Jacey de la Torre

The train station


Jacey de la Torre (she/her/hers) recently graduated with a Bachelor's in English from Reed College in Portland, Oregon, and is currently living in her Bay Area hometown while applying to graduate school to become a credentialed teacher. In addition to writing, her passions include running, reading, and cooking unnecessarily elaborate Mexican meals for her family.

When his mother passed away, Pop hung a photo of her on the wall of the family room. My sister Jilly and I had known abuela Flora as an old and delicate woman, always wrapped in colorful cable-knit sweaters that hung loosely over her narrow frame like blankets.

In the photo on our wall, she’s sharply young, eyebrows arched along her shrewd face with its gently searching expression. The photo is grayscale except for the bizarre edits that are present on some old photos, which redden the colorless cheeks and imbue unnatural blue into the eyes. But Abuela’s eyes, of course, were brown.

We gave Pop another framed photograph of abuela Flora for Christmas in 2014, a year after she passed. Pop is in the photo too. He’s maybe five or six, and she’s holding him in her arms. They offer twin smiles to the camera, and something seems to release itself across the crack of their faces like a flood of water. Pop opened the present and we gathered around to hug him while he covered his mouth with his hand and cried, softly.

v v v


The space between my dad and his mother was full of things he will never know. These become things that I will never know. These family silences, historical silences, get ingrained and reproduced.

We’re sitting in the family room, and I ask Pop, “Did abuela ever talk about Mexico?”

“It was hard,” he says slowly. “She went to school.” She went to school, here in America. “Her father, you know, he wanted her to learn English. He knew that was a gateway.”

Abuela Flora was forced to leave Chihuahua so she could learn English and get an American job. Her family needed another person to enter the workforce and send quick money home. I imagine my abuela, sixteen and scared, swimming her way through El Paso’s high school classes conducted in English.

“They knew,” Pop nods. “learning English will get you better jobs. Put you in front of all these kids.” Flora met abuelo Frank in Los Angeles, years after her initial arrival in the country. I imagine them dancing together, or eating and talking together. The space between them diminishing, a life stretching out in front of them. A wedding, a move to the East Bay, three kids, eventually a divorce.

“She wanted to learn about everything. She wanted to see the world. She wanted to meet people.”

Pop has only been to Mexico a handful of times. He was living in abuela’s basement apartment in Albany when he was my age. I see pictures of him, grainy moments capturing the goofiness that shone through his smile even back then, as he bared his teeth or arched his eyebrows for the camera. Always against backdrops of the inevitable orange-and-brown color schemes of the ‘70s: couches, wallpapered living rooms, dingy garages, parched front lawns. He had long brown hair, long brown arms. He jokes about being called monito as a little kid. Little monkey.

I ask him, “Did you like Mexico? Why didn’t you stay?”

Pop says he liked Mexico, but he always qualifies this liking. He goes back and forth between saying Mexico was too much, and Mexico wasn’t enough. Maybe it was both of those things at once, and he just didn’t know where he fit in. Other people living there (“you know, real Mexicans,” he’d say) would see his brown skin, speak to him in rapid Spanish, and then try to hide surprise or annoyance at his blank-faced response.

I’ve asked him many times throughout my life about why he didn’t stay. Why he didn’t learn Spanish so he could speak his way home, into the community he felt shut out from. These instances blend together because each time I’ve asked him, he’s always told me about the train station.

Somewhere in Mexico City, although it could be anywhere in Mexico, there’s a crowded train station. Pop watched the floods of people moving through the train, the dirty concrete corridors that hugged it, and something about it made him think he didn’t want to be among them. “I saw the same face over and over,” he’s told me multiple times, “that long, Indian face.” It was too overwhelming for him. He didn’t want to get lost in that ocean of transparent weariness.

I think about what being “Indian” is to my dad, what having an “Indian face” might mean. The city’s flood of tired commuters from the Mexico City train car become condensed in one face, one race. One identity that, for Pop, emblematizes both the unrelatability of their condition and his disdain toward owning that condition. 

Mexicanness can be several paths that may or may not intersect. There are people born in Mexico who stay there all their lives whether out of choice, or responsibility to work or family, or many other reasons. And there are people like my abuela Flora and abuelo Frank, who watched one another across the floor of a dance club, far away from both of their home communities. Chihuahua for her, central Kansas and a large family of second-generation Jaliscan immigrants for him.

And there are infinite more paths of Mexicanness, but I’m thinking of the one Pop is on; the second-gen. Split home. Pop only has to look one generation above himself to see all the memories, beauty, and pain of immigration. A story that unfolds behind the eyes of a person who had to leave their entire life behind. But maybe Pop could see these things in abuela Flora, and maybe he couldn’t. I don’t know what abuela told him about her life in Mexico, but from what I gather, it seemed not to have been much.

v v v


When I was being taught classroom-Spanish, flavorless middle-school Spanish, I stood in front of the bathroom mirror. Watched the way my mouth wrestled and closed itself around the unwieldy words, which blossomed like bright flowers whenever the pronunciation unfolded itself the way I wanted it to.

I knew some Spanish when I was young, but always indirectly. Mostly from the slang bouncing between Pop and his friends. These, the most organic snatches of Spanish that were available to me as a kid, were only ever obliquely present. The things that managed to settle themselves comfortably on my mouth were often random. In fifth grade, I could wrap my tongue around “La Borinqueña,” the name of a nearby Oaxacan restaurant, but couldn’t ask in Spanish what time it was. My relationship with language was houses, worlds, of indirectness.

Pop has brown skin, Mom’s is white. My skin is white. In elementary school, Jilly and her classmate Robert Mejilla almost broke into a fight because she said that we’re part Latino and he thought she was lying. The parents all laughed about it.

Having a mixed-race home, it might seem as though I’ve been raised with double the cultural richness. Instead, neither side of me feels whole.

No, I find myself at the threshold of things that fracture rather than complete one another when they press together in one household, one story,

                    the writhing Spanish that my abuelos choked dry from their tongues when 

                    speaking in front of their children,

                                        its petals that wrinkle to blooming in my own mouth,

                                                            the things my family lost along the way that become my empty-handedness.

Nobody ever sat me down and told me that it was important to learn Spanish, in the same way that nobody sat Pop down when he was young and his brain plastic enough to fully absorb the colors of multiple languages. “Growing up in that white world,” he says, “it’s not that I wanted it, well I mean I guess I did, but it’s cuz I didn’t know any better.”

In the same way that I see spaces yawning between abuela and me, between abuela and my Pop, those spaces of absence and not-remembering burn holes in my own history. Shouldn’t there be a way to save us from ourselves?

My history, the way heritage paints itself on my face and bones, should be the thing that’s most accessible to me because it’s mine. But some of the things closest to us are never really our own. And some of the stories we think we know well are really just things we’ve shored up around gaping holes in the fabric that were always there, just hidden before. When I look back at my life and the things from it that I’m trying to pull to the surface, sometimes I just come up with hands tellingly empty. Those blanks are also trying to tell me something.

v v v


During elementary school introductions, my classmates would say, “I am Filipino.” “I am Sikh.” “I am Black.” “I am Persian.” My answer was stiff, a clump of words that Mom and Pop had handed me like a little object to hold in front of myself, “I am white and Mexican-American.” My label was longer than the other kids’ and would leave me feeling awkward and unwieldy.

So many Spanish words would rustle that same feeling of awkwardness in my mouth, thickening my tongue with their own frustrating difficulty. But a label is just a label, and an introduction is just an opportunity: I could choose how to define myself, just like Pop could choose to walk away from the train station. Unlike some of my family, my Mexicanness was not inescapable. It was open, opt-in. I always knew I was a mixed-race kid. But I looked and felt unbothered enough, white enough, not to consider the way history had landed on my own face until I was older.[1]

In high school Spanish class, I would feel frustrated at the way some of my classmates used apathy to obscure their trouble understanding the material, approaching something foreign to them. But I didn’t manage the words and sentences correctly all the time either. I felt like I had to be one of the students getting it right consistently, maybe all the time, like that would show I was a real Latina.

Since my skin color couldn’t already prove my Mexicanness, I felt like I had to prove it in other ways. Cooking helped. The language helped. I found myself wishing Latinidad was something that happens, so that it could happen to me.

College allowed me to learn about my Mexicanness in deeply rich and ever-evolving ways, but the things outside of you can only teach you so much about yourself. Using catchphrases, or thinkpieces about the mestizaje, or Gloria Anzaldúa’s book passages about las heridas interiores[2], to assure me of myself would only further root me in the innate fragility of Latinidad; a construct too often dependent on external referents, like aestheticized pain and Frida Kahlo phone cases, in its consolidation of self.

Trying to paint my identity into something it’s not would be like squeezing myself into a box I could never call home. Because just as my abuela and her history will never be fully reachable to me, neither is it mine for the taking. The unwholeness of my Mexican identity is not my fault, but it is my reality. And this shattered selfhood can form its own bed of comfort for me, a mixed kid like other mixed kids who learns to find repose in the spaces of in-between.

The Spanish words that sit rigidly and uncomfortably between my teeth from their unfamiliarity,

                    all the necessary fractures between my face and the faces of my family 

                    looking back, being looked at and through,

                                        are all the pieces of heritage that make and unmake the holes of me.


[1] Oakland novelist Tommy Orange, in his debut novel There There, describes the way “history lands on a face” (Orange 7). His context is that of Native Americans living in the Bay Area.

[2] “Internal wounds,” in reference to Mexican-identified peoples’ personal struggles with the ambiguity of their national heritage.




© The Acentos Review 2020