Maria Villaseñor



María Joaquina Villaseñor is a professor of Chicanx/Latinx Studies at California State University, Monterey where she has been faculty since 2006. She earned her Ph.D. in Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, and is a co-author of The Historical Dictionary of U.S. Latino Literature (2016). She is a twin, a mother of twins, and believes in the power of pairs. 


A fruit vendor outside of the Cenote Dos Ojos in Quintana Roo, Mexico offers hot, fatigued tourists fresh coconuts with straws for drinking sweet coconut water, spears of fresh pineapple, and mangoes on a stick. The mangoes on a stick are cut like golden suns with rays that emanate, or sunflowers that drip a sweet, refreshing nectar. After a week of being in Mexico, my twin four-year-old daughters have eaten every mango-related food and consumed every mango-related beverage that has been offered to them. They are picky beyond picky about food, but mangoes are a sure bet. We, their parents, buy them two beautiful mangoes on a stick and as I see them devouring them, juice dribbling down their chins, a wave of déjà vu washes over me. We have to take a picture of this. Countless times, my mother has shown me a picture of my twin sister and me eating mangoes on a stick on a Mexican plaza circa 1980. Uncanny.

In moments like this, it is easy to be deceived into thinking that my twin daughters are much like my twin sister and me. Yet if my sister and I had the authenticity—or, indeed, inauthenticity—of our Mexican identities as daughters of Mexican immigrants born and raised in the United States questioned, challenged, and mocked, my daughters are and may likely continue to be all the more challenged about their Mexicaness—whatever that means—than we were.

The summer after my first year of college, I had a job in which a Chicana co-worker accused me of “talking like a white girl,” a familiar accusation and one I had heard before both in English and, in its own way, in Spanish, from family members and acquaintances throughout the entirety of my childhood and into young adulthood. What they meant I still don’t exactly know, but I suspect it came from a combination of the lack of Spanish accent, and perhaps something about my vocabulary. The familiar accusation is also the accusation of being a fraud: that if I was any kind of Mexican, it was a fake one. While I was and am a fluent Spanish speaker, people who hear me speak in Spanish usually recognize quickly that I did not grow up in Mexico or Latin America. Sometimes, in Spanish, someone will ask me where I’m from and I’ll say Mexico even though I’m from Sacramento. I say I’m from Mexico because I’m talking about my ethnicity, not my nationality, but things quickly become awkward when they start asking follow-up questions: where in Mexico? When did you come to the United States? I have to back track and explain; I am compelled to over-explain. Like I said, it’s awkward. Today, in the cafeteria of the university where I work, I found myself asking a worker with a nametag that said “José” for something in Spanish, only to have him reply quickly, in English, in a way that suggested he didn’t know exactly what I was asking for. I felt a quick current of shame. Awkward.

At this moment, 20 years after my co-worker accused me of talking like a white girl and with children of my own, I wonder how many times my daughters will be accused of the same thing. I wonder, too, if things will be better or worse for them—because, at least in part, they are white girls. My husband’s family, who is white, has commented that the girls have my coloring. They point out that my daughters look like my husband—but they have my coloring or skin tone. Often they follow the comment with a—“thank goodness!” or “which is so lovely!” to make sure I know they’re not trying to be insulting. I never take it as an insult. I do find it funny sometimes though, because my family—my mother especially—has pointed out that they’re very light skinned. At any rate, their skin color is a family conversation topic in both of our families though the conversation—not surprisingly—veers in different directions depending on who is doing the conversing. There is no agreement between the families about whether my daughters are light or dark.

As for me, my concern is less with how our families describe their skin colors and more with them finding a connection to their Mexican heritage and identity. As a part of this, I really want them to speak Spanish. When they were babies, I spoke to them almost exclusively in Spanish. Everyone said, this is the way to have them learn. But after I returned to work when they were six months old, they were cared for by their dad and then in a daycare where English is the predominant language. From the time they began to speak, they favored English. While they appear to understand most of what is said to them in Spanish, they will pretty much only speak English. In retrospect, I have no idea why, but I was confident that my daughters would miraculously speak the Spanish during our trip to Mexico. I reasoned that the immersive experience was just what they needed though I now realize that to think that 10 days would do it was a moment of believing in unicorns.

We were in Mexico on their 4th birthday for a family reunion involving family members I had not seen in years. I grew up very close with cousins and most of them were at the reunion with their kids. There were probably 8 small children in total ranging from age 4 to age 10. My own twin sister was there with her two daughters, one of them 5 years old. My sister’s daughters who live in San Francisco, a more cosmopolitan place than where I live, have attended Spanish immersion schools since preschool. They are perfectly bilingual. At the reunion, the kids play, swim, color, break two piñatas, and sing Frozen karaoke together. At one point in the weekend, I hear crying coming from one of the bedrooms. I quickly realize the cries belong to my daughters. When I run to see what is happening, I realize that all the kids are crowded into a bedroom sorting and playing with their piñata loot and my daughters are being told to get out. The other kids don’t want to play with them, don’t want them in the room. My daughters are visibly devastated the way only the smallest of children get visibly devastated. They are wailing. Their faces are red, tear streaked, scrunched up. To my niece, Maya, the 5 year old who lives in San Francisco, one of my daughters yells: “FINE—THEN YOU’RE NOT GOING TO BE ABLE TO COME TO OUR HOUSE!!!” This threat to their cousin—whom they love so much that they dream of sleepovers with her and count days between visits lets me know: they are heartbroken. In a huff, I grab them and pull them out of the room to comfort them and try to distract them with something else. I am livid but also confused. Why don’t the kids want them? Is it because they don’t speak Spanish? Is it because of their age? There was another 4 year-old there, wasn’t there? When I recount this story to a friend of mine, she says: That is what it means to be othered. It means you are left to wonder why you are not wanted.

In a ubiquitously quoted essay, Gloria Anzaldúa writes,To be close to another Chicana is like looking into the mirror. We are afraid of what we’ll see there.. Shame. Low estimation of self. In childhood we are told that our language is wrong. Repeated attacks on our native tongue diminish our sense of self. The attacks continue throughout our lives.”  I am reminded of the painful truth of these words, as I sit with two multiracial 4 year-old Chicanas on my lap in Mexico, the quasi-home that periodically reminds me, it is not home. Here, we are outsiders whether in a particular moment we are feeling like outsiders or not. In this moment, I am not looking in a mirror precisely but burying my face in my daughters’ masses of brown curls and hoping they find a way to escape the shame and exclusion I have felt so many times at having the wrong language, of being not this or that enough.  As identical twins, there are those that say that my daughters are mirror images of each other; what will they see when they look into other mirrors? How will I mirror back to them their beauty, their wholeness, and the knowing that they are—and were always—enough?

© The Acentos Review 2017