When I was little, I loved the foods that reminded me of my mother’s family: rice, tortillas, tamales, lemons, pan dulce, these little Mexican wedding cookies we could only get from a bakery near my aunt’s house in Texas. Side note: I doubt this is actually a Latinx thing, but if you’ve never soaked your Fritos in lemon juice, please stop reading this and try it.
Now that I understand a little more about the politics and social weirdness involved in the way I relate to my heritage on mother’s side, I realize that I’ve always relied on those foods as a way to validate my ‘Mexican-ness’ to myself and others.
When other kids told me I wasn’t that kind of Mexican, my internal reaction was to recite all the details I could think of that would prove them wrong: the names of my grandparents, the name of the town they lived in and bore their children, the fact that we made confetti eggs for Easter (which I later learned were called cascarones), and the hand-full of foods my family ate when we were together that I knew made me a ‘real Mexican.’
I was upset enough about being bumped from the category that I rarely even paused to think about how gross it was that they thought they were paying me a compliment by refusing to accept that part of who I am. Not only that, but it was a roundabout way for them to imply that I was above other Mexican people because I didn’t fit the stereotypes they had in mind.
Even now, I still feel like I’m constantly grasping for anything I can find to bring me closer to my Mexican heritage. Maybe it’s because I’m jealous of people who were more immersed in Latinx culture as they grew up or maybe I never got over wanting to be ‘different than everybody else’ (whatever that means) and this behavior happens to be how it’s coming through. Who knows?
A couple of months ago I attended an event hosted by a friend of a friend who just so happens to be Latinx was raising money for FEMelanin, a Chicago-based collective of multi-disciplinary, self-identified femme artists of color. I’d met her a few times at Obvi consciousness raisings and other events, and became more and more impressed and fascinated by her each time I learned something new about her thoughts and her work.
Their event was a backyard potluck of sorts, featuring mainly Latinx dishes prepared by FEMelanin members and their parents. When I read through the list of foods they’d be serving, the switch in my brain flipped and all I could think about was that I had to attend and I had to bring food that I’d made myself. It was my time to shine.
After I called my mom to make sure I wasn’t being completely ridiculous, I messaged the hostess to see if I could bring over some rice and elotes. I settled on rice because it’s a family staple I had recently discovered I could make reasonably well and elotes because they’re really friggin delicious and fit the bill. Once I got the (surprisingly enthusiastic) green light, I left work early to head to the grocery store.
So I got to cookin’ and ended up arriving about an hour too early to the party, so I helped get the food table set. My food turned out great; it looked normal, people were eating it, and I even got a few compliments. But, I still wasn’t satisfied. I felt a little disappointed with myself but I couldn’t put my finger on why. For a moment, I thought maybe I should have called more attention to my incredible feat; waved my arms around and announced how pleased I was that the other guests had even added my food to their plates. I could have initiated conversations with people about the foods they prepared. I could have asked them about their own identities and weaseled in some room to find out what they thought of people like me. Instead, I let the evening play out, said my goodbyes, and headed home hoping that there would be a next time.
The reality is, it just wasn’t that big of a deal to anyone but me — and that makes sense. The food I made was my physical contribution to their cause, but it represented my desire to support their group and spend more time talking to and learning from others who share that part of my identity.
Maybe it’s good that I didn’t wave my arms in the air and ask everybody at the event to congratulate me and be my friend, but I could have done more. Ultimately, I know I should be seeking out opportunities to support and learn from Latinx women instead of passive-aggressively making rice to earn their stamp of approval. I should be seeking out real connections with people like the women of FEMelanin, who, I promise, I admire not just for their bloodlines but for their strength and knowledge and art.
I should be putting more effort into learning more about Latinx and Chicanx culture on my own time instead of relying on the labor of others. I should be doing more work to support Latinx of color (especially considering the political climate in the United States right now) instead of overcompensating for some kind of white/light guilt that I’ve got rolling around inside of me.
So I’m adding those things to my list of missions in life. I’ll work on making those connections, do some reading and some listening, and try to do a better job of appreciating my own heritage exactly the way it is. I’ll keep trying to perfect the family dishes I make, I’ll keep bothering my Aunt Norma to teach me how to make tortillas, and I’ll look for an ethical way to work more Latinx dishes into my limited cooking repertoire.