When I was a kid, before things got bad on the other side, my parents would often take my brother and me over the border to Ciudad Juárez for a day of good food, music, and wandering. These memories are vague, fuzzy around the edges, likely warped by years—and now, by thousands of miles—of distance. I do distinctly remember eating guayaba, sweet and soft, purchased by my mother from a vendor in an open fruit market. It is illegal to bring any fruit back over the border, so my brother and I ate and ate the heavily seeded yellow fruit until we were nearly sick, trying to get in as much as we could before we packed into the minivan and went back home to El Paso.
Coming across the line, the U.S. Border Patrol agent would ask if we were all American citizens, and my brother, father, and I all said yes clearly, with serious nods. This moment always made me nervous, even as a child, even though I was telling the truth—maybe, even then, I understood the weight of the question, the weight of getting it wrong. My mother would pull out her Legal Alien card, hand it over to the agent, and look straight at him as he read it over. He gave the card back with a smile and waved us forward. Then my brother and I would giggle and call my mother an alien all the way home.
For years now, the American Citizen Nod alone has not been enough to get you across; passports need to be provided as proof. But this was before things got bad.
My parents don’t remember my first words—a lapse in attention that I blame on my older brother’s existence—but they do remember my first phrase. As a toddler, I locked myself in the bathroom from the inside and screamed out in two languages for my family’s help: “Abre la door!”
I over-analyze this now, seeing this moment as representative of the now inescapable fact that I need both Spanish and English desperately when I’m at a loss for what to do. Spanish and English come to me together, and all at once, when I grasp for expression.
But beyond this dissection, I like to claim that my first language is Spanglish.
This isn’t true, of course. I struggle with Spanish much more than I ever struggled with English. But even though my English is much better than my Spanish, there are still words that I never say in English. In my mind, these words—words my mother never bothered to translate into English around the house—belong inherently to Spanish. Growing up, I never had laundry to do, but I did have ropa sucia. My father didn’t do my hair into a braid before driving me to kindergarten, but he did put it into a trenza. There is nothing special about these words that makes them truly untranslatable. They were just left, unlike so much else in my life, to live simply, and independently, in Spanish.
Even words that are exactly the same in English as in Spanish, like tortilla and mango, I struggle to pronounce like my English, with an American accent. I tie these words so closely to my mother’s request that I heat some up for dinner, or to my grandmother’s smiling declaration that the fruit is in season, that I don’t know how to let them exist outside of Spanish. I know I sound presumptuous when I pronounce guacamole correctly at my friend’s potluck dinner up here in Boston, but I can’t trick my tongue into the harsh pronunciation that it carries in English.
Somehow, Vicks VapoRub—my mom’s go-to for about half of my ailments—becomes one of these words. For years, I pronounce the name of the ointment how she does, like “Beeks Baporoo.” I only discover how other people pronounce Vicks when I offer my college roommate some Beeks for her cold, and, after some confusion, she bursts out laughing at the sight of the little jar in my hand.
My mother is from a very small town in southern Mexico called Chaucingo, which is nestled in the southern state of Guerrero. A sign at the side of the narrow, rocky road leading into Chaucingo declares it has a population of 3,500. I suspect this number is not accurate, because that rusting sign has been at the same crooked angle for as long as I can remember—and as long as my parents can remember, too.
Here, I get the sense that I’m related to everyone in town by way of some convoluted path that is cataloged only in my grandmother’s—my Abuelita’s—brain. In a town of this size, there are three directions you learn to get around: allá arriba, allá abajo, and allá de aquel lado. (Literally translated: up there, down there, and over there on that side.) As a child, I am fascinated by this world: one where cows and donkeys walk down the open street lazily, and where all I have to say to get a big hug and a kiss on the cheek from any of the short, sun-spotted women I meet is, “Soy hija de Carmen”—I’m Carmen’s daughter. On a typical day, my brother, cousins, and I spend hours in a little store playing old arcade games that charge diez centavos per play, and after that we race each other from my Abuelita’s house to the church and back. When we’re tired, we buy bolís, frozen fruit popsicles, from whatever house-turned-storefront is nearest to us, and eat them while sitting on the swings in the town’s one playground.
My parents miss out on the fun; they spend all day in the house, my mother preparing meals with my Abuelita and my father chatting with the various tíos who filter through after working out on the fields all day. It seems my parents only go down the dusty street—allá abajo—for long, boring visits with elderly great-aunts and uncles whose health prevents them from leaving their brightly-painted houses. I’m required to join my parents for some of these visits, so that my mother can show me off to the people who knew her when she was my size. I squirm while sitting on the knee of some great-uncle, whose words, uttered too carelessly and quickly for my half-baked understanding of Spanish, drift over my head to reach my nodding mother. I pretend to fall asleep after some time, so that my father will pick me up, toss me over his shoulder, and take me back home.
When my brother was four years old, his choice insult was to call a person a “silly robot.” I was only a baby at the time, so I don’t know if I ever got the title. But my parents remember the sting of their toddler narrowing his eyes at them and declaring their silly robotitude.
My four-year-old insult was different. My father tells me that once I came into the kitchen while he and my mother were chatting with each other in Spanish, walked right up to them, and accused them with a glare: “Spanishers.” Then I huffed away.
My dad followed after and asked me what I meant by that. I told him that there were kids at school who only spoke in Spanish on the playground, and that we didn’t like them. They were Spanishers, and they were not my friends.
I don’t know if my father explained to me that there’s nothing wrong with Spanish, that the kids at school probably didn’t speak English as well as I did (just like I didn’t speak Spanish as well as they did), that my own mother was a Spanisher before she moved to the U.S. with him at the age of twenty-four. I just know that my dad tells me this story with a laugh, and I laugh at my childish stubbornness when he tells it.
It is several years before I wonder how my mom felt in that moment: when she watched her daughter, who was being raised in this country that she was learning to turn into a home, yet rejecting the very fabric of most of my mom’s life. I have not asked her about this, again because of my stubbornness—I can’t bring myself to think I may have ever hurt my mother, so I act as if I have never done so.
In December of 2006, the newly-elected Mexican President Felipe Calderon confronted one of the country’s drug cartels with the Mexican military, turning what was then called a figurative or metaphorical drug war into a literal war.
A statistic from Reuters: “From 2006 through 2010, for every 100,000 people living in Mexico, an average of nearly 31 were murdered in a drug-related killing.”
During this drug war, Ciudad Juárez becomes a hotbed of violence. In 2010, it is called “the murder capital of the world.” CNN reports on this historic year: “Juarez saw a record 3,116 homicides, or about 8 murders per day.”
Juárez’s U.S. sister city and American next-door neighbor is El Paso, Texas. From 2010 through 2014, El Paso is named “the safest city in the U.S.” by an independent research firm that compares the crime rates of all cities in the country with a population of over 500,000.
This city is where I was born, and where I live the first eighteen years of my life.
I always look forward to visiting Chaucingo, and always in new ways. As I grow older, I start to appreciate the inside of my Abuelita’s house more than I did as a child. During a recent visit, I find a box full of letters that my mother wrote home after she moved to Mexico City for college. I read them all, skipping over the words I don’t know, laughing at how she casually tries to make her brother feel guilty for not writing her back fast enough.
My tío Edilberto stops by that night for a Coke, which he spikes with a little bit of mezcal. His hands are dark, not dirty, but worn and cracked from being used on the fields every day. I stare at his bright green eyes, entranced by how they flash as he speaks to my father. I listen as they tell each other stories, and try to mentally store away every phrase, every joke, every sad glance at the floor.
As I sit in silence, listening, my Abuelita comes up behind me. She strokes my long curls and murmurs in Spanish that she thinks my hair is bonito, bonito, bonito. Her hands are soft, which always surprises me. After decades of flipping tortillas on a hot comal with just her bare hands, she never feels the heat of the metal, and never gets burned. But her hands are still gentle, soft to the touch. As she runs her fingers over my hair, I wonder if this is how it feels to be a ball of dough, pressed between her hands, warmed, and flipped over.
In 2009, during my sophomore year of high school, a softball player at the rival high school is hit and killed by what the El Paso Times calls “a stray bullet,” while sitting in a Juárez backyard, a guest at a family birthday party.
Back to CNN:
There are approximately 6,700 licensed firearms dealers in the United States, along the U.S.-Mexico border. There is only one legal firearms retailer in Mexico.
Nearly 70% of guns recovered from Mexican criminal activity from 2007 to 2011, and traced by the U.S. government, originated from sales in the United States.
I did not know this teenage softball player, but in hearing the news of her death I am shaken.
Where does the path of a bullet start to go astray?
I never feel that I’m Mexican enough. I don’t know what the measure of enough is, exactly, but I still try to achieve it.
At a restaurant in Mexico City, a waitress provides my mother and me with menus in English, then hands my uncle his menu written in Spanish. I am affronted; my mom laughs. I proudly order my food in perfect Spanish, and the waitress kindly asks me (in Spanish, thankfully) if I’d like jalapeños to eat with my torta. Though I’ve never understood my mother’s urge to cover everything, even eggs at breakfast, in jalapeño, I know I can’t say no.
“Si, por favor,” I say, my voice clear.
“Ah si, como buena Mexicana, ¿eh?” the waitress says, winking. Like a good Mexicana, eh? She is trying to be kind, perhaps aware of my agitation at the menu situation. But in this I hear a challenge, and feel I must prove myself.
When my sandwich comes, I beg my mom to eat the jalapeño slices off my plate. She absentmindedly pops a few in her mouth while in deep conversation with my uncle; frustrated at her failure to recognize the magnitude of the moment, I desperately spread jalapeño juice about on my plate, attempting to simulate a pepper-eating frenzy. Nobody cares but me, but I care so much.
Later that trip, I write in my notebook:
I know my tongue will never dance around the letter ‘R’ like my mother’s, my Abuelita’s, my cousins’. But I keep trying. I don’t know how to sing with you, Mexico, but it hurts not to try.
It is not until I move to Boston that I realize how Mexican I am. In El Paso, where the population is 81.2% Hispanic, as someone who is only half-Mexican I am considered white. But in Boston, people say they can tell I’m Mexican when I tell them so, vaguely gesturing at my skin and eyes when I ask how they knew.
It is in Boston that I start listening to cumbias out of my own free will, sometimes while out on a run, sometimes while rolling flautas to fry on the stove. I study literature in Spanish, English, and even Spanglish; I start to dream of being a translator, of using my position in the in-between to share stories. I read the words of Sandra Cisneros and feel that I’m figuring something out, that I’m growing into some understanding of this in-between: “Look, I don’t know what you’re talking about when you say I don’t look Mexican. I am Mexican. Even though I was born on the U.S. side of the border.”
The year is turning from 2013 to 2014, and I am home in El Paso for my winter break. We have people over at our house for a New Year’s party, and my mother has made ponche, buñuelos, and fruta de horno for the occasion. I pour some ponche into a styrofoam cup and call over a childhood friend of mine. “Daniela! My mom made ponche! Come have some!”
I’m surprised. How can she not know about ponche? “Oh. It’s a traditional holiday drink. It’s basically warm, cinnamony fruit punch. Here, try some.”
“Ceci, you’re more Mexican than I am,” she says, laughing as she reaches out for the cup.
I get a weird sense of pride at this statement. This friend is Mexican on both sides, unlike me, but she doesn’t speak Spanish—still, nobody would ever think to call her anything but Mexican upon seeing her. Soon after this, I feel uncomfortable with my smugness. There are a million ways to be Mexican, I remind myself, especially when you’re born on this side of the border.
During the spring break of my junior year of college, a freshman who lives in my building dies while he is visiting home. He has the same name as my one-year-old nephew, and he is from Mexico City. He is in a taxi, headed somewhere, when a thief enters the car and kills him.
I did not know him well, but I was always happy to see him, and we would smile and wave when we passed each other out on the sidewalk. My heart aches at his loss, the simple pain of it. I write in my notebook:
This month is the third time in my life I’ve ached over a specific name in a headline. I always wonder what there is to say. Forgive Mexico? Or: Mexico, forgive?
Como podemos amarte, Mexico, ¿si matas a tus hijos, tus amantes? Y al mismo tiempo, sé que tu también mueres y vives con cada uno de ellos. ¿Te amamos? ¿Te odiamos? ¿Te dejamos? Dolemos, eso es claro.
I know that there are some things that I will never be able to translate.
When I start to cry while standing in my boyfriend’s kitchen in Boston, my hands deep into a ball of dough, I am surprised. Surprised that I am crying, as my body gave me no advance warning that it would react in this way; surprised that the singular smell of the corn flour used to make tortillas can transport me so quickly from this Boston kitchen to my Abuelita’s kitchen, thousands of miles away in southern Mexico. Sam asks me with troubled eyes if I’m okay, and I don’t know how to explain that I’m not here—nor there—in this moment. I close my eyes and breathe in slowly. The smell of the masa is heavy in my lungs.
“I just didn’t expect the smell.”
“Are we making it wrong?”
“No.” I’m smiling now, tears still running, and I open my eyes. I start breaking off small balls of dough, ready to press into tortillas. “It’s exactly right.”