Featured Image: Two men offering horseback rides in La Marquesa National Park.
By Nick Padin
I had accepted an invitation to a birthday party from one of my friends, a student at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) in Mexico City. Her house was located in La Paz, a state on the outskirts of the city. After taking the metro to the end of the line, we had to cram into a tiny, white van to take us to her neighborhood. Unable to look up directions, I grew more anxious as we drove deeper into the depths of the shanty town, veering farther away from the train station. About 30 minutes later, our vehicle stopped in the middle of a tiny street with tall, concrete walls looming on both sides. There was barely any room to get out of the van.
Disoriented, I took in my surroundings. There were rows of dilapidated houses on the hills peeking above the walls. It felt like I was outside a prison. Tiny convenience stores hid in between the walls. The neighborhood was silent, and only felt more eerie as the sun began to set behind us. As we walked down the street, I nervously scanned every corner for potential threats, but all I saw were tired, stray dogs; some wandered aimlessly while others laid on the street. Someone tapped me on my shoulder, and I jumped. “We’re here!” my friend said enthusiastically, walking towards a chain-linked fence. I didn’t see an entrance. She guided me down the adjacent alley where we opened the door to the backyard.
We walked down a small driveway, following the sounds of lively conversation and upbeat Latin music. We found ourselves standing in the middle of a spacious patch of flat, recently mowed grass. People were sitting at the foldable plastic tables under the covered patio. I even saw a fire pit. The open, well-furnished backyard seemed out of place among the surrounding dismal streets; it looked exactly like mine at home. My friend introduced me to everyone at our table, most whom were her classmates at UNAM, the most prestigious university in Mexico. I wanted to introduce myself, but I started thinking about my American accent and imperfect grammar. I hesitated, and the moment passed. We sat down at one of the tables, and one of her friends served me a Styrofoam tray with a generous helping of chicken and rice. I brazenly added some salsa, but I underestimated its heat. As I desperately drank some pineapple soda to ease the pain, my friend made an announcement:
“Everyone, this is Nick and he’s from the United States!” All eyes turned to me, and after a pause, everyone clapped.
I’m Puerto Rican, and my physical features resembled those of everyone around me: tan skin, dark hair, and dark eyes. Despite Mexico City being the largest metropolitan area in the western hemisphere, it is very homogenous. The majority of the population is Mexican, followed by many whose heritage can be traced back to indigenous peoples before the arrival of Europeans. There are many expatriates, particularly from the United States, who live in the richer districts in the center of the city. Outside the center very few people speak fluent English.
All the university students I met, however, spoke English almost flawlessly. Their grammar and vocabulary rivaled that of many native English speakers I knew at home. After dinner, her friends invited me to dance. I did my best to learn their steps, their spins, and the words to the popular reggae songs. I finally memorized the verse to one of the songs, and once I started singing along, everyone cheered ecstatically.
Later in the night, we all shifted towards the bonfire, where there were some tents and lawn chairs set up in a circle. One of her friends put a few extra pieces of firewood into the pit, and the flare lit up everyone’s faces with an orange glow. We covered ourselves in blankets in response to the brisk night air that had replaced the heat of the evening sun. We made s’mores. When I first arrived to the party, I was nervous about not knowing anyone, and if I would be able to communicate with them. Yet the bonfire was reminiscent of those I had experienced in Kentucky. For the first time, I felt at home. I was surrounded by people who looked just like me. They could speak my language, and I could speak theirs.
I turned to my neighbor, and he started talking about studying international relations in university. He talked about his Model UN team, and his opinion on current world issues. His English was impeccable. In Mexico City, students who can afford to go to private schools are taught English starting from a very young age, so by the time they are in university they are very fluent. Since I was talking to students from the best university in Mexico, it made sense that they had a strong command of English. I commented on how his grammar was nearly perfect, and he politely reminded me that for Mexicans, learning English is a necessity. At the end of 2017, the minimum wage in Mexico was about $4.50 USD a day, and inflation policy in the past has largely reduced its purchasing power. These students need English in order to get well-paying jobs, so it made sense that in their eyes, English was a means for survival. Quite the opposite of why I and many other Americans learn Spanish: to learn about and understand the culture. It seemed at this point natural to transition to speaking in Spanish, so I did. I don’t remember what I said.
As soon as the first word comes out of my mouth, he smiles and laughs.
“Que gringo!” he chuckles, his tone amused, his comment igniting a rapturous laughter around the bonfire.
I didn’t laugh. A stream of witty remarks about his slight Mexican accent or how he had much more English experience than I had with Spanish immediately came to mind. Instead, I looked back at him and smiled.
A couple weeks earlier, I stepped off a bus at an unmarked bus station in La Marquesa, a national park located about an hour southwest of the city. Before coming to Mexico, I had stumbled across a Facebook post about an international organization called AIESEC, which gives students the opportunity to work on a variety of social, environmental, and business projects with small organizations all over the world. The program provided me with a host family where I lived and worked with a couple of girls from France and one from China. We were dropped off on a random street surrounded by rolling green hills topped with forests. Street vendors selling handmade trinkets and small, local restaurants cooking chorizo verde were lined up on both sides of the street. The street wasn’t paved, but our host brother assured us we were at the right place. We stopped to eat quesadillas, and while we ate, a shiny, black Ford F-150 pulled up on the gravel next to our table. The driver was one of my host brother’s friends: a tall, white guy. His truck was packed with more of his Mexican friends, so we climbed in the bed of the truck.
A street in Ixtapaluca, Mexico.
We were at the park to ride horses, and he drove us down the road to get them. We pulled into a large gravel lot, at the end of which were two Mexican men, dressed in jeans and flannels despite the heat, and wearing sombreros to protect against the bright sun. Each of them held the leashes of a few horses. There were enough for everyone in our group.
“How much does it cost?” I asked our driver, since there weren’t any prices marked anywhere.
“Come with me.” His eyes glazed over the rest of our group, and he looked at my host brother.
“You too,” he said as he motioned for him to get out, while the girls stayed behind. I jumped out of the bed of the truck, and the three of us approached the two men.
As we got closer, my host brother and his friend explained to me that we had to negotiate the price. I asked him what we should say.
“Stand next to us, but don’t say anything. If they hear your accent, they will know you’re American and they will increase the prices.” It made sense to me now why we parked so far away, and why he brought me with him. The horse owners were most receptive to bargaining with native Mexicans similar to them, not foreigners. In order to gain leverage in the negotiation, we needed to appear Mexican. My host brother’s friend might not have looked like a typical Mexican, but he undoubtedly was. I was the opposite.
Even though we got the horses for a good price, I couldn’t help but wonder about how my appearance and identity could be perceived so differently. When I walked around the city, I didn’t receive nearly as much attention as my friends from France, Canada or China. I would stand idly watching entire families take turns taking pictures with them. The pure bliss on their faces when they saw a Chinese person attested to the lack of diversity in the city. On the other hand, people in restaurants and on the street, even the English speaking university students, would greet me in Spanish without hesitation. As soon as I talked, I would notice the shift in the person’s demeanor from friendly to cordial, but still more distant than before. My friend with the truck joked that he looked more American than I did. Maybe he was right.
Americans, however, are not defined by their appearances because we all come from different backgrounds. Still, I found that my nationality was a constant conversation piece. When I inquired about Mexican culture and lifestyle to my Mexican friends, their responses would often include some comparison to Americans and they would openly share their opinions of the United States government. It seemed like they all thought that every American lived a life of grandeur. However, once I noticed the domineering United States influence in the city—the designer shops and fast food chains, the vogue styles of clothing, the wealth disparity—I partially understood why my friends constantly compared many aspects of their lives to American standards.
These ideas about nationality also exist in the United States. At home, I would always be referred to as Hispanic, sometimes as Mexican regardless of the misnomer. Because I live in a homogenous town, I was constantly reminded of my different ethnicity. In Mexico, I was referenced as an American, and many ignored my Hispanic heritage altogether. I have American and Hispanic qualities, but I am not always completely accepted by either culture, and many multiracial Americans experience a similar phenomenon. According to an Arizona State University study where multiracial adults in the United States were interviewed and asked about experiences regarding their identity, all of the participants attested to feeling a sense of dissonance between their communities. Further, they mentioned a heightened desire to travel, likely in search of a community of similar people. I have been asked “what are you?” before, and I will admit that I was motivated to go to Mexico in part because I thought I could blend in. Still, even if I don’t have the qualities of the “quintessential American,” I was naive to think that I could relate to Mexican people wholly by speaking Spanish and looking Hispanic. In the United States, there are a myriad of different cultures, but we only see them through their most visible aspects. We learn about the holidays and languages of other cultures, giving us the false impression that we know more about other cultures than we do. In that sense, by making the mistake of thinking I could deeply understand a culture with so little exposure, I am an American.
Nick Padin is a sophomore in Morse College. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.