LATINA BY DEFAULT: THE VERACITY OF RACIAL AMBIGUITY ALONG THE UNITED STATES MEXICO BORDER
Lorri J. Santamaría
During my first visit, I was filled with a sense of homecoming as the 747 circled the great metropolis awaiting permission to land. The majestic volcanoes Popocateptl and Ixtaccihuatl encircled the majestic city like giant fire breathing dragons protecting it from further damage and exploitation. I longed to be among those sheltered by the great volcanoes, living their lives, and dreaming their dreams, even if only for a little while. One of several scholars from an American University, I was welcomed with fragile, well rehearsed, and fragmented English. To the delight of our hosts, I answered back naturally in Spanish. All barriers immediately disappeared, doors were torn down, and hearts were opened. I was accepted by all, ushered in with pomp and circumstance, and treated like a prodigal daughter returning home. It was assumed that I was from Veracruz. As it turned out, I looked like one of the hosts Tia who happened to be from Veracruz. In Mexico as in the borderlands of California and Arizona, the Spanish language combined with my unique physical attributes, enabled me to transcend linguistic, cultural, and geographic borders.
I now find myself in academia, writing, teaching, and inquiring about all things in and around multicultural/ multilingual education. Some perceive me as Latina, others African American, and still others Native American or even a "Heinz 57". I am an American hybrid encompassing the passion of flamenco, the flavor of crawfish bisque, the language of Picasso, and the heart of Atzlán. It is this heart that makes me Latina by default, for only in Mexico am I truly free. Free to be myself brown skin, kinky hair, Spanish utterances, and all. I don't need to pick a box, take sides, or feel left out. I am grateful to my patria chica for giving me the Spanish language which at the same time tears down walls and builds bridges to a land that feels more like home to me than Spain ever did.
At this time I cannot live in Mexico, for I have found my identity in "La Nueva Frontera" as a negra Latina in this dynamic region. I have discovered that I am intellectually, psychologically and emotionally stable while living along the U.S.-Mexico border. Perhaps it is because I have come to terms with what it means to have the ability to transcend what others use to divide and separate, to embrace the paradox and thrive at the intersection of several cultures rather than being entrenched in one or the other. By my very existence, I blur most borders. I am comfortable within my borderlands existence, both cultural and geographic. Here I am able to bridge linguistic, cultural, and geographic borders for others while helping to create a new and better world. This is the desired image in my head. It has become my core identity, my destiny, and my home.
The struggle is inner: Chicano, indio, American Indian, mojado, mexicano, immigrant Latino, Anglo in power, working class Anglo, Black, Asian-our psyches resemble the bordertowns and are populated by the same people. The struggle has always been inner, and is played out in outer terrains. Awareness of our situation must come before inner changes, which in turn come before changes in society. Nothing happens in the "real" world unless it first happens in the images in our heads.
Along the U.S./Mexico borderlands that I choose to make mi hogar, I perceive as well as negotiate multifaceted versions of myself every day. I see Chicanos, indios and American Indians with whom I share dreams of freedom and accomplishment. Here mojados, mexicanos and immigrant Latinos work the land and fill our classrooms. At the university I struggle with the historical knowledge pushed by the Anglo in power and embraced by the Anglo working class. I sense the marginalization of the Black and the Asian, dwelling on the fringes of a dynamic and ever changing society. I see myself in every one of these people struggling to maintain equilibrium on a daily basis.
I and other "La Nueva Frontera" people balance our lives on a high tension tightrope made up of language, power, race and culture. Although our apparatus is dangerous and inherently imperfect, we make it work to complement and enhance our realities. Adversity becomes our way of living, working, and playing. It defines us and our very existence. Along the border, regardless of background, we share the same struggles for equality, the same plight for social justice, the same feelings of displacement, marginalization and disenchantment in the shadow of a dominant culture. I embrace the racial ambiguity which allows me to move freely around the border. It empowers me to encourage diverse people to unite, recognize our shared paths, denounce the paradox of being together geographically yet psychologically apart, and to discover the essence of my real work along the border as a Latina by default.