Monday, July 29, 2013

Living Within The Ellipses

“In Mexico, I was, am, and always will be a welcome guest in a rented house, one I can never fully own.” —Ilan Stavans

          For years, Ilan Stavans has challenged my notion of what defines a Mexican. When I was an undergraduate studying rhetoric, I stumbled upon his cultural commentaries. I remember his name to me had nothing to do with someone from Mexico, instead his name simply evoked a writer, probably of South American descent. He was a Borges or a Quiroga of whom I had yet to know or encounter. I was young and had much to learn. I was also a college kid trying to write and make sense of my own experiences. I looked towards books for answers. In the years after, as an essayist, I’ve learned to contemplate the “I,” to find ways to examine the multiple layers of the ‘self.’ As a reader, I've also learned to understand how other writers take on the challenging and often difficult questions that emerge when one examines these layers.

         Early in Ilan Stavans' book On Borrowed Words: A Memoir of Language, Stavans addresses his own inner contradictions while recounting the lyrics to the classic Jorge Negrete rendition of “Mexico Lindo y Querido.” In the mere action of enjoying the song, Stavans (who’s real name is Ilan Stavchansky) is set to wonder on his own “Mexican-ness.”

        His memoir poses the question:

        What makes Stavans a Mexican when he is fair-skinned, blonde, browned-eyed third-generation Mexican of Ashkenazic Jewish ancestry? 

        Stavans understands the duality in his life: growing up in a country where its customs felt foreign and were yet familiar; where his upbringing was an insular existence within his middle class Jewish neighborhood in Mexico City; and his Yiddish and Hebrew always led eastward—aliyah—to a motherland, a territory that remained intrinsic and nostalgic to the old guard yet met with such ambivalence by Stavans’ generation. He poses another question, one that brings him anguish. If he were to die, where would he be buried? Where would his allegiances lie?

        What Stavans discovers is that in his own desire to define himself, he realizes that he can’t fully find a satisfying answer—a fact that Mexican-Americans are born into. 

         As a child, language was my way of understanding my identity. Spanish was my first language, despite the fact I was fully bilingual before the age of four. I was the son of Mexican-American migrant farm workers who in the 1980s moved around the United States picking fruit for a living. Spanish was the language I used with my parents, the private one. I also used it in the migrant camps with the rest of the farm worker families, most of whom were undocumented immigrants. I learned very early about these stark divisions. English for me was outward, more open and free to use in schools, in stores, and on television. This understanding of using one language intimately over another is an important aspect of a multilingual child’s life. Early in my life I met Spanish and my culture with the same apathy as Stavans did his Yiddish and much of the diaspora.

        My childish thoughts: I know how to speak Spanish. I grew up in its world. For me, Spanish represented the past, my parents and my grandparents own past, their world and their struggle and my present, a waiting station. For me, English was mine (can one own a language?) and it represented a future, a world outside of the one I lived in. For me, Spanish moved with emotion and heart. English moved intellectually, with mind.

        These childish thoughts, not so childish. I knew then, much the way Stavans approaches the notion of language identity in his memoir, that defining oneself through the language we speak, leads to discovering a space that we (and our families) create. When the approach to the memoir is this way, suddenly, one’s geography, the places one lives, or one’s allegiances to our nationalities are not as crucial as how the language influences and moves within these elements.

        Stavans’ paternal grandmother, Bela Stavchanksy, emigrated from Warsaw, Poland in the 1920s to Tampico, Mexico. Bobba Bela was a natural polyglot, a woman who spoke six languages–Polish, Russian, Yiddish, Hebrew, Spanish and English––giving Polish and Russian up as a way into a new environment. Her past forges into future. 

        Stavans: “Her past needed to be overcome, even erased, if survival was to be achieved.”

       As Stavans’ grandmother willingly lets go of the languages of her past, she does what many immigrants do when detached from their homelands. They recreate what they had before as a method of preserving aspects of who they used to be.

       Bobba Bela devoured books with ambition. She even wrote one herself. Her diario, described her life in the Warsaw suburb of Nowe Brodno and her setting roots in Mexico City. Stavans refers to Bobba Belas’ der yishuv (the settlement) in Mexico City as an exact recreation of the shtetl in Poland, as if to “reghettoize [herself] in enclaves with little but business with the outside world.” 

       These enclaves in Mexico City developed and flourished into Jewish neighborhoods, synagogues, and schools that Stavans generation grew up in and, as he observes, remain insular and away from the “real” Mexican culture even today. Stavans asks an interesting question: did Bobba Bela ever fully leave Nowe Brodno? The answer, for me, carries an air of irony and contradiction.

       As Bobba Bela turned away from the languages that identified her past life, she kept one, Yiddish, as her intimate language, the one she spoke to her family often times, Stavans recalls, fusing it with Spanish.

       So, I wonder myself, why did Stavans’ grandmother shun her native languages and so willingly adopt the new one? Wouldn’t doing so have seemed a betrayal against her past, a sin against her identity? In Bobba Bela’s case, history shows us the inevitability of the situation for Jews across Europe at that time in the twentieth century.

        I’m aware my questioning is informed by what many Mexican-Americans who straddle the lines between identity and language across the borderlands go through everyday.

       Ni de aquí, ni de allá.
       Not from here, not from there. 

      Stavans describes his life this way: “To leave and return.”

      For me, this phrase evokes the journey many migrant farm workers, so many undocumented, in the United States embark on every season. Like wandering Jews, many do so without choice. Their lives dictated—we leave only to return. A movement: between past and future. And then again, with only very little to hold on to.

       I grew up in migrant camps. Many of these farm worker camps themselves were insular communities shut out from the outside world. I remember as a child asking my parents why we lived there. Our exile from the comforts of our American citizenship was beyond my control; my parents thought it an advantage to not have to worry about finding a place to live in a strange town, a simple room for a family of five was enough for them. Even then I wondered why did we have to live in such squalor, such poverty? This didn’t feel very “American” to me. I grew up wondering about the difference between myself and what I thought an American should be.

      A guest in a rented house, one can never fully own. 

      To this day, when I meet new people, many ask me what I am. Once a lady at a dinner party was appalled when I told her I was of Mexican descent. “You certainly don’t look Mexican. You have no accent. And your facial features are…”

       She allows her thought to trail off—Dot. Dot. Dot. 

        Clearly the woman who questioned my background, diluted and misguided as I take her comment to be, irritates me to the point I begin to ask questions. What truly makes me a Mexican if I am American-born and speak English without a trace of an accent? Can my only connection to owning my "Mexican-ness" be by skin and blood? And although I love and treasure my heritage, I've hardly set foot in my ancestors' country, so I feel no allegiance outside of rooting for Mexico's national soccer team during the World Cup, an allegiance that so many Mexican-Americans feel strongly about. I often wonder how many of these Mexican-American soccer fans can recite the Mexican national anthem, let alone "Mexico Lindo Y Querido," besides during a drunken stupor? I can't. Recently, I watched Mexican actress Salma Hayek recite both Mexican and American anthems on Letterman—Dot. Dot. Dot.

       I begin to understand that I'm just challenged with the same notions and difficult questions Ilan Stavans puts forth in his memoir.

      Around the time I finished reading On Borrowed Words, comedian Louis C.K. discussed in a Rolling Stone interview his “complex racial identity.” Louis C.K., a comedian who in his own way essais about the self on his television show, refers to himself as an “accidental white person,”  and explains how his “Mexican-ness” shaped his artistic identity. The Huffington Post picked up on the magazine cover story and referred to it as “Louis C.K. talks his ‘Mexican Past’.”

      I find humor in that phrase “Mexican past,” because in a way, traversing the border north, one is unavoidably forced to also give up one’s past. One assumes the future to be the achievement of the “American Dream.” Then again, it is easier if one is fair-skinned, white, guero, much like Louis C.K. and Ilan Stavans, to do something like that. Louis C.K. acknowledges this privilege as a “leg up in society,” while Stavans prefers to meditate on the repercussions of that “leg up.”

      And what, after all, attaches us to the land where one is born and raised?

      I’ll say for a Mexican-American (and the immigrant), the answer is never an easy one, but perhaps the best answer lies within the tension. 


César Díaz is a writer living in Austin, Texas. He teaches writing at Austin Community College and will teach creative nonfiction at St. Edward's University this fall. He is feverishly thinking, reading, and writing a memoir and a collection of essays. He is a very busy man.


  1. Brilliant piece, César. Much of my understanding about the complexity of these issues comes from your writing. For that I am infinitely grateful.

    Keep at it, brother.


  2. Well said, Mr. Diaz, well said. FWIW, Klinsman's edition of the U.S. National Team is looking more and more representative of the true American cultural collage...