I can't find it online anywhere and I don't know where it was previously published. I'm putting it here for you all to enjoy. If a copyright issue comes up I'll take it down again, but I've done a lot of searches for it over the years and have come up empty.
|My mother and Grandmother c.1975|
When I was eight years old, I arrived in California. Within a week, I was Mexican.
Before I was Mexican, I was Pakistani. My family had just come back to the U. S. after four years of world travel, including two years in Karachi, the capital city of Pakistan. I started school there. As far as I was concerned, I was a Pakistani, with all of the wonderful fluidity of the culture as enjoyed by Western ex-patriates in the late 1950s: Camel rides on the beach, four o'clock tea on the lawn, gooey jam tarts and curry dishes that exploded through the top of your head, my brother chattering with the nanny in Urdu, his first language. When we returned to America I missed terribly what I thought was my homeland. For a year I cried and begged my parents to end our visit to this bizarre country so we could return to Karachi.
|Yoshiko and Chester|
That's all by way of explaining that our becoming Mexicans in California was something of a surprise for everyone in my family. It didn't happen all at once. It was more of an evolution. It started with a question, the question that all happas know, the question that binds us all by a common thread. That question is:
"What are you?"
When my brothers and I got to California and began hearing The Question on a regular basis, we would launch into this long explanation about our Italian great-grandmother and our Anglo pioneer grandfather and the relatives in Japan, as our mother had coached us. The questioner's eyes would glaze over and invariably they would stare down at us (because they were almost always grownups) and say firmly: "You're not Japanese." Then they would tell us what they believed we were.
Now, my Mom had been evacuated from California along with tens of thousands of other Japanese Americans during World War Two. She knew very well the sort of racism we could encounter on the liberal West Coast. One of her worst fears was that one day we would come home and ask: "Mom, what's a Jap?"
She was completely unprepared when I came home and asked: "Mom, what's a spic?"
So that's cool. Then you wake up and boom! You have a houseful of little tiny people who are some other race that you never even imagined, like a bunch of illegal immigrants who've sneaked in and are squatting on your neatly defined racial territory.
In my case, I realized that my race had nothing to do with my DNA or with my parents’ ethnic histories. My race was defined by my face, which I guess is pretty obviously inscribed by the memory of my Klamath Indian ancestors and my Mediterranean great-grandma Mimi. Basically, I have "mestiza" written on my forehead.
Viejitas yelled at me in the street when I couldn't respond to them in Spanish. As I got older, white people began to greet me with a "Como esta" and then proceed in broken English to ask for my delicious and authentic recipe for chili beans. My high school Spanish teacher accused me of taking the class for an easy A, because of course my family already spoke Spanish at home. In college, I tried to join the Asian Students Union but was rejected because, I was told, "race goes through your father's blood, so you're not Asian." Meanwhile, the La Raza Students Union kept asking if I was a vendida, a sell-out, because I wasn't a member.
Maybe all these people knew something I didn't. After all, I am a daughter of the Nisei equivalent to La Malinche. (She was the indigena who guided Cortez's men on their conquest of the Aztecs, and gave birth to the first mestiza.) That heritage makes me suspicious to everyone of all my races. When navigating the multitude of racial boundaries in this country, I'm constantly asked for my passport. People really need to know to which tribe I pledge allegiance. Do I have a green card that lets me dance the Electric Slide or eat Sunday dinner in the basement of an AME church? Is my visa up to date for a taste of pansit or hourdomsamsee? Do I have the stamp of approval that allows me to partake of Passover or dance Tanko Bushi? And why can’t talk story be my second language?
I can't blame people, really. Hello young lovers, wherever you are---I am one of your kids, and we are your multiracial nightmare. Because we are as elusive as refugees under cover of darkness. We cross borders at will---shape shifters, category dodgers, screwing up the neatly laid-out subdivisions of your suburban census.
|Chiori and sons c.1990|
Personally, I don't believe in interracial dating, so I ended up with a guy just like me: an Italian Afro-Puerto Rican raised in an all-white section of Long Island. I mean, he grew up listening to so much Aerosmith and Abba that when we met I had to give him Latino lessons. We’ve raised a couple of kids who are basically the same race as Tiger Woods. I use chopsticks when I fry tostones, and when no one's looking, I pour tonkatsu sauce on the lechon con arroz blanco.
Not long ago a friend of mine asked, "Y porque no hablas más español?" And I tried to explain, to give my old happa rap and to tell her that I only turned Mexican, I wasn't born this way.
She looked at me as if I was crazy and said: "Pero no, no, no puedo creer que eres japonesa, tu eres pura, pura latina." You're totally Latina.
I think, that's what love is. You're born into the world and sometimes, your family finds you. Thank god I became Mexican. When I became Mexican, I got a name, a point of reference and a sense of belonging. I got una familia that opened its arms and adopted me--no questions asked.
You can read another of Chiori's pieces on ethnic identity here: "My Inner White Guy" by Chiori Santiago