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?”
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.