On Being Mexican in Nicaragua

by Nadia, Tufts 1+4 Participant

All my life I have been Mexican. Through the years, I have had to grapple with what that means, globally and otherwise. I have had a rough time shaking off stereotypes, but my identity was always on the defensive- I was always proving that I was Mexican, or that Mexicans did belong.
When I was a child, I spent most of my time trying to fit into a crowd that did not know what to do with someone like me. I always felt that it was a personal failure when the other kids rolled their eyes as I talked about anything that happened in my home and when they laughed when I used a word in Spanish. I learned that it was easier to just pretend I was a shallow outline of whatever the other kids believed a Mexican to be. All I ever did was hurt in my home state because no one acknowledged me for who I really was.

Here, people know differently than the way people know things in my home state. In the States, no one knows how to pronounce the city I grew up in. No one knows what Hidalgo means and they all give me the same bewildered look when I explain that Mexico has states. In my hometown, I have become used to a very specific look of shock when I start to describe the city my mother comes from, or even when I start to pronounce it using letters and sounds that are foreign to monolingual English speakers. In León, Nicaragua, this is not how I have been living. I have been living as my true self, attached to Mexico in a way that I know the people here will understand, or at least understand a little better. 
On one occasion, however, I found myself wishing that I had gone back to my old ways of pretending I was less Mexican than I was. That occasion was eleven days after the earthquake.
On September 8th of 2017, the strongest earthquake in a century hit Chiapas, Mexico.  I received the news through a text from a supervisor alerting us of the earthquake, wanting to know if we were alright. I had just barely arrived to Nicaragua. I was just barely trying to figure out how I fit into this new space, and suddenly, I was glued to my phone, waiting to hear if my family had survived. For a while, every time I was asked where I was from and I responded with my motherland, I got soft whispers of condolences and promises of future prayers. I got awkward hovering hands from people who wanted to comfort me but did not know how. I got knee-jerk invasive questions and apologies.
Let me fast-forward to September 19th. It was my second week of full work, and I was running a little late. Having been shown how to hail taxis from my host father, I thought that it would be a good idea to do so. I chose to sit in the back, and my first mistake was not immediately finding a distraction to keep me from talking. When the taxi driver asked where I was from, I answered ‘’Mexico.’’ In that moment, I was not thinking about consequences. All I was thinking about was the 61 people confirmed dead, the homes that had been leveled and turned to dust, the video of the buildings collapsing in on themselves like tissue, and the long lists of names under columns of missing / alive / dead that I had been too afraid to check. I was thinking about the birthday parties I had with relatives a decade ago and how I had not seen them since.

So, I tuned out during the taxi driver’s musings about my homeland. I tuned out when he started talking about Mexicans rarely visiting anywhere besides Mexico and the United States. I tuned out the bit where he talked about how funny Mexicans are, how funny it is that they use different curse words, how vulgar all those people are, how much we all drink, and how we do not dance right. I tuned out the part where he talked about knowing a Mexican man long enough to fight but not long enough to remember his name, or how horrible it was that people had taken videos of buildings collapsing- not the videos themselves, of course. I tuned out the whole story about how Mexican Catholicism was just a little bit off and that Mexican churches were just a little bit uglier than Nicaraguan ones. 
I tuned back into the part where he mused that maybe the earthquake would not have happened had Mexicans been better Catholics and that really, can you blame the Lord for destroying Oaxaca, considering how many heathens live there? I listened very closely to the part where he said Mexicans had chosen to leave God and so He had left them.
I did my best to prove my point by demanding him to stop so I could get out, but I was already at work, had already paid him, and it was 8 AM. There was nothing I could really do but just work. All day, though, I thought hard about my identity. I thought hard about how often I got pegged as non-Mexican. I thought hard about how easy it would be to just answer that I was from the States if I got asked again about my origins. That is when I decided that I would do just that. Whatever people assumed of me, I would agree.
For a long time afterwards, all I could think about were the incidents I got in my home state when I answered truthfully about my motherland. I remembered all the times I got the condescending comment about how good my English was for an illegal, or the questions about being smuggled across the border, or the way my peers would not even bother to ask me if my parents were coming to whatever school event because they assumed my parents did not speak any English. For a very long time, I was angry at myself for letting my guard down.

I was still angry when I read President Ortega’s letter to Mexico promising solidarity and wishing condolences to Mexican families. After reading about the aid that was being promised and the donations that were flooding in from all over Latin-America towards the rescue efforts in Mexico, I still could not make myself admit I was Mexican to strangers. I was not soothed by the calls for open borders in case Mexicans decided to emigrate to Nicaragua or elsewhere, though part of me still felt a tug of appreciation.
A few weeks ago, I once again was in a taxi. Once again, the taxi driver asked where I was from, and once again, my gut told me to answer ‘’Mexico.’’ The rest of me, however, fought that urge and instead leaned towards the old habit of answering ‘’Magna, Utah.’’ For a few seconds I was torn between an old coping mechanism and a new, dangerous, genuine answer. The taxi driver rolled his eyes, probably assuming that I could not speak enough Spanish to answer him.
Then I did. I said, ‘’Mexico.’’ 
I have had difficulty navigating spaces and grappling with privilege, identity, history, and politics. This gap year has given me a new perspective on what it means to be me and how I hurt for the things I used to know. My homesickness is less for my hometown and more for the people who already know all my stories. I have learned to ease the longing by openly accepting it- I have not been to Mexico for a decade, and León is not Mexico. That does not mean I am not Mexican, and that does not mean I have to hide myself to learn and grow here.

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