On the Sources of Cultural Identity
I picked Italy because I was studying Western art, and NYU had a villa in a hilly olive orchard in Tuscany. I also picked Italy because, as I stared at the poster tacked to a corkboard in the study abroad office, I remembered, with a sting, years before: the dark Manhattan living room of some rich friends from high school (cloth tartan wallpaper, heavy silk curtains, and a gaggle of Cavalier King Charles spaniels silent in their crates), sitting akimbo on the floor like kindergarteners as we smoked and ate potato chips and watched the 1999 remake of The Talented Mr. Ripley, a film that takes place in a lusciously stylized 1950s Italy. They continually paused it to compare notes, with gusto and pleasure, about their visits to the Spanish Steps and the Amalfi Coast, their suites at the St. Regis on Via Vittorio. I stared out the windows at silent, bustling Madison Avenue below us; having never been to Europe, let alone for an expensive vacation, I had nothing to add to these bursts of memory. In the jazz club scene, my friends joined the actors in the chorus of Tu Vuò Fà L’Americano—a song that pokes swinging fun at an Italian’s blundering attempts to seem American—bopping their heads and waving their arms, blissful at the sound of their own Italian singing. I was bitterly conscious of my invisibility, and mesmerized by the apparent expansiveness of their worlds compared to mine.
Italy was a good choice for me because I absolutely, whole-hog, madly, truly adored it.
I arrived in Florence for a year’s study gauzy with jetlag and wordless except for cappuccino and ciao, smiling like a drunk as I toddled down the pebbled path to my host family. Within a week I felt at home among the curving cobbled streets and smoky cafes, the musical loops and rhythms of the language. I picked up Italian with preternatural speed. Learning and speaking it gave me conspicuous, almost embarrassing joy. I felt musical and buzzed, a little wild, very free. I learned vocabulary and grammar like that, jumped two levels in class before the end of the year. My accent was thrillingly good, nearly perfect. I ate in far-off restaurants where you didn’t see Americans or hear English, and relished learning new phrases from waiters. I learned slang. I spoke aloud to myself around the house. I watched Italian movies, listened to Ligabue and Giorgia CDs, copied Italian newspapers into my journal. I understood why my New York high school friends were transformed into flirty, neon versions of their best selves while singing along to tu vuò fà l’Americano, l’Americano, l’Americano. And my own fluency, which quickly surpassed theirs, was transporting in deeper ways, too: speaking Italian so well let me feel Italian, and feeling Italian meant not feeling American. Which is to say, suddenly removed from America’s insistence on reminding people of color of their coloredness, I experienced racelessness in the way I imagine white people often do. It was a remarkable—and fleeting—liberation.
Fueled by my fluency and a real—if temporary—sense of self-determination, most of my Italian memories are terrific: I eagerly embraced the local look, throwing out my American wardrobe and spending my cotton-soft lire on clothes from Miss Sixty, Benetton, and Diesel. I did my eyeliner like the Italian girls, heavy, black, and swooping. I wore Dolce & Gabbana Light Blue perfume. Modeling Italians, I swore off cappuccini after morning. I grinned at the buoyant freedom of eating pizza Italian style—an entire pie per person. I got myself a cute Florentine boyfriend with curly blond hair and blue Superga sneakers, and we drove his old Porsche to Castiglioncello, his big, rough hand resting lax on the stick shift. We stayed in a yellow house near Marcello Mastroianni’s place, watching Italian vacationers dip in the cool Ligurian Sea, their tan bodies shining like brass in the August sun. On Capri, my girlfriends and I took taxis to Marina Piccola. We ate cheese, tomatoes, and bread, and we drank chianti. We catnapped in black bathing suits; daydreamed of swimming, slick as dolphins, to the yachts harbored in the turquoise water; rolled onto our sides to watch guys roughhousing in the waves; and walked in flip-flops with beach-heavy, relaxed legs up the long steps to Chiesa di Sant’Andrea, a white breadbox of a church, to imagine our wedding days. In Rome, I felt allied to the ruins, as if among kin, while I crossed the same flat stones as Caesar and the Vestal Virgins. I ate an achingly delicious wedge of lasagna at a hole in the wall near the Vatican. At Christmastime, I popped roasted chestnuts into my mouth and sat alone in the crisp evening air near the Trevi Fountain, listening to the Americans and Germans, smug about how to the manner born I was, and the fact that my emotional allegiance was to Italy. I took the bus to the Villa Borghese and spent afternoons there, a thick white book of Italian grammar and copy of Grazia in my tan suede bag, and never tired of circling Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne, with Daphne’s mouth soft and open like half a white peach and the inferno of stone leaves overtaking her fingertips. Same thing, The Rape of Proserpina, with her marble thigh warm and doughy, the tender underside of her feet almost caught in Cerberus’s bite, and Pluto’s fingers full of shadow so that they look dirty, the knuckles and cuticles black as the fingers of a mechanic. I savored the overlap between daily life and the ancient: how I passed Michelangelo Buonarroti’s childhood home while walking to the gym, how Dante might have lingered on the same bench where I read the paper and ate strawberry gelato at sunset.
This bounding glee, my jubilant, carefree absorption of Italy and my enmeshment with the culture was so euphoric that it could not last. A weekend in France reminded me who I was, and of the limitations race imposes on us even when we briefly forget them.
Ready for a foray into another country, my roommates and I boarded a silver train at Florence’s main station and felt like sophisticates as it raced northwest, blue passports and a little worldliness in our hands. From vinyl seats we looked through scratched-up windows out to the horizon. After a moment, my
roommates dropped their eyes to their books but I continued watching Italy. Seeing the chalky hillsides and the crystalline cubes of distant marble quarries, I imagined Michelangelo, on whom I had an art-student crush, just over the hillcrest with his leather belt of chisels. I watched the ocean appear and disappear, and imagined that the yachts lined up like piano keys were a good omen—a promise of a stylish, lucky future. I memorized little cardboard-cutout train stations and the shape and color of the clothes hung to dry between apartments. I watched the coiffed, chic adults with sweaters tied gently over their shoulders as they strolled; bowlegged old men in hats; old women in long plain skirts; Italian teenagers with ratty, flared jeans and topknots, nose rings and throaty laughs to match their cigarettes; Italian guys hopping on Vespas, one’s slim arms around the other’s slim waist, both leaning into an accelerating curve. I wanted to merge with all of it. I wanted to become Italian; to shed the America that seemed to stand between where I happened to be born and who I actually was. Italy felt like the real universe the way Manhattan does when you first arrive.
Our train pulled into Gare de Nice-Ville and we stepped into the chilly French air. “Hello, France!” we called out. I remember being refreshed by Nice’s new foreignness. For breakfast, we ate scrambled eggs as silky as custard and milky coffees served in big bowls. We sensed a hedonism in France that would have been frowned upon in Florence, and, being twenty, decided to each buy a bottle of red wine and drink it, topless, at the beach. The ocean was uninviting on an overcast October day but, once drunk, we waded in happily, our feet wobbling on rocks and the seawater leaving a patina of French salt on our calves. Our cheap hotel room was on a courtyard and kitty-corner from windows of a family’s apartment. At night, the window shone gold from the lights within, and we listened to the sounds of their big dinners, pondering whether the husky French words were more beautiful than Italian.
What struck me like a gong that weekend, though, was the presence of brown-skinned people—more in one walk to the beach than I’d seen in two months in Florence—and how segregated they seemed from white French life. It reminded me, Oh yeah, race is a thing. And, I’m Black. To be sure, seeing Black people made Nice feel more like America in good ways. Nice became, through the presence of a Black population, a diverse city that was part of our shared globe, not just its own world. But, also like America, I could sense and see that Nice was a place where blackness meant something suspect, where it existed at a remove from “normal” or “true” French life. These Black and brown Niçois were mostly Africans. They stood in skinny clusters, dressed in tracksuits, bald-headed and smoking at bars where soccer matches were played on high-mounted televisions. They sat on folding chairs in Internet cafes, legs jangling, and chattered a carbonated seltzery mix of French and African tongue into little black flip phones. They walked with bags of groceries on each hip toward whatever lay outside the city center, their hair wrapped in cloth. They did not, as far as I saw, hang out with white French people in public. I struggled with their presence in my own way. On the one hand, simply having Black people around made me less of a visual oddity and helped me feel acclimated on some instant, preverbal level. On the other hand, these French Africans were so incredibly foreign to me, foreign within foreign like double hearsay, that I couldn’t actually relate to them at all. They were a mystery. I couldn’t imagine their inner lives and moment-to-moment reactions to life the way I can when I share culture and history with people. And if they felt any affinity for me, they didn’t show it. I thank France for teaching me the tragic lesson that African American and African are not alike. I had seen Africans before, but seeing them in a new environment, far from my home, clarified our differences. This lesson may not be tragic
to Africans (or West Africans, to be more precise), but it is to this Black American—a person who is almost by definition searching for a home. We share a root with each other, a common genetic and cultural lineage, but after the ordeal of American centuries, our offshoot is almost wholly distinct from the original seed. So distinct that we are, in fact, almost rootless. I resisted, but had to accept, the news that my brethren and I were not close anymore.
By contrast, the white French were relatable in an absolute and almost compulsory way. This is an indictment of just how easily I acclimate to whiteness, just how “colonized” my mind is, but it isn’t just me—all people of color are brainwashed into relating to colonial powers. Their normativity, our double consciousness, and our yearning to be accepted and whole, to be, essentially, de-otherized, means we “get” the colonial perspective, we can imagine it, even if we don’t like it or want to. So, despite myself, it took nothing for me to conjure up
and sympathize with the inner life of the bored, white French girl who rang up our coffee, or the French grannies walking around with farmer’s market baskets. Even the bitchy old duck of a woman who worked at the post office, who watched me enter with a postcard, put down a few Euros, point to where a stamp would go, and say, “Bonjour! Je suis désolé, je n’ai pas le mot . . . par avion, si’l vous plait?”—who stood unmoving and silent, lips puckered like a drawstring purse, staring at me as if she had no idea what I could be trying to say or do at her service window—she was more relatable to me than the Africans who made me feel at home, even though part of her disdain may well have been a response to my blackness. It was as if dark skin was opaque to my imagination and light skin was a
We returned to Italy on an evening train, tired from sleeping on cheap mattresses and, it was a delight to realize, homesick for our Florentine lives. But as soon as I returned to Italy, it felt different. Being in France had, as I say, reminded me that I was Black, that blackness was an unavoidable wrinkle in white spaces.
Now, eyes open, I began to see that the Italians had an odd way of conceptualizing blackness. With no self-consciousness, with total confidence, Italians would often ask me, “Qual è la tua etnia?” Whether this merely sounded more elegant than What are you? is hard to say; it’s a question I, like many mixed people, are used to hearing in the United States. With white Americans, the otherizing, entitled, unsophisticated exchange often goes like this:
“So, what are you?”
Sigh. “You mean, ethnically/racially?”
“Black, white, and Mexican.”
“Oh, yeah, I couldn’t figure it out.”
“Why do you ask?”
“I was just curious. It’s so cool to be mixed.” And sometimes, as an addendum, “I’m mixed, too, English and German.”
(There is also this variant: “Where are you from?” “California.” They pause, then continue: “I mean, where are your parents from?” “California and New York.” They pause, then continue: “But like, before that?” “They were born there, and their parents were born in the United States, too.” Long pause, “Oh.”
And the far more confounding variation: “What are you mixed with besides American?”)
I suppose “Qual è la tua etnia?” did sound more elegant, more charming, more disarming than What are you? because I’d almost always answer. But after Well, my dad is Black the Italians would cut me off happily, exclaiming something like, Black! Che bello! Motown! Or they’d throw their hands up joyfully and start to dance—a nod to our rhythm? Or they’d say, I love Black people! So much life! The Italian sense of American blackness was celebratory. They heard Black and their minds didn’t immediately swarm with the biting, sad-faced locusts of America’s rotten habits. Initially, I loved this new paradigm. It felt like a recognition. A respect for joy; Black joy seemed innate to the Italians I met—innately comprehensible, innately whole, innately present. Or so it appeared at dinner parties and bars, over primi piatti and vino, our glasses colliding with tings!, cigarettes between fingers, all of us buzzed and delighted at our internationalness, each of us an Italophile (none more than the Italians themselves), and all of us bonding over the bounty of our lives. At those tables, What are you? Oh! I love Black people! felt as round and jammy and full of mirth as the wine we drank. I enjoyed the temporary deliverance from my own bleak narratives. I floated in the warm, unfamiliar feeling of being from a cheerful history.
Eventually, however, it began to chafe, this particular love of blackness the Italians had. It was genuine on one level; but in the same way that I genuinely love wintery weather while choosing to live on the Pacific coast, where it never snows. There was no vocabulary or curiosity among the Italians I met for learning about whole and historic American blackness. And there were no Black people actually in Florence. Yes, there were the requisite handfuls of blue-black African men milling around open-air markets selling soap and perfume oils. But there were no Black people in integrated, critical mass—taking up whole tables at neighborhood restaurants, trying makeup on in department stores, marrying Italians and making babies by the dozens who, though Italian, were not Italian. They were talking about blackness as seen on television, or as heard in pop music. Blackness in theory. Rub this warm, open profession of love up against real Black people, with living, thinking, insistent, speaking bodies—or enough Black people to impact the Italian sense of normalcy and culture—and things got more complicated, star-crossed, I think, by Italy’s own colonial roots and whiteness. (Indeed, any Black person living in Italy has stories of Italian anti-Black racism.)
For instance: my Italian boyfriend, Matteo. He lived in a stately apartment on classy Via Cavour. It was a decorous, uncomfortable space with marble floors, floor-to-ceiling windows draped in folds of shantung, wrought-iron French balconies, and furniture bathed in whites and creams. His mom lived there, too. I spoke exceptional Italian and her son and I were in a serious relationship, but she rarely spoke to me directly, even when we were sitting at the same table nibbling bland breakfast cookies, or riding in the same car with Matteo, or sardined into their creaky, elegant cage of an elevator. Instead, she’d glance at me and wince, then nudge Matteo with a small elbow like a pearl onion and murmur, Tell her to pass the bread. Tell her to put her window up. Tell her to scoot over. One evening, in the spare living room of cream-colored linen and stone, she lifted her hands up, alarmed, and said, Tell her not to rest her head on the couch—her hair, her hair! She was worried my (clean) hair would soil their white upholstery. This seemed to confirm what I knew. Some element of her semi-hushed scorn had to do with my actual Blackish body emitting actual blackness in her home.
I was not experiencing a truly free form of blackness in Italy—I was experiencing an abridged, reduced, and rudimentary one. There was value in starting from an assumption of Black joy—and it was an important lesson for me on my own conception of blackness—but there was no way to proceed into anything more textured, more real. In this way, to be socially acceptable in Italy, I had to let some of my blackness go.
I also had to let go of some of my Mexican heritage. That’s not Italy’s fault—it’s mine. I chose to trade my Spanish skills, and the key they gave me into my own history, for Italian. I learned Spanish in school, starting in second grade, and spoke it sometimes with my dad. And by the time I got to Italy, I was pretty fluent. But I couldn’t hold both languages in my brain at the same time. Within a week of arriving, I observed Italian words replacing Spanish words, covering them entirely like thick paint so that I couldn’t recall the Spanish word for something once I learned the Italian. I don’t remember whether I had even nominal ambivalence about this exchange, though I doubt it. I was so happily strung-out on all things Italian and felt sure I’d end up living there, possibly between Italy and New York, running a gallery and married to an Italian man, speaking my beloved, idolized second-home language every day in a pasta-eating, Vespa-riding, lemon-treed paradise. In this daydream from the early part of my Italian life, race and ethnicity were neither here nor there. I barely saw this, and when I did, I saw it as a blessing (“Black! Che bello! Motown!”), not an oblivion. Instead, Italy was like a fairy tale. The vineyards! The ruins! The food! And no dark history of blackness! But, of course, an incomplete history is not a history at all.
I haven’t been to Italy in fifteen years. Instead, I’ve been to Mexico. In law school, I discovered that Mexico was a short, cheap flight, and that I felt mellow there. I attribute this mellowness to Mexico being a brown place—I don’t feel surveilled by the white gaze and its close cousin, the fatphobic gaze, when I’m there. I also attribute it to my Mexicanness, which is a mishmash of bits but also irrefutable. My dad was Mexican and Black. He was born and grew up twenty miles from the border. He treated “potatoes on the side” as anathema, and I only ever saw him order rice or tortillas. He concentrated on listening when my daughter counted in Spanish and sang to him Los pollitos dicen pío, pío, pío. Half his sisters identify as Hispanic. They call themselves my tias, and to them I’m “mija” (as I often was to my dad). Among the things I inherited from my dad’s mom are her Spanish-language name, Savala, and her molcajete, the mortar and pestle from which she made tortillas. Her dad—my paternal great-granddad—was from Guanajuato, near San Miguel de Allende. I don’t know if he was mixed, or indigenous Mexican, or related to the enslaved Africans who worked Guanajuato’s rich silver mines in the 1500s and 1600s, back when Mexico was called New Spain, but an old photograph of him shows a dark man, no Europe evident in his wide-boned, widenosed face or short, dense body, brown eyes and brown skin, big hands like catchers’ mitts resting on his brown suit knees.
Mexico seems to include me as I am rather than ask me to assimilate. It asks less of me than Italy and Europe did. I’m not trading part of myself to be there, and the self I naturally am—fat-ish, brown—feels like just a variation on natural human diversity rather than an outlier. During one trip, I sat on a wooden city bench watching passersby head into a Walmart-type store and noticed that muffin tops and floppy side-boob did not seem to bother anyone. Women passed in tight tank and tube tops, spaghetti straps or no straps on their almond-colored shoulders, tight denim shorts making bellies spill like foam from a beer glass, wearing bras (or not) that didn’t contain or hide or even acknowledge the rolls of fat nestling under their armpits and down the sides of their rib cages. I knew I couldn’t see them through anything but the lens of my Americanness—that they, in fact, might have made something entirely different of their looks, that all assessments are contextual. Nevertheless, the nonchalance of their “imperfect” bodies in public struck me. They did not seem to be making political statements about a woman’s right to be saggy. They did not seem concerned about appearing well-mannered or confident or sexually available or anything, really. They just seemed like women running errands and wearing what they had on a hot June day.
Still, even with my mellow love and heritage, I’m a foreigner in Mexico. While others look fresh and dry, I sweat the garish rivers of someone who’s used to fog and I carry electrolyte tabs in my purse. I’m always sick with diarrhea for a few days no matter how religiously I use bottled water to brush my teeth, wash my face, and drink. Despite sunblock, my back and forehead turn the color of raspberries. In rural areas, I’m often too tall to walk without stooping as trees seem to grow or be pruned for shorter people. I’m alarmed when Mexican police (or are those military vehicles? Cartels?) cruise the street in what look like show-of-force parades, though no one else seems to react with anxiety. But most of all, I’m a foreigner because I don’t speak Spanish anymore, and I have no way to slip into life, to pour myself into Mexico seamlessly. I just have the crappy remnants of unused Italian, and the lingering prejudices that animated old choices.
I could have embraced the Mexican aspect of my identity from a younger age, and I could have thought twice about the long-term consequences of giving up Spanish, a language to which I have a generations-deep familial connection, for Italian, a language that was immensely pleasurable and useful for a short while, and now, like a vacation, simply a source of nostalgia. I wish that I had. But when and where I grew up, “Mexico” was not something to be proud of. “Mexico” was a grossly amalgamated shorthand for those parts of the Western global south that the white (and therefore normative) United States did not want, and a “Mexican” was anyone brown and speaking Spanish. I saw this in the conservative news and punditry against which my liberal mom brayed. I also saw it when my Black-and-Mexican dad climbed onto his warped, internalized-racism soapbox and called for a respectability politics among brown, Spanish-speaking people we might see around town, teenagers pushing strollers or folding burritos behind a counter. And I saw it in progressive entertainment meant for my consumption. Like Clueless—which was one of my favorite movies in high school—when hapless, delightful Cher assumes Lucy, her Salvadoran housekeeper, is Mexican. The housekeeper puts down her sponge and spray bottle in a huff and stamps out of the kitchen, crying, “I not a Mexican!” Lucy’s sharp dismay operates on two levels: it signals the flattened conflation to which people from Mexico, Central America, and South America are subject in the United States, and it also has a nose-up air of disdain for Mexican people. Because Cher is the hapless, delightful, rich, white me I often wished to be, my forgiveness was immediate and complete. Lucy and her complaint faded quickly from memory.
“Mexican” was shorthand for maids, and for guys milling around the Home Depot parking lot, waiting to hop onto pickup beds and clean yards for cash. Mexico was the impenetrable, distant faces, noses, and mouths wrapped in red bandanas, of vegetable and fruit pickers on the drive to Fresno. (Like my own dad, who worked in fields picking produce throughout his childhood; the repugnance of my former internalization is not lost on me.) Mexico was why our public school had a shitty rating: ESL. Mexico was the lusty danger of vatos and cholas swarming every minute of Dangerous Minds, toward whom Michelle Pfeiffer’s character felt both the missionary impulse and a Flora Cameronesque terror.
Mexico was also shorthand for an aggressive, smoldering sexuality we could witness in real life: see those short, dark men unloading boxes behind the grocery store—catcalling me, grinning to each other, raising their eyebrows? I was thirteen or fourteen, desperate for pale, rich Dave Heath to like me back. But it was the “Mexicans” who’d whisper to each other, call a quiet Hey, mami at my body, which was large and developed in the tender, childish way of puberty. This grown-man lust would have been scary and confusing no matter the men’s race but, had the guys been white, it would have ultimately registered as fine instead of gross. It would have been flattering, a titillation I might scribble about in my floral, cotton-covered diary: Someone thinks I’m pretty! A confirmation of my ability to comply with beauty norms. Instead, I’d been taught to fear both my body and “Mexican” men—that they found me attractive only reinforced their distasteful, indecent strangeness, and mine.
Odd, though, this notion that men from Mexico, Central, and South America were sexually dangerous, harboring a power-crazed lasciviousness that made trying to screw women, or sexually harass them, a compulsion. Because it was in Italy, not Mexico, that I heard a grunting sound, saw a rocking in my peripheral left, and turned my head to catch the man across the aisle squirming and masturbating, his lanky half-cock exposed in blue cotton pants, his eyes on me and my girlfriend. And it was in Italy, not Mexico, that we came home to find a man waiting on our marble landing, somehow inside the building’s entry. I’d encountered him on the block before, drunk and boorish, incoherent and horny. This time he was passed out, presumably drunk, and we turned our bodies sideways and hurried past him, our female backs sliding silent against the stone wall. And it was in Italy, not Mexico, that a man ignored my yelling and pushing, put his hands into my pants and assaulted me. I’m not saying this reveals anything about Italy; these things happen everywhere. But it’s noteworthy that, throughout my late girlhood and young womanhood, I braced for the assaults of brown men when only white men had harmed me in that way—that bracing is colonialism at work.
Of course, some people get the same negative cultural messages about Mexico, Mexicans, and Central and South American people, but they also get a counterweight, something that negates or destabilizes the negative messages. I assume this comes mostly from family. These people still absorb the cultural toxins, but they also absorb the living dignity and humanity of their parents, grandparents, cousins, etc., and they end up with a more balanced view of themselves and where they come from. They also end up with a more balanced view of the world, a view that doesn’t relentlessly present Europe as the cradle of beauty and class. I didn’t. And because I didn’t, a decade later, I thought nothing of shedding what little Mexicanness I felt for the chance to become, as I saw it, better. For
the chance to belong to something with a European sheen that seemed, until my reckoning, to accept me.
After my dad died—and fifteen years after I left Italy for good—I started to seriously consider how I once spoke Spanish and my own Mexicanness, what it meant to be Mexican, how constricted my view of brown Mexico was under the mental and emotional rule of white normativity, and whether, as a way of remembering him and becoming myself, I could make Mexico part of my life. Lineage matters to me. My lineage, and also future lineage, what my daughter will have. Our lineage keeps us tethered safely to the world. But my curiosity and longing are too late, and too little. I’m nearly (perhaps already) middle-aged. I am very white, in many ways. I’m very Black in many ways, too. I’m entrenched in my current self. There isn’t much room in me left for other things. It feels like any Mexicanness I cultivate now will be, indeed, cultivated, and thin. The sources of cultural identity are no longer open to me the way they once were.
I had an encounter, though, that left me wondering whether one even needs external sources of cultural identity when the actual ties that bind you are internal—in your family, in your genes. An older repairman came to finish a job on our heater. His gray jumpsuit said Luis. He had a dense accent, and a handsome smile that made his crow’s feet move around his eyes in a dancerly way. We waited at the dining room table for the county inspector to arrive. Luis accepted a cup of coffee. He studied me and said, to my shock and delight, “Are you Latina?” This had never happened before. I grinned. I laughed. “Yes!” I paused. “Well, Afro-Latina. That’s my dad. He was Black and
Mexican.” I pointed to a photograph. I’m not sure what Afro- Latina might have meant to him, but given that I don’t speak Spanish I wanted to insert a speedbump, slow any assumption he might have about my cultural fluency and authenticity. He stood up and pointed at the photo, his nail rimmed dark with work grease. “This is your father?” “Yes. And that’s his mom and his grandparents. Black and Mexican.” Luis said, “Ah, I see. I thought with your name, your face, maybe you might be.” Which, since I don’t speak Spanish, is how I now fundamentally think of my own Mexicanness—maybe you might be.
To reclaim my most potent connection to my Mexican heritage, which dwells intertwined with my Black heritage, I’d also have to relearn Spanish and, reluctantly, unlearn Italian. Because I still can’t hold both languages. When I make forays into learning Spanish, the Italian I remember quickly disintegrates. It’s one or the other, and I’ve yet to make the choice that seems, in light of where I’m from and where I live, obvious: speak Spanish. Having a young child, for whom the sources of cultural identity are wide open, ought to make this decision—Italy vs. Mexico—simple. It doesn’t. I’m stuck. Partly because I still love Italian, partly because I prize my former fluency, and partly because, unless I move to a Spanish-speaking country, I doubt I’ll ever be as fluent in Spanish as I was in Italian; why give up excellence, even former excellence, for mediocrity?
But isn’t that just it—this question of excellence and mediocrity sprawls far beyond linguistic skills and into the vast, murky terrain of bias. Because I cannot guarantee that my white-centric upbringing isn’t also a factor. I can’t guarantee that the colonialism that shaped my taste is gone. The European mystique—of sophistication, refinement, of history itself—endures, and gives Italy and its language bonus points. Points it may not deserve. Mexican Spanish doesn’t strike my ear as melodic and elegant the way Italian does; it does not feel like a perfect architecture of grammar and sound—is this a neutral assessment, or just the unsurprising result of racialized hierarchy, under which nothing brown can be as good as anything white? Mexico doesn’t have the reputation for art, natural beauty, culture, cuisine, and style that Italy does; again—objective assessment, or no? Because love affairs, like what I had (and Americans have) with Italy, are never objective. Neither are assessments of value, contribution, and merit. Italy is fabulous; Europe is fabulous; but they and their offerings to humanity are not inarguably superior to the people and places of lower longitudes. Maybe they’re just whiter, and therefore imbued with an unfair legibility. Maybe they’re just what I was taught to want.