliments about my kids’ light skin perpetuates racism. I still don’t know exactly what to say when I hear it, but I know it’s imperative that I say something. Help me, please! I need suggestions! I realize now that it’s not enough to have conversations with my kids about it in private; I need to confront this racism in the moment- in a nice way, but in a way that expresses that I don’t agree, for example, that they’re cute because of their skin color. This is important not just for my children, but also for Evelyn, and all the other beautiful, valued, worthy people of all shades of skin, who need to get the message that they ARE beautiful.

There are lots of other ways I think we can make a difference. Please leave comments with suggestions!

Let Me Introduce This Year’s Children

14 Jul

Yes, I have the same two children as last year; stores here don’t usually take returns or exchanges, after all. But it’s been a year since our last visit to my hometown, and a lot changes in a year, especially when you’re young. I thought it’d be nice to paint you a brief picture, so you don’t have quite so much catching up to do. Plus, I’ve been talking to the kids all about you guys that we’re going to see in Kentucky- about everything we’re going to do, all the fun times and the naps to be had (cross your fingers for me on nap time). It’s only fair to give you guys the same type of introduction before we get there.

And if you’re not in Louisville, Kentucky, then you can still have a little virtual introduction to my ferocious little treasures. Somehow they manage to fill my whole being with joy and gratitude, even though they’re undomesticated terrorists in their spare time.

My sweet Khalil Michael couldn’t even crawl on our last visit, and now at a year and a third (hehe), there’s no stopping him. He is running amok and imitating his sister as much as possible. He can wash his own hands, put the lid on something and take it off, go and try to find his shoes (nearly always MIA). He attempts to jump, although he can’t quite pull it off yet. His most important job in life right now, according to him, is giving the empty garafón (giant water bottle) to the water delivery man. As soon as he hears the truck honk its horn outside, he goes on alert. If you tell him, “Get the garafón,” he starts screaming in urgency, and tears across the floor to get the empty bottle. Then he races from the kitchen, across the living room, to the front door, carrying the bottle that’s almost as big as he is, making his excited yelling noises the whole time. He’s no longer satisfied with just handing over the empty one, either- he wants to help pick up the full bottle and carry it inside. He even makes the loud grunting-with-effort noise as he tries to pick it up. It’s a pretty important job, after all.

 

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washing hands together- Little Brother loves to do what Big Sister does. 

This is serious business, people. Somebody has to get the garafón out the door.

I love how when he asks a question he holds his arms out just like I do, granddaughter of a gesticulating, expressive Italian that I am. I love all of his unique invented sign language, like the way he flexes his fingers when he wants to be picked up, like his version of a “come hither” signal. I love the way he blows kisses to me when he realizes I’m about to go to work. I love his tender, prolonged hugs and even his disgusting, gooey kisses, where he opens his mouth wide and slobbers over yours. He is so affectionate when the mood strikes him. The other day, as we were leaving somewhere, he turned and twisted from my grasp to dashed back down the sidewalk to a little girl he’d played with, and he gave her a big fat hug. I also can appreciate his firm boundaries, like that he yells belligerently if I’m trying to love on him when he’s declared that it’s playtime.

I love that he doesn’t wait for story time. He picks up a book and pushes it at you, grunting and insisting until you read it to him. But he doesn’t want you to read it to him the way it says on the page. He wants to open to random pages, point at the things he’d like you to discuss, and go from there. There’s no reading just front to back- reading is multidirectional and the book is finished when he decides there’s something more interesting to explore elsewhere. And in case you didn’t want to lift him up so he can reach the books, he has now learned to push one of our plastic chairs over to the book shelf and climb up onto it by himself. (This same chair-pushing/climbing tactic also means that NOTHING is safe from his tiny hands in our house anymore, unfortunately.)

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Even though this book has totally fallen apart, he loves this lone page and “reads” it constantly.

Then there’s little miss Lucia, who is now a big ole FOUR year old. And boy did she get the talking gene from her mama. She has all kinds of great four year old reasoning to entertain, cajole, and madden us. For example, she refuses to believe that she and Khalil were in my belly at different points in time, even though she witnessed my pregnancy. She’s always telling me about how she was pushing Khalil and sharing toys with him in my belly. Shrug. Life is mysterious.

Lately she’s really into figuring out the time in all kinds of funny ways. “All day” is one of her favorite expressions, although I’m not sure she can really grasp it in the same space-time continuum that I’m in. Like when I cook something and she’s displeased about it, she says, “I don’t wanna just eat that ALL DAY!” As if that were the only thing available for consumption the entire day, or week even. The other day, after I told her she needed a nap because it would make her feel better, she told me that no, she really needed to watch a video, because that was going to make her “feel better all day.”Also now she says, “What time is it?” Then you tell her and she asks, “What’s that mean?” She’s working on days of the week, too, although the only one that really counts is sábado. It’s all about ‘how many more days until Mommy stays home from work’. Yep, she’s a Mommy’s girl.

She also obviously has not been exposed to much television. Don’t get me wrong, she loves her videos- her current obsession being “Big Dora” (the teenage-ish version of Dora, where she plays guitar in a band). But she takes creative license with whatever she sees around her, and runs with it. Like she asked one of her tias (aunts) to make a princess dress for her birthday, like the “purple princess.” (I have no idea which one that is or where she saw it, but it’s cool.) She told me one day that she doesn’t want to brush her hair because she saw that princesses just wear their hair “like this,” she says, fluffing out her already curly, tangled hair even more. (Good try, kiddo.)

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In her “Purple Princess” dress with her new rocket ship (the only thing she wanted for her birthday, besides a party)

Her conversational skills paint a pretty fascinating picture of the little kid mind at work (fascinating according to me, although I might be biased). Here’s an example conversation with Lucia from a couple months ago:

“Mommy, can I go see Dr. Seuss?” She’s impressed because I’ve just told her that Dr. Seuss wrote the words AND drew and colored all the pictures for the book. She’s noticed that most books have the person who wrote the book and a different person who drew the pictures.

“No, because he’s in heaven, like Paw Paw.” (Yeah, I know- I didn’t really plan to teach her about heaven, it’s just worked out that way.)

“Mommy, where’s heaven?” (Previously she’d asked me, “Mommy, where’s Kevin?” which brought on a ridiculous who’s-on-first kind of accidental routine)

“It’s way, way, way up in the sky, past where the airplanes can go.”

“Is Dr. Seuss dancing in heaven?”

“Maybe so, baby. I’m not sure. If he likes to dance, he’s probably dancing.”

“Can I go to heaven someday?”

“Yes. But not for a long, long, long time. When you’re older than Mommy.” (silent prayer)

“And then I can be with Dr. Seuss?”

“Yes, and Paw Paw, and all the other great people in heaven.”

Finally satisfied, we manage to read approximately 2 pages of Green Eggs and Ham before there are more questions about other important matters. Like, “Why doesn’t he bring the plate of food on the first page of the book?” We’re at that age when the word ‘why’ is constant, and when the commentaries and questions about the book are wordier than the words on the page, even in a big girl book like this. I try to remember, despite my sleepiness, that this part is more important than the words on the page, anyway.

One of my favorite things about both my kids is that they are voracious and unconventional eaters (considering the standard idea that kids don’t like anything interesting or healthy). I love the game Conan invented with Lucia for when she proclaims that she doesn’t want something on her plate. He says something like, “But you don’t want this bite? This one’s chocolate flavor.” Then she starts asking, “What about this bite? What’s this flavor?” And before you know it she’s eaten all of what she supposedly didn’t like today, and might be asking for more. The best part (for me) is that  sometimes I make up flavors that aren’t even “exciting” and we still get excited about it. I’m like, “Oh, this is hummus and carrot flavor!” and she’s like, “Mmm, hummus with carrot!” (Bwahahaha, the Mean Mommy wins again.) She told me one day that sometimes she doesn’t eat all her lunch at school because her teacher doesn’t tell her what kind of flavor her food is! I adore four year old logic, when it’s not making me tear my hair out in frustration.

Lucia, below, pretending to eat raw nopal… She is such a silly, outrageous, kind, creative, expressive little monster.

 

 

Part of the bonus of raising kids in my adopted country is getting to take these trips back to visit. I can think things like, “Oh my goodness, a year ago, Khalil hadn’t even tried food! And now he won’t eat if he can’t hold the spoon himself.”  It’s such a good chance to remember, compare, and reflect. And this has been a good excuse to write a little about these two bright, bright lights in my life.

I’ll leave the re-introduction at that for now. See you soon, Louisville folks!