According to maternal lore, I was supposed to be a twin. My mother grew so fat when she was pregnant that her doctors thought perhaps there were two of us hiding inside her swollen womb. Doctors even heard two heartbeats at one point and when her weight tipped 200 lbs., her OB ordered her on a strict “No Dairy” diet for fear that she would develop gestational diabetes while carrying double duty. That was like a death knell for a woman addicted to chocolate and cheese so she ignored the doctor’s advice and ate on. After I was born and there was just one, average-sized me presented to her, the doctors concluded that it must have been all that apple pie and chocolate ice cream and the other heartbeat well… maybe indigestion. In spite of the doctor’s misdiagnosis, the origin story, my mixed ethnicity and being born a Gemini, nudged mom to refer to me as two while we were growing up together. She would say things like, “You two are the wind and the sun.” Or she would call me her, “Mexican-White Ninas.” Two sides. Two worlds. My journey.
Apparently, the adoption at Booth Memorial Salvation Army Hospital in Chicago was set up prior to the delivery but mom hadn’t been included in that particular conversation. The assumption was that a young, un-wed, pregnant girl in 1970 wouldn’t want the stigma and responsibility of raising a child or, certainly two, on her own. Imagine her surprise when the bonneted nurses whisked the single birth baby (me), away following a very difficult delivery and then presented her, instead, with a thick stack of adoption papers. They offered a photo of the eager couple and said that I’d be well taken care of. Apparently, mom told those nurses that she would be raising her baby on her own and without a man and then turned to ask for a cigarette. She was ok with going it alone. My Mexican father had stated in very plain terms that he didn’t want anything to do with babies but, if she were going to go through with the whole thing, to consider naming me after his favorite Brazilian movie star “Carmen Miranda.” Mom would smile smugly as she relived this part by reenacting her abrupt and succinct response to him, “Uh, no.”
So when my white mother brought three-day-old me on a plane from the Salvo hospital in Chicago to the idyllic shores of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, my ancient Aunties hobbled over to take a look at the half-Mexican baby hidden deep inside the swath of pink bunting. At some point during this first meeting mom thought Aunt Fern might topple over in her enthusiasm to see my face. And when she was finally able to get a gander at me, Fern exclaimed with great relief and salutary joy, “She’s so white!” There was sighing and laughter as though a dreaded danger had been averted and congratulations were in order, although my mother obviously had nothing to do with it, and the old ladies invited me inside to meet the rest of the family-The Originals. One side had passed muster and she was white.
Like many of us, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about ethnicity, race and identity and this familial anecdote has replayed a few times in my mind. What’s especially intriguing to me is that the “Original Family Meet-up” story was always told as if I were a winner in some kind of a weird 50-yard-dash. Nobody came out and said, “Good for you and if you had looked more like your dad, then you would have been out on your ear, kid!” But the messaging was clear. Light was positive and dark, well, you get the picture.
To be honest, my olive skin tone was something I relished unleashing to full capacity in the summers of my childhood. I would allow myself to bake full-crisp at Hathaway’s Pond. I was different from all of my blondie cousins and this gave me a uniquely rooted sense of pride. It wasn’t until I grew older that I began to see the subtle and not so subtle messages sent about my father’s cultural heritage. He was absent and, therefore, an unknown entity, unable to defend himself or the entirety of the Mexican culture and so the micro-aggressions against being of mixed ethnicity and programming that Anglo culture was somehow better became internalized without me even realizing it.
For example, Auntie wasn’t thrilled when I’d come home from the beach, “a darky” or if I wore my hair in long thick braids down my back and looked like, “a little Indian.” Accolades were given when I stayed out of the sun, straightened my hair and wrestled myself into the tiniest ball of girlhood so as to be almost invisible- when I let my boy-cousins shine and gave obsequies to my elders in ways that showed I may someday be fitting marriage material. Honestly, it’s hard to determine where the line of ethnic prejudice began and ended since most of my memories are clouded with so many “isms.” I can’t determine which was at play. Classism? Sexism? Racism? Catholicism? It was a veritable stew pot of “isms” from which I grew.
I had a conversation with someone about this a few months back and they asked me what EXACTLY was communicated negatively about being of mixed ethnicity and I felt like someone trying to recover incidents of sexual harassment that are so subtle as to resemble the change of sky over the course of a minute or describing the difference between sea foam and turquoise. My current perception of these moments, my interpretation of language and my own experiences with cultural bias are shaping these memories as I write them and I see that I am perhaps unfairly indicting people who can longer defend themselves. After all, this was the white family who actually embraced me. How could I turn on them even in memory?
What I do exactly know is that being a half Mexican daughter of a single, white woman in Massachusetts in the 1970’s and 80’s created an otherness that I struggled to come to terms with. In the pristinely white world of Cape Cod, at that time, I recall folks turning down invitations to dinner at our house or aloof declines of friendship. On one occasion at school, a girl wouldn’t speak to me because her mom said “not to.” Since my father was absent, most people didn’t know what my ethnic background was and I would get a whole smattering of unsolicited guesses: Hawaiian, Greek, Italian, perhaps, Portuguese? I would proffer the truth and many were quick to provide seeming comfort with knee-jerk responses like, “You’re only half. You’re not REALLY Mexican.” They would give me an encouraging smile and we would continue as though nothing were said but I would shrink into that tiny ball again. Whether their reactions were meant benignly or not, it felt as though they were denying me half of my identity and that part of their acceptance was, in fact, denial. These are painful anecdotal shards gathered in memory that communicated difference and those differences equated to “less than.” As a young person, this left me avoiding a full integration of self and identity for a very, very, very long time. In other words, one twin was awake to the world while the other remained, well…. asleep.
When I was ten I did meet my father. I wanted a treehouse. I didn’t really mind growing up without a father but I did mind not having a treehouse and believed deeply that if we were to meet, he would build one for me even though he had never even bought me a toothbrush. Although the reunion didn’t go as I imagined and I never got that treehouse, over the years we curated some rich memories: waterskiing for a few summers in Wisconsin, purchasing my first car together after college, seeing his face as I graduated from USC’s Master’s Program and holding hands on the sofa as he lay dying. Most importantly, the knowing of him and his large family helped me to acknowledge my other half, to say “Yes” to those parts of myself that were unknown and other and dig into a real exploration of everything she was about.
The thing is, in my original family, I do see places where cultural bias was absolutely at play. It happened and yes, it was painful and confusing but I remind myself that although these individuals had limited exposure to other cultures and ethnicities, they overcame whatever biases existed and embraced me. They fed, clothed, loved and encouraged me to survive and thrive in the world and that love pushed me to wake that sleepy twin. The old aunties and young, the cousins and friends and the mother who never abandoned me, they loved me to a place where saying”Yes” to my Mexican identity, to my father, to his hermanos, hermanas and primas was ok.
And in the end, none of us needs anyone’s permission, validation or approval to move forward on our personal journeys. I’m happy to say that today, I’m saying “yes” to each side. I value the wind and the sun in equal measure. Those Mexican and White Ninas are charging head-first into one world with both parts contributing to a delicious stew pot of awesome. Turns out, I’m twins after all.