Surrounded by the fresh smell of cotton steamed under the iron, I’m listening in a conversation between my mother and my husband, Hector. My fingers caress the cuffs and collars of Hector’s Guayabera shirts as I iron them. It’s Haitian Independence Day, and Mother, who is visiting us in Pembroke Pines, is helping Hector with the traditional Joumou soup. The two of them milling around, laughing and talking, the fragrance of garlic and piman—all this gives it an authentic Haitian feel. Their tongues roll around the Creole syllables with delight, and the warm cadence of their voices bring me back to the Caribbean mountains of my childhood. A soft, but unapologetic roll and clipping of words. Deep, modulated voices.

Mother has been working on her family tree.

Turns out my great grandmother, Nana, was Mexican. How cool is that? On my mother’s side: a Mexican great grandmother (¡Ole!), a French grandfather (in photographs, Roger is so fair the trail left by his veins could be followed across his forehead; he seems like a gentle man, tall and thin but with a sad face and sloped shoulders, as if the burden of his life and the choices he made eventually wore him down) and a possibly Eastern African (Ethiopian?) grandmother. On my father’s side: African pirates—or so I’ve decided, since Papa never talks about his ancestry. His skin, black as the night sky, is the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. My mother has her own father’s pale complexion. Her skin is cream beige, lacks the warm brown tones her children have inherited.

Mexico. That explains it all. It’s in my genes—this attraction to all things Latino.  Now I can justify the hours spent in front of Univision, watching telenovelas to perfect my Spanish curses. My adulation for Kate del Castillo, Adamari Lopez and El Burrito de Belen song. My love for tacos and enchiladas, and Vicente Fernandez. It all makes sense now. Mother shows me a picture of Nana, and in the faded and cracked scene, she has a dignified face. A tight face with a sour expression. The sun beats against the window in her bedroom, bounces off her vanity mirror. She doesn’t smile, doesn’t seem to rejoice in the white heat.

I spend hours at the Pembroke Pines library, reading about the Maya and the Aztec Empire, the Spanish conquest, and Benito Juarez. I download the recipe for tamales and posole. I get old photo albums from the wooden trunk in the laundry room and look for the pictures of my fifteenth birthday in Port-au-Prince. I sigh, imagining how grandiose a quinceañera it could have been. I can see it all, the fancy full-length dress with frills, pastel tones and a matching hat, the dancing that lasts until the small hours, leaving me practically deaf and so thirsty my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth. For the Misa of acción de gracias, I am surrounded by my seven maids of honor or damas. No chambelanes. No way, Jose! At fifteen, I found boys pretty gross.

In fact, I still find boys quite despicable, particularly Antoine, one of my literature students at the middle school, who makes a joke about the “dirty Mexicans.” I send him to the guidance counselor for a talk about bullying. There is no Mexican students in the class, but I’ve personally taken offense. Oh, kids these days. They show no respect. I think about Nana, who also was a teacher. My great grandmother died of an aneurysm. She gasped in her sleep, as though surprised. It was a rupture in the brain. A quick, silent explosion.

I make my 2009 Cinco de Mayo pretty special. I don a sombrero, and Hector watches me pensively as I keep yelling “¡Ole!” and “¡Viva Mexico!” on our way to our neighborhood Mexican joint.  My voice sporadically covers the Haitian rara music screaming from our speakers. The streets of Pembroke Pines are busy—people in the other cars are watching.

“You’re not getting out of the car with that hat, are you?” Hector asks tentatively.

“Of course, I am. ¡Ole!”

He can’t convince me to take off the sombrero. “You’re really killing the mood,” I say. I order agua de jamaica, but the restaurant doesn’t carry the drink. Turns out Casa Campesina is Colombian. They don’t have enchiladas.  The tacos they bring are spongy and gross, and Hector has the look of someone who’s about to break very bad news.

“Chérie,” he says, “darling, you don’t have it in you.”

“I don’t have what in me?”

“Mexican blood.”

I am both confused and annoyed. “But Nana…”  I sit like mush, hardly blinking or breathing.

Hector shakes his head. His fingers tap the table. “Nana was your adoptive great grandmother,” he says, as my chest tightens with surprise and disappointment. “Your French ancestry is undeniable, but there’s nothing Mexican about you.”

I take off my sombrero.

TAGS: , , , , ,

Born in Port-au-Prince, M.J. FIEVRE is an expat whose short stories and poems have appeared in numerous publications, including Haiti Noir (Akashic Books, 2011), The Beautiful Anthology (TNB, 2012), The Southeast Review, The Caribbean Writer, and The Mom Egg. She graduated from the Creative Writing program at Florida International University. She loves coconut shrimp, piña coladas, her dog Wiskee, and a good story. Anton Chekhov is one of her favorite writers. Her author website is located at www.mjfievre.com.

23 responses to “When I was Mexican”

  1. Simon Smithson says:

    Oh, M. J.

    I feel like I just heard about you first discovering there’s no Santa Claus.

    “Of course, I am. ¡Ole!”

  2. I was Mexican for a while last summer, during the World Cup. A Mexican friend of mine made me an honorary Mexican because he was the only on in that little Korean city and he needed some support cheering on his team. It was fun.

    My fiancee was born in Korea to Korean parents, but adopted into America to American parents. Her adoptive parents’ parents were Dutch, and therefore she is also Dutch…

    Nationality is confusing these days, but if you want to be Mexican, then you are indeed Mexican.

  3. Irene Zion says:

    Simon is right, M.J.,

    It sounds just like you found out that there isn’t a Santa Clause!
    Written well, as usual.
    I can always count on that with you.

  4. pixy says:

    this reminds me of something a friend of mine used to say about how everyone is mexican or asian. it had something to do with catholicism.

    and i think you can be anything if you try hard enough. even mexican!

  5. Boo Hector for killing your mood! I absolutely think cultural affiliation can be gained through adoption. Just took my adopted Ethiopian daughter to New Orleans for Mardi Gras just a couple of weeks ago and she took to it like a fish to water, no different than a child who had my nutty New Orleans Mardi Gras obsessed genes in her little body. Dust off that sombrero girl!

    • M.J. Fievre says:

      I can’t wait to visit New Orleans! I’ve always wanted to come to Mardi Gras. Who knows… Maybe next year. Thanks for reading this, Alison. And I love that “cultural affiliation can be gained through adoption.”

  6. M! J! How I’ve missed your lovely work on here. Why else does one watch telenovelas but to perfect their Spanish curses? I’m so lucky to have at least four channels in my area with which to perfect my Spanish cursing craft.

  7. M.J. Fievre says:

    😉 There’s nothing like Spanish curses. Thanks for reading, Cynthia.

  8. Matt says:

    Well, isn’t Hector un pendejo grande for ruining your fun? I thought that the whole point of this country is that people can adopt/absorb/assimilate whatever sort of cultural identity they want.

    And who’s to say, even if you aren’t Mexican, you don’t have a little Spanish in you? And really, what does it matter, given how easy it is to mistake someone’s mixed ethicity? I’m a Mexican/Spanish/French-Canadian/Cheyenne blend, but was frequenty mistaken for Creole when I lived in Louisiana.

    Cinco de Mayo will be here soon. I say, dust of that sombrero, strap on your juaraches, and dance, gal!

    • M.J. Fievre says:

      LOL. I can’t wait for Cinco de Mayo. It can be quite an impressive sight when I really get into something. I guess Hector was really trying to keep me grounded 😉

  9. dwoz says:

    puto.

    Hector no tiene huevos.

    Tu eres mexicano si quieres, pues el no merecen tu, tampoco.

  10. Sabine Fievre says:

    Love this story!

  11. Kris Saknussemm says:

    Sombreros are for everyone!

  12. Jessica Blau says:

    This is wonderful, M.J.–a joy to read! Sweet, funny and beautifully written.
    Are we going to name you here, or are you M.J. even in comments?!

  13. M.J. Fievre says:

    Hi Jessica,
    Maybe I should get a Spanish name?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *