“It is a most miserable thing to feel ashamed of home.” —Charles Dickens
One summer evening in Brownsville, when I was twelve years old, my father took us to see our house. For years, we were told about this place, bought with money saved from working the fields. Before then, the first years of my life were lived on the road, staying in other people’s places—a shanty trailer, a barracks, a onebedroom efficiency, or even the back of our car. But I never called any of them home. My father spoke of this house as his sole reason for working the migrant circuit my entire childhood. I was raised with the understanding that all that intense back-breaking work equaled a charming, if not modest, comfortable house. We paid for it, earned it, fulfilling our belief in The American Dream. “There it is!” my father said with a wide toothy grin.
I smiled, too, nodding my head with excitement. Although I was not exactly sure why.
During our absence, my father rented our house to a couple who then turned it over to squatters and drifters. The appeal of the house was gone, decimated by the wear and tear of strangers. I remember the driveway crammed with cars, some haphazardly parked on the dirt lawn, right up to the front porch. The screen door was flung open and askew, so brittle it was barely hanging on for dear life. Inside, the doors were replaced by bedsheets, wafting and billowing in the stagnant air coming from the screenless windows. Sweat, cigarette smoke, and cooking grease laced the walls while a heavy darkness settled in every corner, making my new home seem more than just cavernous, but in decline and ruin. Aghast, I walked out. My father stayed behind to talk to his tenants.
I sat in our van and sulked, deceived by false expectations. I was upset that the amount of hard work my parents put into those years of farm labor failed to match our due. My anger rose from those dashed hopes for success. I cried at the realization of what was actually there, yet another crappy place to live. A house that would never truly be mine, one I’d never feel comfortable living in. Was this exactly what we were working for?
I resigned to reject it.
What is a home if not a reflection of self?
A family sits on an ornate couch. Behind them, a sprawling mansion with grand fawn-colored walls adorned with greenery. To the left is a staircase with wide marble floor and wrought-iron railing, the kind Norma Desmond descends from in Sunset Boulevard. The staircase spirals past a massive window towards the manor’s other wing.
The family appears out of place, their faces captured in another time.
This photograph is located at the end of a hallway at my parents’ house. I stumble upon it randomly one day while snooping around. At first, I don’t recognize it. The original was a smaller 5 x 7 photograph taken in 1992, unlike this new iteration that’s been clearly Photoshopped (a bad job at that), blown up to twice its size, and framed in golden bronze.
I do not know the family in that photograph. I have never lived with such opulence or visible privilege.
I am fascinated by two things: what is being shown and how it is displayed. The bronze frame introduces our altered family picture, hinting at a pattern I’ve encountered throughout Mexican American culture in South Texas, an attraction to an affluence that is unattainable as it is counterfeit.
What is being declared in this photograph? The complete erasure of a family’s meager beginnings.
Rags to riches. One of the common running themes of the Mexican telenovela. Long thought of as a government tactic used to distract or influence social and cultural behavior, the telenovela of the 1970s and 1980s was not that far removed from its distant cousin, the Hollywood soap opera. Both told stories through a skewed lens, advocating certain ideals through implausible storylines that simultaneously distorted and reflected a fractured cultural narrative. The telenovela conveyed the aspirations of upward mobility of the working class, no matter the show’s major plot. That mobility, be it social or cultural or both, meant the protagonist, almost always an extremely attractive but lowly woman, is thrust from poverty into the arms of rich aristocrat. But the telenovela, with its escapist eye to melodrama, is always dead set against keeping their characters apart—el amor prohibido—drawing a distinct line between high society and lower class. The poor remain uneducated yet complacent, with the exception of our humble protagonist who desires more from life. The aristocrats have it all, but are cold and unhappy. The male protagonist seeks something real. Love becomes the bond to their worlds; and in the end, against all odds, that woman leaves behind her past life in the barrio, embracing the new one in a mansion.
My earliest recollection of watching telenovelas was at my grandparents’ house in Brownsville. I was told to sit on the couch and not talk or move during this time. I was more intrigued by my grandparents’ reactions to all the show’s machinations than what was shown on screen. I compared their reactions with those of my grandparents in Matamoros, Mexico, which were essentially the same. No one seemed at all interested in acknowledging or contesting the preposterousness of it all.
I was only six years old, but I knew all of it was dumb, and a lie. What I missed was understanding the influential grip of narrative power. Escapism can cast a most bewitching spell. No wonder the telenovela is one of the most popular forms of entertainment around the world. Skewed and fractured as that lens may be, the form alters our semblance of self.
The kitchen table is set, sopa de arroz steams across my face from a ceramic plate. A plastic cup of Mexican Coke is placed next to me. I take a sip from my drink and watch the drama unfold before me—my mother consoles her sister, Tia Lyla, who is so upset her eyes welt with tears. Tia Lyla wipes her face with the hem of her floral apron, then feigns a smile in my direction. When she looks back at my mother, that smile languishes, the mournful gaze returns. It’s Juan, my aunt says. Their brother, my uncle. He hasn’t called, he hasn’t written. The mere thought of it all makes my aunt breakdown. She must take a seat. It seems Tio Juan has forgotten them.
Tio Juan, the successful businessman from Monterrey, Mexico, who I grew up knowing was the only uncle on my Mexican side of the family to not fall prey to alcoholism and became a licenciado. To be a licenciado is to have graduated both high school and college, to have ascended to the upper-middle class. To be a licenciado is to also have stature and privilege.
But Tia Lyla is adamant that her brother has turned his back on his life, left the bordertown barrio to live the quaint life in a two-story house in the suburbs of Monterrey, because of esa mujer. That woman, my aunt.
For years, Tia Yolanda was our family’s antagonist. Perhaps, a better term would be the family “frenemy”, one to smile at in person, but scrutinize in private. Tia Yolanda was said to be loca, off her rocker, and alleged to have “put things in his head” that kept Tio Juan away from his family. The telenovela melodrama suddenly comes alive without commercial break.
When I think of Tia Yolanda now, I flinch at my childhood memory of her assessing her children and nephews by the color of their skin. She’s not shy to report that her prietitos—which includes my older brother, her eldest son and myself—were “cute” dark-skinned boys, but nowhere near as wonderful or exceptional as her two favorites: my other brother and her youngest daughter, los gueritos, clearly the fairer-skinned in our family. I understood and hated Tia Yolanda’s distinctions she set for us as children. But it introduced me to Mexico’s deeply entrenched racism against the dark-skinned and the culture’s elitist and classist structure.
If it was shown on a television screen, then it was so in my family.
Classicism and colorism bleed into the Borderlands and mimics Mexico’s colonial past. You see it everywhere, in behavior, appearance, and expectations, sometimes even from the humblest of persons. Don’t stay out in the sun, I heard my mother tell me, or you’ll get too dark. Or Mijo, you’re looking very dark, said with much dismay. Ingrained from childhood was the idea that the darker your skin, the less privilege you deserved. A silly tenet coming from a family that spent their life working in the sun, and descendants from people of the sun.
The main protagonists on any telenovela are always fair-skinned, or white. Commoners are always secondary characters, portrayed as the help, or as jesters for comic relief. These jesters are always indigenous, Indios, who are dark-skinned and not taken seriously. Even characters who desired and were granted upward mobility through love, were always fairer skinned, and thus worthy of moving away from squalor and into that sprawling mansion.
Photoshop removes my past from its original setting—a dingy old trailer with cheap wood-panel walls, drab monochrome window dressing, and my family sitting in a living room occupied by a queen-sized bed—and replaces it with a lifestyle my family has never known. Looking closer, I notice how awkwardly tacked on we are to that ornate couch. For some reason, we don’t all fit into this couch and one brother sits on what I assume is our immaculate marble floor.
I frown and wonder why this photograph was ever doctored when the original seemed fine.
I pose this question to my mother. She tells me that she just wanted a nice family portrait for once. For her entire life, my mother always wanted a perfect family picture, but she missed out on the 1980s trend of mothers dragging their children to the photo studio at K-Mart or Sears. During that time, we were busy picking fruit and saving money. But I can’t fathom my mother’s idea of a “perfect” family portrait. The more I pry, the more uncomfortable I make her, so I drop the subject.
In the Southside of Brownsville each ramshackle house is a stronghold. Lions, angels, and virgins stand like sentinels at the gates. “Sadly, no gargoyles,” I quip, chuckling to myself as I drive to my parents’ house. On the way, I notice more signs of pseudo affluence juxtaposed with reality. Elaborate fountains oddly ensconced in yards covered with vehicles at various levels of disrepair. One house has a mock baroque crystal chandelier with golden branches hanging from a sagging porch. It’s hard to tell whether that’s the fixture’s proper place or if it’s there temporarily, waiting to be set back at the center of a formal entryway, which, I conclude, this house may actually have with all the add-on rooms surging from its sides.
This last observation reminds me that here, furniture is transformed into lavish signs of wealth and privilege, no matter the backdrop. The formal dining table is not used for eating but as a showcase of 17th or 18th century Spanish colonial design, dripping with intricately carved scrolls and high gloss cherry sheen. In turn, its chairs are less utilitarian and more of an effort to exhibit the gilded floral print seat cushions. These tables are often covered in a clear plastic and shoehorned into small eat-in kitchens. Windows take cue from Victorian gowns, bloated damask with satin ruffles hang high on low walls, as if at any moment, ready to float across a ballroom. Like the dining area, the main living room is often smaller than the furnishing. An oversized couch set with ornately carved waves that echo its patterned embroidery upholstery is wedged against itself. Bureaus and china cabinets forfeit their use, becoming repositories for marginalia.
We moved into our house when I was thirteen. Despite our efforts at home improvements, I never quite felt completely secure. Setting down roots is hard when your childhood is built on displacement. To embrace ownership of a home, you must believe in it, and I did not believe. My rejection was a reaction to those aspirations I had maintained and believed in for my family and for myself. From their failure grew a sense of shame that set me on a path to seek my own manhood, my own independence. In a way, that shame changed everything.
César Díaz teaches creative nonfiction at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas. He is a featured columnist at Essay Daily. This piece is an excerpt from a collection of critical essays on South Texas culture.