I had the pleasure of having our next author, Elyssa Salinas, as a student last year. She never ceased to excite and inspire – for as much as her academic writing as her marvelous poetry. You get a taste of both of those things here, in this understated, vulnerably lyrical reflection on coming to understand herself as a latina. Read, comment, and share – and relish in this woman’s powerful story!
Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of the LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor – “We Talk. We Listen.”
I was twenty-three years old when I realized I was Mexican.
I always knew that my Dad was from Mexico and that I could attribute my curly hair and Frida Kahlo eyebrows to him. But I didn’t feel Mexican. Growing up I would snuggle into a multicolored blanket with white fringe, and I knew it smelled familiar, but far away. My mother would remind me that I was Mexican, especially when we would take those dreaded trips to visit the family. My dad’s side of the family was either still in Mexico or in various parts of Chicago. When we would walk into the homes of my aunts and uncles, it seemed as though the walls expanded because there was no way that many people fit into such a small house.
The whole family would gather, and I never felt so alone. Spanish would fly through the air, and in the midst of a sentence one of my aunts would cackle, showing her gold-capped molar. My jean-clad bottom would make contact with the plastic-coated cushion of a stiff chair, while a thin flowery plate would be pushed in front of me. Piles of refried beans and some rosy colored rice were always accompanied by either a tamale or enchilada that seemed to come from a never-ending supply. Instead of silverware, tortillas were the way to eat, but I always seemed awkward with them, so I would grab for a fork from the plastic cup that sat in the middle of the table. The tablecloth was encased with another covering that was easy to clean, and in the heat my small forearms would stick to it because it was, of course, plastic.
My dad would be sitting across the table from me, and like someone worried about being poisoned, I would watch him eat first. Spicy foods were foreign to my white-washed tongue, and I was afraid everything was spicy: the food and my family. Questioning eyes studied me, so I ate when I wasn’t hungry for fear of being found out. Someone would realize I didn’t belong there and tell me to leave in a language I heard but never understood. To this day, people assume that I can understand some Spanish because my father is from Mexico. I lie and say, ‘a little’, when in reality there is almost nothing I can understand outside of my middle school vocabulary. Since no one ever talked to me about a ‘biblioteca’ or wondered where it was, I was out of luck.
After we ate, we would venture to the living room where Telemundo raved and the couches would stick to the back of my thighs because—you guessed it—plastic. Around the television was a shrine of McDonald’s toys standing erect, Barbies still in their boxes, and lots of lace doilies. I made a mental note never to bring a Barbie for one of my cousin’s birthdays because it would end up in the shrine. There was always a copy of Leonardo’s The Last Supper and at least one painting of a painfully white Jesus with blond hair. We would sit in silence until my dad would ask something to one of his brothers.
I would look around the room like I was in some sort of museum, but I wasn’t sure if I should stare. My eyes would flicker back to the TV where some game show or telenovela would be playing, both containing scantily clad women and boisterous men getting emotional about…everything. I would try to catch my dad’s eye with a face that was begging to get out of there.
I never wanted to be Mexican and I tried for a long time to only use it when I had to. As I got older, my world widened and throughout high school and college there were Latina/o circles that I came into contact with. I would walk past silently, like a spy, unnoticed. Everyone was better at being Mexican and I thought if I tried, I would be a fraud.
When I went to seminary I was closer to coming into contact with my Mexican-ness, but I was still resistant. Yet in one class where I was asked to talk about worship from the perspective of a Latina, all I could think to do was talk about my abuela. She was a devout Catholic, and we couldn’t share a word, but we shared a name.
Discussing my identity in seminary made me recall a memory of her. I remember meeting her when I was seven. It was a dewy and cold morning in my Dad’s hometown. A cow woke me up before it was light out. I walked out of the bedroom shivering and my abuela wrapped a sweater around me that went past my knees. We walked into the kitchen from the courtyard and she gestured for me to sit while she made breakfast. She was blind in one eye from undiagnosed diabetes and always wore her gray hair in one long braid down her back. The kitchen was a safe place for us. There was no talking, but her hands spoke to me. She showed me how to make tortillas, how to roll them, and presented me with a mini press for my tiny tortillas. At dinner they sat beside hers on the table. Memories like this caused me to dive deeper into my Mexican identity with the help of other Latinas/os and a professor who handed me Borderlands by Gloria Anzaldúa, the most important book of this journey.
Since then I have been searching for what that Mexican-ness means to me. I’ve let my hair flow where it wants instead of straightening it into submission, my relationship with Frida Kahlo has graduated way beyond eyebrows, and I own a few books in Spanish that I’ve vowed to read.
I feel almost Latina. Almost part of that world, but never quite there. I don’t know if it is the language or being raised in a home that was both white and Mexican.
I’ve asked my father why he came to this country and why he didn’t teach me Spanish. He came here to make a better life for his children (or child in this case), and that he was constantly annoyed explaining what he was saying to my maternal grandmother. He also confided that he was worried that Spanish would inhibit my opportunities. Sometimes I wonder what conversations would be like if my Dad and I had a common first language and there wasn’t always a translation barrier. This wall has kept us apart, but since seminary, cooking has become our language. He is a chef who teaches me recipes he cooked in his childhood kitchen, and it has brought us closer together.
I feel almost Latina. Every day like I’m almost there, like I’ve almost got it. Then I’m in a group of Latinas/os and I feel like I’m at the kitchen table in my aunt’s house waiting for someone to eat first.
I want to make sure it won’t be too spicy, but I promise I will try whatever is in front of me.
Two undocumented valedictorians speak out at their graduation ceremonies.
Elyssa Salinas believes that her theology must touch her body; therefore, her scholarship encompasses her experience as a Mexican American and as a woman. Utilizing her own body as a crux, her research embraces sex and body-positive theology in order to combat a culture of disgrace. She is currently the Program Assistant for Hunger Education at the ELCA and starting her first semester at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary this Fall. Elyssa continues to write for www.boldcafe.org and on her own blog http://coffeetalkwithe.blogspot.com/, and she performs poetry throughout the city of Chicago.