Friday, April 24, 2015

How I Became a Mexican by Chiori Santiago

This is one of my mother's most popular pieces. It was read aloud at her wake.

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.

Chiori c.1955
Before I was Pakistani, I was part of the Census Bureau's complex multiracial nightmare (that's according to a headline in the San Francisco Examiner published at the time of the 2000 census). I was the taboo post-war baby of Yoshiko Tajiri and Chester Fuller Roberts Jr. My parents met in occupied Japan. My mom was the civilian editor of the Army newspaper, the Tokyo Stars and Stripes, and she was my dad's boss. My dad, a private first class, was a reporter and copy editor. The way my Mom tells it, they spent long hours putting the paper to bed, and eventually they followed suit.

Yoshiko and Chester
When they decided to get married, their commanding officer forbid the marriage on the grounds that American G.I.s weren't supposed to fraternize with Japanese civilians, overlooking the fact that my mother was an American citizen who'd grown up kicking butt in South Central Los Angeles. So when my mother got tired of waiting, she marched into the CO's office and threatened to kick his butt if he didn't approve her marriage, and he was so shocked by this metamorphosis of Madame Butterfly to Killer Bee that he gave in. My parents eventually moved to Chicago, where I was born and in due course, my two brothers and a sister.

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?"

Chiori c.1977
This may be the most difficult aspect of interracial romance. You're brought together not by your differences but your commonalities, and let's face it, the whole proposition is easier than you've been led to believe. So you start to think, hey, we've built a bridge between cultures, and our children will reinforce that bridge, and we'll all link hands and cross that bridge into the 21st century, and you hear a John Williams overture swell in your head and you get all misty-eyed, you imagine little white children and little black children being judged not by the color of their skins and blah, blah.

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.

Chiori c.1983
Finally, I gave in. Refusing to be bothered by identity confusion I became— Chicana! Viva la raza! I became an angry movimiento chica. And I had a lot to be angry about. After all, the minute I became Mexican, my IQ plummeted. Had I remained Asian, I would have been just another obedient college-bound student with Coke-bottle glasses. But as an official pocha, I instantly became slothful, unemployable and prone to passionate outbursts. On the plus side, I suddenly gained a sense of rhythm and was able to dance the mambo.

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

Chiori was also featured in "The Global Me" you can read an excerpt about her HERE.


  1. I am so very grateful this was posted. This monologue changed my life. In this text Chiori gave me a dialogue to help address my quest in ethnic identity. I can't be upset that I am type cast due to my complexion, we all are. I am viewed as "white", which is the irony of being mixed because I feel so very full of color and story. I am the multicultural explosion, that is my identity. It has been sense the day I heard Chiori read this. I miss her dearly. I thank you for posting this, I see it was posted not to long ago, I always recall this piece and now I can have it again to read at my will, as well as to my Part Japanese American, Jewish German, Mexican daughter. with love, your cousin Kazumi. and to all the mestizos of the new age.

    1. Thank you Kazumi. That's a very touching comment. I know that there are many people who love this essay and would want access to it. Since it isn't available anywhere else it was important to me to be able put it out there for all of you. Hopefully everyone else who remembers this essay and was moved by it will be able to find it here and revisit it when they feel the need.