Conditionally Accepted*

mi mami y yo.JPG

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.”

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.


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 butterfly (a.k.a. mi paisana) in the flowers

My immigration story starts with children’s TV commercials from the ‘90s.

I was a little girl in Chihuahua, Chihuahua, when my mom got cable television for our house. To me, it was pure magic. I would watch Cartoon Network as often and as long as I could. The cartoons were dubbed in Spanish, but all the commercials were in English. And I was hooked.

Before I could speak any English at all, I knew how to say, “Live and learn and then get Luvs,” and I dreamed of going to Long John Silver’s. My favorite commercials were the infomercials for kids’ toys—the ones with bright blue screens and 1-800 numbers at the end. I thought about pretending to be a grown-up so I could order something, but I didn’t know how to make international calls.

As a middle-class kid in Northern Mexico, the United States was where I went shopping. My mom and I would go to El Paso and spend a few days buying the clothes and toys that were ten times as expensive in Chihuahua. The whole country seemed like an amusement park.

In the summer of 1996 my mom asked me if I’d like to live in the States. I jumped at the chance.

I couldn’t wait to live in those perfect commercials, to see movies—like The Hunchback of Notre Dame—as soon as they came out instead of waiting months for movies to come to Mexico, and to eat fast food all day every day. My life was going to change. I was going to be a short drive away from a Toys R Us!

Of course, I quickly learned that life in the States is not all fun and games. Sadly, one of the first things I learned when I moved to the States was to describe myself as “from Mexico” rather than “Mexican” because I heard “Mexican” used as an insult so often. My identity went from being something celebrated to being a bad word.

In Mexico, I’d heard about pochos, people of Mexican ancestry who couldn’t speak Spanish (or spoke it incorrectly). When my mom and I moved to Texas, we met many people who fit that description. The common perception of them in Mexico was that they were ashamed to be Mexican (malinchistas al máximo) and that’s why they didn’t speak Spanish. But soon we learned that Spanish used to be banned in Texas schools. One of my mom’s friends told us about how she would be hit with a ruler if her teachers heard her speaking Spanish. After seeing their daughter come home with red knuckles day after day, her parents encouraged her not to speak Spanish anywhere, not even at home, so she could avoid punishment.

Some of the Mexican-Americans we met might have been ashamed of their roots, but that shame was systematically taught.

I learned that shame, too. Overhearing racist jokes—so many racist jokes—seeing the way people looked at me differently when I spoke Spanish, and being told I was “not really from Mexico” when I defied people’s stereotypes are just a few of the ways my surroundings taught me that being Mexican was categorically A Bad Thing.

Luckily, I had an antidote for this poison. I would learn shame from a culture that positioned itself as the best and deemed my home inferior, but then I got to go home. And I saw how wrong that view was.

My home isn’t a place where chickens run around the yard and people ride donkeys (although now that I’m a grown-up environmentalist, that sounds rad). My home is Chihuahua, Chihuahua, and it’s where I got to go the theater, take painting classes, and learn modern dance from a Cuban teacher (who was visiting Mexico from Cuba for a summer). Chihuahua is the place where my little cousins took Japanese classes just for fun, and I was surrounded by people who prided themselves on speaking at least two languages. The world seemed bigger there.

I worry about the diaspora kids who don’t get to have this, the Mexican families physically torn apart by that arbitrary line called the border/la frontera.

On one of my first days in Madison, I sat in a park watching monarch butterflies and thought about their migration from Madison, Wisconsin to Morelia, Michoacán and back again. Can you imagine how wrong and unnatural it would be to build a wall to keep butterflies out of a country? Is it any less so to do this to human beings?

There are many reasons why I believe having national borders that people cannot cross freely is wrong, but the most personal is that I don’t know who I would be if I hadn’t been able to go back to Mexico to relearn how to love myself.


Mother’s Day, another rad holiday

People told me that they liked my post on Cinco de Mayo last week, so this week I present to you another edition of Rad Holidays We Don’t Know Anything About: Mother’s Day Edition!

It wasn’t until last year that I learned that Mother’s Day was conceived as an anti-war holiday. It wasn’t a day to celebrate moms (although that’s neat, too. Hiii, Mom!). It was a day for mothers to speak out against war.

“Mother’s Day for Peace,” that’s the full name of the holiday we celebrate every second Sunday in May. Julia Ward Howe introduced the idea in 1870 with her “Mother’s Day Proclamation.” Calling for international peace, Howe wrote, “We the women of one country are too tender to those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.”

In 1872, Howe called for Mother’s Day for Peace to become an annual holiday to be celebrated every June 2. It was celebrated as such until President Woodrow Wilson made it a national holiday in 1914. His “Mother’s Day Proclamation” mentioned nothing about peace and moved the holiday to May.

I know governments wage war, but I find it alarming that President Wilson didn’t even mention peace as a long-term goal. What does this say about this country’s values? And what can we do to change them?

Check out 8 Ways to Reclaim Mother’s Day. And Happy Mother’s Day to mi mamá and all the other moms who read this blog!

Mother’s Day, another rad holiday

Oh, the places I’ve been: Charleston, South Carolina and the Barrier Islands

In August, when Devin and I got back to New York, I declared, ‘Hey! If I still have a job in December and I’ve managed to save up some money, I want to take my mom to the beach’, and Devin said, ‘Of course you will have a job’.

Spoiler alert: he was right about the job (phew!).

I’ve always wanted to take my mom to Carolina, Puerto Rico because her name is Karolina, but my meager savings were not enough to go there. I did, however, have enough reward miles for one roundtrip flight to Charleston, South Carolina. After I did some research and learned that there are islands there, I decided it was the perfect destination. Island setting? Check. Carolina in its name? Check. It’s practically Puerto Rico, you guys.

We went for a week in March and left completely smitten. Charleston is nice, but the first thing my mom, Devin, and I each noticed was how segregated it is. And how expensive it is for a city in the South. It’s hard to imagine that jobs in the area pay well enough to buy $9 juices and $30 dinners…

After a few days in Charleston, we left for a vacation rental on one of the tiny islands that dot the Carolina coast. Next time I’d skip the city altogether and go straight there.

Travel tip: the dolphins perform at 3 PM every day.
Travel tip: the dolphins perform at 3 PM every day.
I fell in love with Spanish moss.
Spanish Moss Forever
This church is hundreds of years old. It was the first church on the island.
This church is hundreds of years old. It was the first church on the island.
I took Devin on a milkshake date here.
I took Devin on a milkshake date here.

Not pictured: woodland friends including owls and baby deer, the summer camp that looked Wes Anderson meets It Takes Two, all the colorful wooden houses, more Spanish moss.

Oh, the places I’ve been: Charleston, South Carolina and the Barrier Islands

A little bit about my mom


Before I was born, my mom and dad moved from Boise to Philadelphia. Upon arriving, they took a guided tour of the city. They saw the Constitution Center, the Liberty Bell, and all the other famous landmarks. At the end of the tour, my mom saw that they were hiring tour guides. Without thinking twice, she applied for the job, and within five days, she was leading the tour she’d just been on. She says that the people on her tour would exclaim, ‘How beautiful!’ and she would think (‘That’s exactly what I said last Tuesday!’) while seeming to everyone else like a Philadelphia expert.

When I was little, my mom worked for a municipal program in Chihuahua that helped wimyn find jobs. She set up training classes for the participants, taught them interview skills,  and outfitted them in appropriate interview attire. She was so successful that soon the wimyn started bringing their husbands to her, and she helped them find jobs, too.

My mom had other jobs: at different points in my childhood, she worked for the newspaper, ran her own ad agency, and worked in the marketing department of the biggest chain store in town. But when I was in second grade, my mom decided she wanted to be a teacher.

We moved from Chihuahua to Texas, and she got her teaching degree. And then, she got her M.A. in Education because why not? She’d teach all day, and then go to class. Sometimes she’d pull all-nighters to finish her homework, always making sure that she did her very best. Her students’ parents would tell me, ‘You are so lucky to have her as your mother’, and her professors would say, ‘Your mom is an impressive student. You’re a lucky girl!’

My mom can become friends with anyone anywhere, and when she throws parties, sometimes the house gets so full that people end up sitting in the dining room, kitchen, living room, backyard, and even the bedrooms.

She taught me to treat everyone with dignity and respect, to learn the names of everyone at my school: the teachers, the principal, the custodians, and the crossing guards. She taught me to dream big and to trust myself and to let life be fun!


A little bit about my mom

New Year’s Eve

Tonight a bunch of my family went out for dinner and dancing to bring in the new year. At midnight, my mom, my aunt Menry, and Vanessa whispered, ‘This is your year’ when they hugged me, and my heart skipped a beat every time. And I couldn’t say anything back because I didn’t want to ruin my mascara.

I missed Devin a whole lot, especially during the dancing. But then Menry said, ‘Colecciono momentos mágicos. Creo que este es uno’, which reminded me so much of something my grandmother used to say. And then the band played the first song Devin learned in Spanish, and my aunt Martha exclaimed, ‘La canción de Devin!’

I remembered what it was like to kiss my Abbita on the cheek to wish her a happy new year, and I imagined what it will be like to kiss Devin at the stroke of midnight. And I thought about how the people you love stay a part of your life forever.

This year I finally ate all twelve of my grapes and made a wish for each one. At 12:30, my aunt Menry said, ‘We have to go because we’re getting up early tomorrow’.

But the whole family stayed until the party was over. Like we always do.

Happy new year!

New Year’s Eve