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.


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  • Alexandra

    I understand how you feel at home at that Mass. I feel at home that same way at a Ukrainian Liturgy.
    What you’re describing is the dilemma of acculturation and assimilation. It’s never quite as easy or clear-cut as it seems.

  • http://maddygirl.wordpress.com elialuz

    I feel as if I know what you mean, David. My family came from Cuba pre-Castro to New York City, moving into a predominantly Irish neighborhood in the Upper Westside where we were the only Hispanic family in the neighborhood and in the Catholic school we attended.
    Although at home we spoke Spanish and kept a combination of Cuban and Spanish ( my grandmother who was from Spain, lived with us) customs, we unintentionally assimilated in a very short time. Yet, the assimilation was not accepted by all. The nuns at school changed our names to make it easy for them: my brother Raul, became Ralph; my sister Tania, became Theresa and I, Elia, was now, Ellen. Remember, we didn’t speak English when we first arrived at school so it was quite a surprise to discover that we had new names. And how did we discover this? Every time we wrote our names on anything they were crossed out and our new names put in.
    My mother also was instructed to change her name. Traditionally, women in Latin countries keep their maiden names when they divorce. My poor mother had to suffer the double humiliation of admitting to divorce in 1952 but to be told that her last name was really her children’s last name.
    In my case, pre affirmative action, I earned on merit a scholarship to a top private high school. However, even some of the nuns at that school for the four years I was there, implied that I had been admitted to the school based on financial need and not academic merit even though I was always one of the top three students in my class.
    There have been other incidents but my experience working with the Hispanic community has been very different. As much as I’ve tried to improve my Spanish, there are areas that still need work. When I retired from teaching and began working with the Jesuits in New York City helping in evangelization, I was humbled with the attitude of the people. At first they would not correct my grammar until I insisted that they do so. I can honestly say I gained a better understanding of Marian devotion and a greater openness to others’ way of praying. My life has been enriched in ways I never imagined and now I find involved in the Hispanic community in my new parish participating in many activities. Deep down I’m still a gringo, I know, but I’m enjoying my Hispanic culture in its religious component.

  • http://keydet54.wordpress.com keydet54

    You exile yourself.

    Sent from my iPhone


    • David Cruz-Uribe, OFS

      What do you mean by “I exile myself”? I chose the passive voice because I did not feel myself to be the actor in this, but rather acted upon by things I cannot see.

  • Mark VA

    The Muse came back bearing gifts – this is a great meditation, in my opinion!

    Even though I don’t have any Mexican ancestry, I feel drawn to the Mexican culture. I think that, for the most part, this culture embodies the spirit of true humility and humanity. It is joyous in its music, visual arts, architecture, speech, even food. It has a few weird customs, such as “Nuestra Señora de la Santa Muerte” – to the chagrin of the Mexican priests, I am sure;

    I hope that the old caste system of Mexico is dying out, and is being replaced by the middle class. I also hope that this process will leave the rich folklore of Mexico untouched. I think any culture suffers loss when its folklore diminishes, or is commercialized. Often, all that remains is a rootless, and increasingly aimless and parasitic high culture, with a vulgar pop side show. May Mexico retain the full spectrum of its rich culture;

    In the Estados Unidos we have a very successful Tex-Mex hybrid which proves (opinions of certain politicians notwithstanding) that Anglos and Mexicans can together produce a universally appealing and abundant local culture;

    Somewhere along this road, Panie Dawidzie, may you come across an opportunity to become fluent in Spanish. Doors will open where you didn’t know doors existed.