Your skin, as you so correctly pointed out, is indeed lighter than mine. About a few lighter tones of brown. The tonalities of our skin aren’t the only borders that separate us. The differences between how we speak and what we sound like are as thick as the rusted metal plates that catch the gleam of golden sunsets in Tijuana.
You Chilango, speak Nahuatl. I Pocha, speak Spanglish. Although on days when I need to put on a more authentic performance of my Mexicaness, I pull out my seven years of (un)learning Spanish to pass just as you do. Cuauhtémoc is your martyr, you consider Tenochitlán usurped, Cortes a bastard, Trump a bigot, and are frustrated and angry and consider everything culturally constructed around you in the last 500 years a terrible joke.
And I agree with you, on the frustration, disdain, and pain of seeing, and being one of a few who has survived the destruction of what you consider the true expression of your authentic self. But you raging at me in Nahuatl on the metro is not fucking okay.
It went down like this: Riding the metro on a January evening, a friend and I discussed the excitement and unease brought on by the start of a new year in the city. Two transplants in Mexico City by way of Los Angeles and San Diego, Mexico City to us is the current cultural and political mecca of our creativity and lives. For my friend a photographer and I a writer, it was a long time coming.
We were riding northbound on a packed Line 2 train, squeezed between students and office employees, discussing our plans for the year. And as naturally as Spanglish rolls off my tongue in the middle of Broadway in Downtown LA, and as easy it is to integrate the colloquial slang of my campesino grandfather in my conversations with elder Chilangxs in a coffee shop in Colonia Portales, I spoke English with my friend on the metro. Laughing and discussing our plans, our conversation was suddenly interrupted by the grunts and mumbling of a man sitting in the row directly in front of us. Unphased we continued with our conversation until it was again abruptly interrupted with the man’s husky voice exclaiming, “Fuck!” followed by his incoherent mumbling.
Suddenly aware of his anger at us, we became more tense as we pretended to ignore him. Our resilience to continue on with our conversation, one that fluidly switched to Spanish and Spanglish, infuriated him further. Suddenly made brave, and impatient to this man’s anger at us, I turned and stared squarely at him. Locking eyes, he pulled up his sleeve to show me the pale brown color of his wrist and inner arm and said to me in Spanish, “Can’t you see? I’m lighter than you and I speak Spanish. I speak Nahuatl too! Do you speak Nahuatl?”
Left dumbfounded, my friend jumped to respond and scolded the man for eavesdropping and even interrupting our conversation. At this point, having broken that immaculate and entrancing silence that characterizes metros all over the world, we had the attention of the entire car. Eager to avoid this confrontation, I turned back to my friend and we resumed our conversation, except now my anxious voice increasingly integrated Spanish. Unrelenting, the man continued to rant at us, accusing us of pretending English fluency, scolding us to be ashamed, us two dark brown womxn, at having embraced English as it’s the language of Donald Trump.
There, a full-out quadrilingual argument ensued on the metro of Mexico City. In our exchange, I explained that Trump was a racist, sexist pig and not at all representative of an entire language and country (perhaps half-heartedly because maybe he DOES and maybe that’s exactly why the U.S. is the most terribly racist country in the world). I explained my family’s history of migration. I explained that like myself, thousands of Mexicans in the U.S. don’t speak Nahuatl and still live the spiritual and material violence promoted by Trump. I explained, with a nervous and infuriated voice, that that doesn’t make me any less, or anymore, Mexican.
Unsatisfied, the man went from scolding us like an elder, to scolding us like pochas. Unauthentic, arrogant, shameless, embarrasment. All these things I’m sure he threw at us in Nahuatl. Our exchange lasted about three metro stops, when he decided to end the conversation and stand up to get off at his stop. And amidst awkward giggles and sighs, we let him know it was our stop too, and followed right behind him.
Getting off the train and away from the suffocating silence and probing stares of fellow passengers, we walked off and toward the exit, tense and contemplative. Such an intimate and intense confrontation and discussion, one I have dedicated essays and much meditation on, made quickly public.
Not belonging to either nationalism, but to the local experience of my life in Boyle Heights and joy and heartbreak in Mexico City. Choosing to embrace my transfronteriza existence came after five years of traveling between Mexico City and Los Angeles. Facing constant questioning of my accent, the confusion of having “perfect English” despite such brown skin, the ruthlessly violent nationalism of the US’s immigration policy toward Mexicans and Mexico’s increasing deportation and violence against Central Americans, the classism embedded in the social fabric of Mexico City and the self-hate of my diaspora anxious to succeed and be visible in the institutions del otro lado. My life navigating nationalism led to my commitment only to the transbarrio. To the value and connection of our experiences as people pumping with life and love and not limited to our possession of a passport, a passing accent or knowledge of either English or Spanish, or of an adequate performance to please a perpetually displeased authenticity police.
The anxiety of facing and being spiritually defeated by the Aztec in Mexico City’s metro opens these wounds and reminds me of the pain that like a border still unites us. His anger fueled by a racism and nationalism all his own, all still present and ephemeral in the streets of this city and in the probing stares of our elders in our hoods of Los Angeles and New York City. Gentrification, displacement, colonialism, patriarchy, violence, hate, nationalisms, borders, misunderstanding. Years of colonialism and imperialism sustain the meta-border that still separates and divides us.
For our diasporas, when it comes to melanin and identity, language and performativity, nothing is ever just one shade of belonging, neither Pocha nor Aztec. Like the diversity of the brown gleaming faces of school children in playgrounds in Boyle Heights, our essence is of endless promise, endless forms to be. We wear jade around our wrists, huaraches or sometimes jelly sandals on our feet, handwoven rebosos and leather jackets frame our shoulders, nostalgia pumps in our hearts, and Zapotec hip-hop, Nahuatl prose, Spanish scoldings, Spanglish epiphanies enlighten our mornings and nights in our hoods and campos.
All this left unspoken in a metro car filled with hate and anxiety. Coming back to healing and mediation, laughing and reaffirming that what unites us can be more powerful and conducive to collective healing than what divides. Still searching for those spoken words to help this healing. For now, I build the strength and peace to continue this journey in my current nepantla capital.