A Mexican-American in Spain

by Sherise Saavedra

As a kid I dreamed of growing up to be a natural blonde, in college I hoped to pass as Persian, and it wasn’t until my mid-twenties that I started proudly identifying as Chicana, Latina, Latinx. Now, I find inspiration and community in this part of my identity, but the Latina bloom definitely came late. 

In my second year of college, I accidentally took a Chicana Studies class, mislabeled, in my angsty opinion, as a Literature class. I read Gloria Anzaldúa for the first time and I learned about La Malinche

For those who don’t know it, the story goes that during the Spanish conquest, La Malinche, an Aztec (Mexica) woman, originally named Malintzin, was given as a slave to Hernán Cortés. She was multilingual, and because she spoke Spanish, she quickly became a trusted advisor and interpreter for the Spanish conquistadors. The records show she was greatly respected and even referred to as a noble Spanish woman or a Doña. She is often considered the ultimate traitor, but also the mother of the first mestizo. She is, at least symbolically, the creator of a new people.

* * *

About five years after meeting la Malinche, I was living in San Francisco but prepping to move to Spain. I was feeling liberated knowing I’d leave the continent soon, so I w a s   d a t i n g. One night after a happy hour for work and a particularly nice conversation with my Lyft driver, I decided it would be a great idea to ask him out through the “lost item” function on the App, later that night. He immediately messaged me on my personal number and agreed we had a great conversation about the didgeridoo. On our first date I answered, “I’m Chicana,” for the first time. The “guess-where-I’m-from-game” was no longer fun, and fuck it, I was leaving!

In Spain, I told him – I’d reclaim my lost language. Of course, Mexico or any other Latin American country closer to home would have made more sense, but the opportunity arose in Spain and my family approved. They had certainly not forgotten Nana’s glamorous vacation and the many photos she took in Toledo before the Spanish Peseta became the Euro. 

My parents had been nervous when I’d made my own pilgrimage to Mexico, when I’d spent nearly a month there. I visited six cities, grasping at culture straws, looking for meaning, but mostly just feeling horrible because I couldn’t communicate and my friend and Latino travel partner, had a much better accent than me. 

On this trip, I ate a fish with a face after eleven years as a strict vegetarian. I got my second migraine because of the jungle heat on the crowded metro in D.F. I relished the few times Mexicans mistook me to be a fellow Mexican.

* * *

Shortly after my arrival in Spain, my sister did one of those DNA tests. She sent screenshots of the results to all family members, interested or not. She was proud to tell us that our genetic makeup is roughly half indigenous american (from the northern bit of modern day Mexico), and the other half is from the Iberian Peninsula.

The first part was an unsurprising affirmation, we both felt a sense of validation, because we’ve never felt or been treated as Americans. The “Iberian Peninsula?” my sister asked me, “that means Spain, right?” 

My first year abroad I ordered six books by Chicana writers (which was a lot because I was extremely poor). I vowed to only read brown women from then on. I started watching a murderous crime series on HBO set in Mexico City, and I went to at least one language exchange every week.

* * *

A few months ago, I was talking to a relatively woke Spanish woman about my ancestry. I told her how my Dad’s sister and eldest sibling lost her bilingual future when she came home from school crying because the other kids wouldn’t play with her. She was about five, and Gramma Lucy decided to end it. I never get to explaining how on my mom’s side, Nana stopped speaking Spanish as well. It was because Becky educators strongly encouraged her to speak English only, but I’m always interrupted before I get to this second part.

 “!Qué pena!” “What a pity!” I always nod in agreement.

She compliments my Castilian accent and says, with a last name like Saavedra, I could easily p a s s for Spanish. I jump to explain why I can actually claim a Latina identity. 

So I blurt things out. Mom’s enchiladas! Selena, piñatas! BABY LUCAS! 

“Una cultura entera reducida a una enchilada! Jajaja!” 

“An entire culture reduced to an enchilada!” 

She laughs, and I laugh too because I don’t know what to say.

We all laugh in the sala de profesores, with the young German teacher who is absolutely fascinated by me, “Me fascinan estás cosas!”  These things fascinate her, but she cannot relate. After some initial frustration, she has accepted that she will always be perceived as foreign. She’s blonde and fair. She knows she will never be able to completely blend and she’s not trying to. She’s happily married to someone with a name like Alejandro and has no plans to leave. She can easily travel for two months of the year to visit her family and go on vacation to somewhere she describes as “like German Ibiza.”  

* * *

Last fall I was on a beautiful hike in the region I now call home. Asturias. It’s in the North where there is no flamenco or paella, but lots of mountains, cheese, and the occasional bagpipe.

I was with my partner, a tall fair-skinned but dark-haired Spanish guy and his friend. We made it to the top of the pico, and found one of those jolly middle-aged solo hikers sitting on a rock. He was plump but clearly fit, the type with all the fancy gear and a body pumped with endorphins because his two natural habitats are la montaña y el bar.

He’s eaten his packed lunch, a bocadillo with chorizo and one of those hard as rock cheeses, no condiments. The Spanish do not like condiments on their sandwiches. He strikes up a conversation and we’re all laughing and swapping hike recommendations. He turns to me and says: “Y tú de dónde vienes? Del estrecho allí abajo?” I’m completely confused, but there’s no time for explanations. I answer “Soy de California,” and we proceed to talk about everyone’s desire to travel to Los Angeles.

Later that day, I ask my boyfriend what he meant. He tells me, in perfect English “He was asking if you came from Africa. He wanted to say el Estrecho de Geebraltarr” Oh right, the Strait of Gibraltar. I’m not Afro-Latina, but I’m not surprised by the comment. Latinxs come in all shapes, shades, and sizes. We are most likely used to these types of inquiries or extremely sick of them. For me, it depends on the day, and it depends on how you ask.

* * *

When I feel like cooking alone, like a good millennial, I turn to podcasts. One such day recently, I was listening to an episode of On Being with Krista Tippet. A podcast that is broadly about spirituality. I’d been doing my yoga this week. 

The episode was in honor of Dr. W.E.B. Dubois. The episode was composed of old interviews with three important academics, most notably Maya Angelou. They spoke about his importance. They mentioned a book I’d never heard of before, called “The Souls of Black Folk,” in which Dubois coined the term double consciousness. By true coincidence, it was the second time I’d heard the term, the first had been a few days before when discussing my ideas for an article about my life as a Latina in Spain.

The term can be interpreted in a few ways, but originally referred to the psychological challenge of “always looking at one’s self through the eyes of a racist white society,” I stopped cutting whatever vegetable I was cutting to listen. Double consciousness is about “measuring oneself by the means of a nation that looked back in contempt.” 

Internally I’m clapping as I slowly pat my palms on a dishtowel. I clutch my phone with both hands bringing it near my face. I drag the small white dot on the screen backward to listen again. It gets even better. Double consciousness, for Dubois, they say, was also about r e c o n c i l i n g his African Heritage and upbringing in predominantly European society.

* * *

I’ve been in Spain now, for nearly four years, and it’s official. I don’t speak Latin American Spanish but European Spanish. My accent is not soft and I lisp my z’s and c’s because doing so is the most familiar thing for me to do. I’d be perceived as disrespectful in Mexico because I’ve learned to comfortably use tú and vosotros, instead of the more formal usted and ustedes.

I do have to admit that when my American affected Castellano accent has been showing, a handful of times, the Spanish reaction has been “claro,” “of course,” a Latina from California. They get it. They start talking about how they love Mexican food or how their brother works in Mexico City.

More than once, I’ve gone to Mexican restaurants here, where the hot sauce is about as spicy as Heinz ketchup. I am offended it is not more picante, but these restaurants usually have an actual Mexican playing Mariachi. All the Spaniards sing along and I stop complaining about the hot sauce so I can listen to the words.

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