I teach English at a community college in downtown Dallas. Currently, some of my students are reading a book entitled Midnight in Mexico: A Reporter’s Journey Through a Country’s Descent Into Darkness by Alfredo Corchado. In his book, Corchado, who was born in the Mexican state of Durango and raised in California and El Paso, Texas, writes mostly about his own reporting on the drug trade and corruption in Mexico, but there’s also an interesting, underlying theme he explores regarding identity: what it means to straddle two worlds, to have a foot on each side of the border, but to never feel fully rooted, truly at home in either place. As he puts it, he can sometimes feel too American when he’s in Mexico and too Mexican when he’s in America.
Among my students, discussions have taken place regarding what it means to be a part of two cultures. When I ask if they’re able to relate to Corchado, many nod their heads, and one girl said, “Absolutely.” She then elaborated: “At home, I’m Mexican. At school, I’m American.” Then she shrugged. Like, obviously. She made it seem like it was pretty easy to understand what the different expectations are in different spheres of her life and that it took little effort and not a whole lot of thought to navigate those spheres.
I keep thinking about this student –in particular, that shrug. Like, what’s in that shrug? What does that shrug mean? I want there to be something deep in that shrug because I am critical by nature and like for things like shrugs to mean something, to be symbolic, to say something about what it means to be a Mexican-American young woman living in Texas right this minute. I keep thinking about all the comments I could have followed up with: Okay, so you’re Mexican in one place and American in another. Is there an identity that feels more true to you? Are you more Mexican than American? Would you say you are Mexican-American? Would you call yourself Chicana? Latina? Hispanic? Do these words, these markers of identity, matter to you, or am I just really wanting them to matter??
My mother is Mexican-American, though I think she would say she’s just American. Or Hispanic. My dad’s mother was from Puerto Rico, and his dad was white. I’m light olive-skinned with brown hair and brown eyes, but my last name, Mabry, is European. I first heard Spanish at my grandmother’s house but learned it properly in a classroom. I call myself mestiza because that’s what really rings true for me. I think that identity matters, and I think that –particularly for those from mixed backgrounds or with migrations or diaspora in their histories –identity can be fluid. I think that many Latinx people, like Alfredo Corchado, are standing with one foot here and one foot there. Some of them may be standing with an imbalance: one foot rooted in one place more heavily than the other. Some may feel as if they have many limbs, all which are reaching across geography and back into time. Some may feel, however, like they’re not straddling at all. It is not my place, of course, to tell another Latinx person how to be or how to feel.
In my book, A Fierce and Subtle Poison, both of the main characters are of mixed backgrounds, racially and culturally. They are a mix of white and non-white. Lucas, the narrator looks white, has a white kid’s name, but there’s something else there, tugging in his blood. Isabel is the product of an English father and native Puerto Rican mother, and sides with her mother when it comes to her identity. I specifically tried to make their histories and their identities complex. They are influenced –haunted and inspired, inspired or haunted –by their past. They are trying to fix centuries-old errors and clear new paths.
So…after all that, we’re back to the shrug. Is it simple, or is it complex? Is it a small gesture that signifies nothing, or something brimming with meaning? Maybe it’s simple: with these people, I am this one thing; with those people, I am this other thing. It’s easy to figure out. Simple, simple. Or maybe it’s complex: a gesture so full that words pale. It’s obvious that I want it to be the latter, but who cares what I want? I wrote a book about complex identities, one that I hoped explored nuance, but of course that’s not the only way to write about identity. Someone –maybe me, maybe not –needs to write the story about the Mexican-American girl who is Mexican at home and American everywhere else. And maybe she is wildly complicated but not because of that, but because of all the other things that go on in a young woman’s life.
FOR MORE INFORMATION about A Fierce and Subtle Poison, which releases April 12, 2016 with Algonquin Young Readers, check your local public library, your local bookstore or IndieBound. Also, check out Goodreads, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble.
Samantha Mabry grew up in Texas playing bass guitar along to vinyl records, writing fan letters to rock stars, and reading big, big books, and credits her tendency toward magical thinking to her Grandmother Garcia, who would wash money in the kitchen sink to rinse off any bad spirits. She teaches writing and Latino literature at a community college in Dallas, Texas, where she lives with her husband, a historian, and her pets, including a cat named Mouse. A Fierce and Subtle Poison is her first novel.