Going Home, Going Into Exile
A great pleasure of moving to Tuscaloosa has been the discovery of a small but thriving Mexican-American community. Latinos (primarily Mexican-Americans but also some Guatemalans and El Salvadorans) make up about 4% of the population of Alabama. They work in agriculture, lawn care and similar jobs, and have also opened a large number of small shops and restaurants (including some of the now infamous “taco trucks” that have been referenced in the presidential campaign recently). The community, however, is relatively invisible: the stores and restaurants are tucked into low end shopping malls and I do not recall having met any Mexican-Americans in public places like the mall.
The great exception is at church. My parish, Holy Spirit, is home to the Spanish language ministry for the area. We have a Sunday mass in Spanish, and there is some overlap: if you hang around to talk after mass, you are likely to run into Mexican-American families arriving early. The local Council of the Knights of Columbus council has a Spanish speaking “roundtable”. Spanish language events are advertised in the English bulletin and more than a few Anglo parishioners showed up for the annual Latino Fest a couple weeks ago. Last December, the main English mass was pre-empted, and the parish held a bilingual celebration of the Feast of the Guadalupe followed by a fiesta including homemade mole and tamales.
Going to the Feast of the Guadalupe, going to Spanish Christmas Eve mass, attending the Latino Fest have all been a great joy for me. They have stirred memories I barely remembered and touched emotional chords I did not expect to find. At the fiesta, trying to sing Mexican hymns, I actually found myself crying. I felt at home in ways I cannot adequately describe and which, objectively, make no sense. I grew up going to Anglo churches—going to mass in Spanish was a twice a year event when we were on vacation in Mexico when I was a child. (Here I do not count going to mass in Spain: the language is the same, but the cultural setting is very different. I am comfortable going to mass in Spain, but I am not at home.) I have never been part of a Mexican-American community. As a child there were very few Mexican-Americans in my home town, and for reasons of class and culture, my father would have very little to do with them. They were the children of campesinos and migrant farm workers; my father, for all that he worked in a blue collar factory job, was a child of a lower middle-class family in Mexico (my grandfather, I believe, owned a store before the Revolution, and later worked as a low level clerk of some kind for the government). My father was fiercely proud of his heritage but he made no concerted effort to immerse me in it—in many ways I grew up a typical Anglo kid in a blue-collar mill town. As they would say about me in LA: Soy un pocho.
But at the same time, his identity became part of mine: I was always a Mexican-American. This identity has evolved as I have grown up: from college to graduate school to the various stages of my professional life. It took time to understand intellectually both what I was and what I lacked. From my childhood I shared in this identity, and as opportunity presented itself, I expanded on what I remembered: the food, the music (mariachi and later Tejano), the popular religious devotions, the patriotic holidays. But I have also been buffeted by a lack of belonging: not speaking Spanish (though even 20 years ago a large percentage of Mexican-Americans spoke only English); not having the shared experiences that united the Mexican-American grad students at Berkeley; not finding common ground with a potential Mexican-American mentor in my first job, precisely because our experiences were too different and neither one of us seemed able to understand the other.
I also experienced the discrimination that comes with being a Mexican-American. My high schools days were dotted with the occasional ethnic slur; in graduate school there was the constant battle against low expectations (“You’re in the PhD program? Really? Most Mexican-Americans just get masters degrees.”) In California I first got jacked up by the police for being Mexican-American: I was briefly detained and questioned because I fit a vague description of a suspect in a robbery. I was only let go when another cop showed up, looked at me, shook his head and called out, “No, I said I was looking for a big Mexican!” while holding his hands apart at shoulder height. (I was still pretty skinny in grad school.) And over the years I have had to deal with the discomfort of both liberals and conservatives who discovered that even though I often called myself “DAYvid” (as opposed to “daVEED”) and taught math (as opposed to, say, ethnic studies), I still considered myself a Mexican-American and thought that this mattered, particularly when dealing with the concerns of minority students or the prejudices of upper middle class, suburban white students attending a school whose campus was in the middle of a lower class, Black, Puerto-Rican and Dominican neighborhood.
At the end of this journey, or more precisely, at this stage in the journey, I now find myself on the edges of a Catholic community of Mexican-Americans among whom I feel at home. But, at the same time, I am in exile when I am among them. I am not part of this community: despite our common faith and heritage, I really have very little in common with them. I can see past these differences to a deeper commonality, a communion of identity. But it is clear that they do not see me as a Mexicano. I speak to them in (my admittedly bad) Spanish; they respond in English (which is often as bad as my Spanish). I think I am seen as a gringo, which is rather unsettling: growing up, other people were gringos. (Heaven forefend that they think of me as a gabacho!)
I want to be clear: much of this is occurring as a psycho-drama in my own head. I was not silly enough to expect them to run out and embrace me, shouting “Hermano!” just because I showed up at a few of their events. And the language barrier is a significant one: such practice as I have had with Spanish for the past two decades has been in Spain, and what Churchill said of the US and Great Britain is equally true of Mexico and Spain: the one thing separating them is their common language. Moreover, I have certainly bonded with the one other Mexican-American on the faculty at UA. But there remains this unsettling sense of loss, of exile, even as I experience something I can only describe as coming home. I think I now understand something Ursula LeGuin said in her great novel, The Dispossessed:
You can go home again…so long as you understand that home is a place where you have never been.