Conditionally Accepted*

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In college, I told my mom I was in a group for women of color, and she looked at me unsure. “Are you a woman of color?” she asked.

It’s the same look she gave me last month when we talked about race and migration. “I don’t really think of you as an immigrant,” she admitted.

“But we moved here together,” I reminded her.

“I know,” she said, and we laughed, remembering the things we went through. I’d get in trouble in school for following my teacher’s directions literally because that’s the only way I understood English. Drivers would stare at us on our walks to the grocery store––making it very clear that we were the only people who walked places in the Texas suburbs. A few months later, we were tricked into buying a car that would break down every 20 miles. After pouring water into the radiator or changing the oil, my mom would say “It’s God-powered, remember?” and I would nod, assured that our precarious rides were really miraculous adventures.

My mom and I have gone through so much together, and yet I know exactly what she means when she wonders if I am a woman of color or a Mexican immigrant like her.

Despite our similarities, in the United States, we have always been treated differently. I am perceived as White and American. She is perceived as brown and un-American. This difference in perception has enormous consequences –– consequences we’ll likely never know in full.

But, even though I have a lot of White privilege, I am often reminded of the fact that I am not White.

In high school, I slept over at the house of a friend who told me her brother had been robbed while delivering a pizza in the “Hispanic part of town.” The next morning, I went home replaying her words in my head. I decided that she didn’t mean anything bad by it. I reasoned that she didn’t think that hearing “Hispanic” equated with “criminal” or “dangerous” would be hurtful to me because she didn’t think of me as Latina. I mean, we both liked feminism and indie music and writing instant messages in lower-case letters. We were in a lot of the same classes. As far as I was concerned, we were practically identical. 

A few months later, I was accepted to the liberal arts college she’d told me about, and I got a good financial aid package, too. She was a grade below me, and I couldn’t wait to tell her. “I got in! I got in! Now you just have to apply, and then we’ll go to college together!” In my mind, our future was set. Our lives would be a spinoff of a teen drama on the WB.

Her eyes narrowed, “I probably won’t be able to go,” she said, before telling me that she didn’t have my advantages. What could she mean by that? Was she saying that being Mexican and having a single mom were advantages, implying that I didn’t deserve to get in? I mumbled something about “need-based financial aid” and kept encouraging her to apply. I cried when I got home.

In high school, I rarely talked about race or my immigration story. I knew the kinds of things White people said when they thought people of color weren’t around, and it didn’t feel safe. (I wrote a little bit about this for Enormous Eye, under the section titled 1:43 pm, my mom’s car.)

College felt safer. My roommate was from Miami, and she told me that even though her parents were from Venezuela, her mom loved Mexico and Mexican culture. Sometimes we’d stay up late, singing our favorite Alejandro Fernández songs, and I didn’t feel self-conscious speaking Spanish on the phone with my mom.

One day, I was telling a story about my hometown in Mexico. A White friend of mine laughed and said, “I like you because you’re Mexican, but you don’t, like, make a big deal out of it.” Her tone was light, but it felt like a warning.

People often say things like this to me. Their words are subtle reminders that I can belong to their club, as long as I know my place.

* The title for this post is borrowed from the blog Conditionally Accepted, “a space for scholars on the margins of academia.”

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Conditionally Accepted*

My Mother, Myself (and like a dozen dead ducks)

My mom just left, after being here for a week, and my heart is so full. My head is also full, with the realization that I am just like my mother.

I could illustrate this point with a million anecdotes, but let’s just talk about ducks. My mom is really into ducks, and when I say she’s “into ducks” what I mean is that she likes to eat dead ones. And somehow eating duck meat has become associated with Devin and me in her brain?

It started when she came to visit us for Thanksgiving in 2013 and we ended up at a tiny Thai restaurant on the Upper West Side on Black Friday.

“I’m going to get the duck,” she proclaimed. After dinner, she said, “That was the best duck ever, ever, ever.”

And now, when the three of us are together, my mom remembers the Best Duck Ever and takes us to a Thai restaurant where she invariably orders the duck.

The funniest part about it is that she doesn’t eat duck meat all the time. When my mom and I hang out without Devin, she usually eats whatever I eat. But when we are all together, eating duck is A Thing. I suppose it’s our family tradition, which is weird because Devin and I are vegetarian.

 

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My mom and a plate of duck at a Thai restaurant, 2017

This year Wisconsin upped the ante on our tradition because Devin and my mom found a raw duck in a little local grocery store in his hometown, where we spent Thanksgiving. They found the duck on Black Friday, and my mom thought it would be a nice gesture to cook it and share it with Devin’s family as a thank-you for hosting us. Except guess what. Practically nobody in Devin’s family eats duck.

So we came back to Madison with a frozen duck and no idea how to cook it. Last night we found a recipe and cooked it in the slow-cooker after a very dramatic duck chopping session (we learned the hard way that quartering a duck does not require cutting through its spine. OK, OK, all I did was read the WikiHow page out loud as far away from the whole process as I could be, but it still feels like something we did together).

Earlier tonight, Devin and I were staring at the yet-to-be-washed slow-cooker remembering our duck adventure, and he said, “You and your mom are a lot alike,” which is exactly what I was thinking.

I mean, I don’t make duck, but there is this beet recipe with pomegranate seeds and pistachios. I have fed it to everyone I know. I make it for Devin at least once a year, even though Devin has never expressed any preference for these beets and would probably prefer that I stopped. But when it is November, and I see pomegranates for sale, I am overcome by the conviction that it is Time for the Beets, and I have to make them. Of course, before beet season, it’s You’ve Got Mail season, which again does not seem to be important to anyone but me, and yet I regularly watch You’ve Got Mail with all my friends. OH. There was also the time that I ended up at a Christmas tree lighting in downtown Portland, singing carols with five of my friends, none of whom had any interest in Christmas trees or Christmas carols, but I was so excited that they didn’t have the heart to tell me that they didn’t want to go (I didn’t realize they weren’t that into it until I asked my friend Alison why she wasn’t singing, and she said, “Actually, I’m Jewish”).

That’s the thing about genuine excitement, isn’t it? It’s contagious. It makes you do things that you might not do otherwise. Devin and I don’t have any interest in eating duck, and we definitely had no desire to cook it. But my mom loves to eat duck with us. She really loves it. And so, in a weird way, we love it, too.

My Mother, Myself (and like a dozen dead ducks)

A long story about books and shame and dreams for Latinx babies

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I’ve written about this before, but when I moved to the States, the first thing I learned was that being Mexican and speaking Spanish was not cool (unless you were a talking dog that said “Yo quiero Taco Bell.” That dog was everywhere, and everyone seemed to think it was hilarious).

I’d grown up hearing, “El que sabe dos idiomas, vale por dos,” watching Follow Muzzy to improve my English over the summer, and attending a private school that prided itself on teaching every subject in Spanish and English. Everyone in my family spoke at least two languages, and the grown-ups taught us that being able to communicate with lots of different people was one of the coolest things you could do.

In Texas, the opposite seemed to be true.

The public school I went to was starting an English-Spanish bilingual program, but there were no books or materials. My mom was actually the lone bilingual teacher in charge of implementing this program. Her job was to teach all the kids from kindergarten to sixth grade, and faced with an empty classroom, she did the only thing she could think of. She got on a plane and flew to Chihuahua to buy books.

As I got used to living in Texas, it became harder to feel proud of my culture or to speak Spanish in front of other people. Once, at the grocery store, I noticed a White woman giving us a dirty look while I asked my mom a question in Spanish. My cheeks felt hot, and I stopped talking.

On the walk home, I asked my mom if we could speak Spanish at home and English in public. She said no. I asked if we could try to speak Spanish softly, instead of yelling. Suddenly, we seemed intolerably loud, and I wanted to do anything I could to make ourselves acceptable to the people around us.

I wasn’t the only one. At school, students told my mom they didn’t like their “ugly brown skin.”

“Why would you want to have lighter skin?,” my mom would say. “Our skin is kissed by the sun, our skin is the color of cinnamon. ¡Están hermosos!”

She taught us to sing “Ojos Negros, Piel Canela” and march around the classroom to songs by Cri-Cri.

Soon my classmates (most of whom had not learned to read in any language despite the fact that they were in 2nd grade) were reading and writing in Spanish. Their parents could read what they wrote! And their families looked really happy when they came to parent-teacher night to see my mom.

Against my wishes, I was soon transferred to an English-only classroom because the school said bilingual education was only for kids who didn’t speak English.

In my monolingual classroom, I met Latinx children who didn’t speak any Spanish at all. Many of them had parents who spoke limited English, and they seemed to rely on the older children in the family to interpret between the parents and the little ones.

In the past two decades, I’ve met countless families like this, and I’ve thought about how to prevent intra-familial language barriers.

The two things I believe we have to do if we want Latinx kids to grow up speaking Spanish in the United States are the things my mom has always done for her students and for me:

1. Teach them about their culture. Too often, schools––even schools that serve a majority Latinx population––neglect to teach kids about Latin American and Chican@ cultures, so we have to make up that difference ourselves. I once babysat for a family that only played Spanish-language music, movies, and television in their house. The little girls in that family understood Mexican culture despite never having been to Mexico. They laughed at their tía’s jokes and played “A la vibora, vibora de la mar” with their cousins.

2. Teach them to read and write in Spanish. Even when I wasn’t in a bilingual class, my mom kept buying me books in Spanish; my cousin Caren shared the novels she was assigned in school; and I felt really cool when I got older and could read books like Love in the Time of Cholera in their original form. (My aunt Martha Cecilia still buys me a book in Spanish every time she is in a bookstore because she’s that thoughtful.) Through my books, I learned words that made me gasp “There’s a word for that?!” and were impossible to translate. Thanks to my books, when Texas got to be too much, I had a way to escape to places where I wasn’t weird, and my culture wasn’t considered inferior. 

Now that I’m older, I often meet people who say they want their kids to grow up speaking Spanish. I take that super seriously because I know the difference it has made in my life.

I am not exaggerating when I say that being fluent in Spanish made the difference between having a close relationship with my grandmother and growing apart, between being proud and ashamed of who I am and where I’m from, between being myself and being someone altogether different.

That’s why I will always speak to your babies in Spanish if you want me to, and I will always get them books so that they can learn for themselves. That’s why when my cousin Vanessa told me she was starting Sol Book Box, I was all in.

It might seem strange for a childless person to be so excited about a book subscription service for Spanish-speaking children, but I signed up as soon as I could because it is hard to find books in Spanish at U.S. bookstores, and every time I give a book en español to a Latinx baby, I am praying that they get to grow up in a better world than I did.

A long story about books and shame and dreams for Latinx babies

Changing my name (but not really)

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When people asked me if I would take my spouse’s name after getting married, I would give an emphatic “NEVER!”

But actually, I’d already changed it.

In Mexico, I had two last names––my dad’s and my mom’s, same as everybody else––but on my U.S. documents I only had my dad’s, so when I moved to Texas, I lost my mom’s name.

I grew up thinking that that was the way it was. In Mexico, I had my full name. In the United States, not quite.

Last year when I shared my immigration story publicly, I decided I wanted to use my full name. It felt important to link myself to the people who raised me and love me and give me strength every single day and to the country that has been my home as long as I can remember. I decided I wanted to reclaim my full name in the United States and made that my resolution for 2017.

Then, the election happened.

Now there are many things that feel much more urgent than dealing with the bureaucracy of changing my name, so I’m not doing it yet. However, I have started using my full name everywhere I can.

So this is just a note to say, if you see an extra word hanging off the end of my name, don’t be confused. It’s just my name, and all of it is mine.

Sincerely,
Kristina Marie Fullerton Rico

Changing my name (but not really)

Carolina

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“I wanted to be a lawyer when I grew up, but since women couldn’t do that, I went to secretary school,” Abbita (short for abuelita) explained, when I called to interview her for a homework assignment about feminism. I’d been nervous to call, afraid she’d say feminism was a crazy American import or that it was un-Christian and ruining “the family” or that she was disappointed in me. Instead she told me about how she had worked for Licenciado Müller, a lawyer who helped women get divorced in Chihuahua. Abbita, whose real name was Carolina, said she loved her job because she cared about helping those women and because her boss trusted her judgment.

I never knew about any of this because she stopped working after she and my grandfather got married, but hearing this story illuminated the parts of her life I did know in a new way. It was the light turning on in a room I’d only explored with a flashlight.

All my life I’d heard about how she had been on her school’s basketball team. The girls wore long skirts as part of their uniform, but she joined the team in secret and had to hide it from her family because playing sports––even in giant skirts––was not ladylike. It was a quiet act of resistance. Like most of what she did.

My grandmother would often tell me the story of a woman who got married in the city and was soon forced by her husband to move to a little house with a dirt floor in the mountains, completely isolated from her friends and family. She would get angry telling this story and say that she supported the woman leaving her husband because the way he treated her was wrong. When I was little, I thought this was just one of those stories that grandmas tell (“This one again?”). I didn’t understand why it was such a big deal to her. Now I can imagine how desperate I would feel if I lost control of my life from one day to the next, can imagine how many women my grandmother knew who never regained it.

Whenever a woman she knew got married, Abbita would give her a little bit of money in secret because she believed it was essential that women have a way to escape bad marriages. This too seemed melodramatic to me (“Por si el marido le sale malo” sounded like something from a novela, and when I heard about my grandmother’s bridal safety-net tactics, I laughed and thought, “Too much Televisa.”)

In my own life, I’ve noticed that it is very taboo to talk about divorce if you’re married, but I don’t think I could be married if divorce weren’t legal and accessible to women. I don’t mean to imply that I take my relationship with Devin lightly, but I think marriage fundamentally changes when it is not an obligation. When I decided to get married, I didn’t have to give up my name or my rights. I didn’t have to give up my job or my dreams. I didn’t become someone’s property. I believe that Devin and I choose to be together even though we are free to leave. I believe we have the kind of marriage women like my grandmother fought for.

On the day of my cousin Vanessa’s wedding, Abbita told me a story. “I was never interested in cooking, but when I married your grandfather, I thought I should learn. He said, ‘No! Don’t take a cooking class. You should learn to play the piano,’ and he got me a piano. In the end, I didn’t learn to cook or play the piano. All I did was have babies. What kind of a life is that?”

Of course, that isn’t all she did. She did lots of things, like finding a way to own and manage properties and teaching me how to read and write and becoming so well-known for her wit that people would ask her to write their greeting cards and building relationships so strong that her children and grandchildren would fight over who got to sleep in the extra twin bed she kept in her room.

Still, I know she would have liked to do other things, too. It’s no coincidence that all of her daughters have Master’s degrees or that she gave each of her grandchildren a small sum of money when we turned 18 and said, “This is your money. You can do whatever you want with it.” She believed fiercely in independence. She took as much of it as she could and made sure we were free to have more.

Abbita didn’t go around exclaiming “I’m a feminist!,” but when I asked her to explain if she was, she had a quick answer: “Machismo means men are in charge, but feminism doesn’t mean women should be in charge. Do you know the saying ‘Behind every great man is a great woman’? Well, I don’t think anyone should be behind anyone. To me, feminism means that we all walk together, hand-in-hand.”

I think about myself at 21, nervous to call her, worried that I would have to defend feminism to my grandmother, wondering if there were any books I could give her to explain it in a way she could understand. I was so silly, thinking I’d discovered feminism when she had taught it to me all along.

Carolina

Valentines

The first order of Valentine’s Day business is a realization: I’ve had some really unexpected Valentine’s Days.

There was the one that started with a photo shoot for a whiskey ad and ended at a Harlem Globetrotters game, with a bizarre pseudo-romantic (not at all romantic) run-in in between.

There was the one that started with hundreds of dogs and ended with free ice cream, with a cinematic random act of kindness in between.

There was the one that started with surprising Devin with a bottle of milk and ended with him surprising me with a carton of soymilk. (I didn’t blog about that one because it’s as straightforward as it sounds. Technically, it happened simultaneously, but you know, poetic license…)

This year I spent Valentine’s Day with my niece Leila on her first birthday, and it was wonderful.

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I love visiting my cousin Vanessa (a.k.a. Leila’s mom) because we have similar tastes and interests, but she’s one million times cooler and more collected than I am. Visiting her is like glimpsing an alternate reality where I spend less time asking “What if?” and more time asking “Who cares?” That sounds funny to say because Vanessa’s very responsible, but she’s super carefree about it (and she literally smiles and says “Who cares?” in response to all my worries, which is exactly what I need to hear). Josh, my cousin-in-law, is a master of deadpan pranks, so their house is always full of laughter, albeit at my expense!

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This weekend I got to assist them in throwing a party featuring pink and hearts and the most ridiculous piñata I’ve ever seen. 

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The party was on Saturday (the 13th), and Leila partied so hard that she slept in on her birthday the next day. Vanessa asked me to watch her while she took a shower because Leila was sleeping in her parents’ bed. I was only with her for a few minutes before she woke up. She looked scared, but somehow I calmed her down before she cried. We looked at each other for a little bit, and then she reached out to hold my index finger and smiled and laughed and talked to me in baby babble.

When I got to Vanessa’s house on Thursday, the first thing I noticed was a print of three sisters hanging in Leila’s room. I knew immediately that she’d bought it to symbolize my mom and her two sisters (sometimes we call our aunts the tías-mamás because we are so close to all of them). I love knowing that Vanessa loves my aunts and mom like I love them. I love thinking about Leila growing up with so many abuelitas, but thinking about this, and remembering that I live far away from all my sobrin@s, hurts.

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I don’t know if I’ll ever get to live close to Leila. I don’t know if she’ll ever rely on me the way I do on my aunts. I don’t know if I’ll ever earn a place on her wall.

But I think I was the first person she saw on her first birthday. And she smiled and held my hand.

Valentines

2015 in Review

In 2015 I got a valentine named Leila (born February 14th)

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…and a little firework named Nolan Antonio (born July 4th).

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Devin and I finally went to Mexico City to visit my cousin Carol’s family. Carlos Manuel and Devin became fast friends and spent hours playing rockets. I wish I had a video!

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Victoria told me her favorite hobby was “helping,” so we spent time folding clothes and writing letters. She also learned to whisper and told me secrets like “I love baby Leila” and “Will you please come visit me again?” (I’m positive this information has been declassified by now.)

 

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All four of my sobrin@s finally got to hang out together in November, and I realized just how little babies care about each other. Victoria was excited, but the rest of them were preoccupied with things like sleep, milk, and their mothers. I suppose the real lesson is that I know almost nothing about babies because I expected them to have so much fun and become BFFs, but I guess those types of interactions don’t happen until after you’ve mastered things like holding your head up and feeding yourself? IDK.

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This summer Devin and I said goodbye to New York and hello to a little city between two lakes. In between, we decided to see as many of our friends and family as possible. Our goal was to attend every wedding we were invited to and meet all the babies we hadn’t yet met, and somehow we were able to do it. Highlights from this summer vacation included

• going to Jill and Eric’s wedding in Portland (the first Portland wedding I went to was my own, and Jill and Eric came to our wedding, so it was like déjà vu + role reversal + our friend Tasha!)

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• sightseeing in San Francisco with my mom

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• sharing Chihuahua with the world via Enormous Eye

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• falling in love with Mexico City

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• packing up our apartment and saying goodbye to our friends in New York (that part was actually so hard and sad and why can’t you make everyone you love go everywhere you go?)

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• being welcomed to our new neighborhood in Madison by this incredible octopus sculpture (it’s gone now, but I will never forget it)

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Sometime in 2015 I decided I’d like to be the Ambassador for Mexican Snacks. I blogged about burritos and junk food, and at Christmas I got my very American suegra hooked on Valentina, Mexico’s top hot sauce. Though I’m not yet receiving a paycheck for my ambassadorial services, I am certain that my career is on track and look forward to living in a mansion with a giant chamoy fountain in the center where I can entertain dignitaries and elevate Mexican snacks to the level of fame they deserve. I expect all of this to happen within the next year, and you are all invited to the housewarming party. ; ) 

2015 in Review