Vanessa Bates Ramirez

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Vanessa Bates Ramirez is a Mexican-American writer based in Chicago. She received an MFA from Northwestern University.



        When my father turned thirty, he decided to ride a motorcycle from Chicago to South America to find himself. Halfway through Mexico, in a small mountain city off Highway 57, he found my mother instead. They got married, moved back to the U.S., and agreed to raise their children bi-culturally in one of Chicago’s WASP-iest suburbs. My mother insisted on speaking Spanish at home, and each year I threw a fit about having to spend the summer visiting relatives in Mexico instead of going to camp in Michigan like my friends did. After a month of bottled water, giant mosquitos, and no air conditioning, I was always thrilled to land back at O’Hare airport. In Immigration, a uniformed official ushered travelers into two lines: U.S. Citizens or Foreigners. Holding up my navy blue passport, I’d march into the Citizens line without thinking twice. My Mexican half was nothing more than a pesky byproduct of my birth. I was American, like my schoolmates, and if there were differences between us I was determined to conceal them.


        One day after a cross country meet in eighth grade, I had two girls from the team over to my house. I was anxious to impress them and not let them see how different my family was from theirs. We sat in my room flipping through Seventeen magazine and gossiping. When the phone rang I reached for it. It was my uncle calling long-distance from Mexico, and he greeted me warmly in Spanish. I froze, certain the girls would laugh at me if they heard me speak Spanish. I hung up the phone without another word. Later my mother scolded me. She’d been waiting to talk to her brother all week. I lied and said the call had gotten cut off.


        When my mother was growing up in Mexico, waste of any kind was unacceptable. Even after being in the U.S. for fifteen years, she still insisted on finding every possible way to conserve. She tore fabric-softener sheets in two and only used a half sheet for each load of laundry. If the napkins we used at dinner didn’t get too dirty, she saved them in the pantry to use again the next night. And to go through fewer plastic sandwich baggies when packing school lunches, she’d put two totally different items in one bag. An especially gross combination was raisins and cucumbers. She’d fill one side of the baggie with a handful of raisins and the other side with five or six slices of cucumber, then close the bag and twist the middle in an attempt to make two smaller bags out of one. But the middle never stayed twisted, and by lunchtime I’d have a soggy mess soaked in brown cucumber-raisin slime. “Eeeew!” the kids at my lunch table would shriek, and, “Can’t your parents afford to buy more sandwich bags?” I envied the kids whose parents gave them Lunchables: little plastic boxes with square compartments for crackers, lunch meat, cubes of cheese, a juice box, and a candy bar. What could be more simple, more American than that?

        In addition to soggy bags of mixed ingredients, my school lunches always contained leftovers from home-cooked meals: chicken with mole sauce, enchiladas potosinas my father brought from Mexico in cardboard boxes, pinto beans my mother soaked overnight then boiled with chipotle peppers and garlic. I hated the sidelong glances the smells from my Tupperware containers provoked. I took every opportunity to eat over at friends’ houses, where their parents served pizza or McDonald’s or Chinese takeout.


        In my high school class of 500, there were four black kids, less than six Latinos, and several Asians. Many of them spoke foreign languages at home, and went to India or Korea or another far-away country for Christmas break. They ate strange smelly foods for lunch. Deep down, I felt a kinship with them. But I avoided befriending them or joining the groups they were in, like Model U.N. or Cross-Cultures Club. Instead I was on the swim team. My teammates and I went the whole season without shaving our legs, then had a shaving party the night before the state meet. I had been taught, in the Mexican tradition, to wax rather than shave. Waxing made the hair thin out over time, but shaving had the opposite effect. Drawing a razor up my shins, I savored the feeling of doing the opposite of what my heritage dictated.


        Freshman year of college I took speech composition, and our first assignment was to give a 5-minute speech on “what makes me unique”. I thought hard about what I could say. I had been athletic in high school. I played the piano. I could cook. But these all seemed like boring, commonplace topics. No one here knew me. I decided to talk about being Mexican.

        Sitting through my classmates’ speeches, my palms began to sweat. They spoke of their hobbies, pets, or awards they’d won in high school, giving simple, interchangeable details about themselves.

        They were going to think I was weird.

        But it was too late to change my mind. So I talked about taking the crowded overnight flight to Mexico City, then the 4-hour sunrise bus through fields of cacti to the city where my relatives lived. I talked about seeing donkeys pulling wooden carts along the side of the road, and women with babies slung over their shoulders selling Chiclets at intersections. I talked about how water was limited and we had to shower in five minutes or less, otherwise we’d be left standing under a dry faucet with shampoo in our eyes. 

        At one point during my speech, I noticed that almost every eye in the room was focused on me. People weren’t doodling or checking their watches. They were listening.

        After class a girl who’d been sitting in the front row fell into step with me. “Your speech was really good. You are so interesting!” she exclaimed. I was taken aback. No one had ever called me interesting before. It was the beginning of a very slow transformation of the way I felt about my heritage.


        In my mid-twenties I abruptly decided to go live in Mexico for a while. I’d been working long hours at a demanding job. It was lonely sitting alone in a cubicle all day then getting home late to a quiet apartment, using the weekends to catch up on errands and sleep and, when there was time, socializing. Was this all post-college life had to offer?

        I quit the job, packed my bags, and moved into a simple tile-floored apartment near my grandmother’s house in San Luis Potosi. I got a job teaching English and signed up for a couple graduate classes at a local university. My goal was to stay for six months.

        Every Sunday from noon until night, my extended family- usually around 30 people- gathered together in my grandmother’s backyard for the weekly comida. My uncles convened at the grill, their cowboy boots pointing out at one another as they argued about how to cook the meat. Roasted poblano peppers and arrachera steak with fresh lime squeezed over it were cut into strips, and we’d wrap these in warm tortillas then drizzle them with homemade salsa. My younger cousins chased each other around the yard then fell asleep in their parents’ laps. Drinks were replenished, shared cigarettes passed around, candles lit and blankets brought out once night fell. If the mosquitos got bad we’d move inside to the dining room, extra chairs squeezed around the long table to fit everyone.

        Within a month, I felt I was home. I made friends easily, my self-consciousness melting away as if by the heat of the sun. The cousins I’d spent a few weeks a year with became like siblings. The sense of isolation I often felt in the U.S. was absent here. I loved the relaxed pace of life, the carefree attitude, the emphasis on family and community, the fresh, natural food and pulsating Latin music. I loved the Spanish language and its endless, hilarious slang. How could I ever have been embarrassed to have this culture be a part of me? Why had I waited so long to immerse myself in it?

        People occasionally asked me where I was from, detecting from my clothing, height, and lighter skin and hair that I wasn’t 100% Mexican. Sometimes I explained, and other times I simply smiled and said, “I’m from here.”

        I ended up staying in Mexico for almost two years. It was with a heavy heart and an empty bank account that I came back to the U.S.; I couldn’t give $6-an-hour English lessons forever.


        After my return to American life I struggled with an immense homesickness for Mexico, and an equally large identity crisis. When I talked about Mexico, my friends quickly lost interest and changed the subject. I no longer wanted to be the thing I’d spent most of my life trying to be: American, simple, like everyone else. I felt lost. I branched out; there had to be people who’d understand. I made a group of Latin friends through a salsa dance studio. They called me Gringa and joked that I was less Latin than they were. Because I looked more white than Mexican and hadn’t grown up in one of the city’s Latino neighborhoods, I couldn’t possibly be one of them. It seemed there wasn’t any place where I truly belonged.


        One of the first jobs I had when I returned was as a research assistant, helping translate the Spanish version of the 2010 U.S. Census form. I was told that when people select their race and ethnicity, it’s more often based on what they feel they are than what they genetically are. If a white woman marries a black man and raises her kids in his culture, she may feel she’s more black than white, and marking “black” on her census form wouldn’t be incorrect. Some Puerto Ricans feel that they’re American and white, and others prefer to identify as Latino/Hispanic. I had never thought of race or ethnicity as fluid concepts; to me they were quite the opposite. A person was either one thing or another. I puzzled over this for months without ever realizing that, in fact, I’d been tweaking my own cultural identity since childhood. 


        My parents’ effort to instill a bicultural awareness in me has come full circle. I cook chorizo quesadillas and black bean soup at home, avoiding fast food. People give me strange looks when I save plastic forks and spoons to be re-used. I listen to more Latin pop than classic rock. I buy my groceries at a Mexican market, and it frustrates me when the cashier speaks to me in broken English instead of Spanish. I have two passports, a blue-covered American one and a green-covered Mexican one, so I can go in either the Citizens or the Foreigners immigration line in both Mexico and the U.S. Normally I go to whichever line is faster, because that makes the choice simple.


        But sometimes I stand at the back of the immigration hall. I look at the signs and the rows of people below them. I wonder where these people came from, what language they speak at home, where they’ll go back to eventually. I try to predict which line they’ll select. I’m pleased when someone defies my expectation: a white kid with blonde hair speaking perfect Spanish. A cowboy-hatted man with sun-lined skin wielding a blue passport.

        The airport officials are rushed, impatient, trying to move people along quickly. “Find your line!” they shout through the crowds. But looking up at the billboards showing gleaming American cities or lush Mexican jungles, I don’t want to find my line. I want to take my time here, in this space that exists in between leaving a plane and being admitted to a country. It’s only here, for a little while, that nationalities are ambiguous, undefined, inconsequential. 









© The Acentos Review 2015