A Fading Culture

Delta Winds cover 2003Delta Winds: A Magazine of Student Essays
A Publication of San Joaquin Delta College


A Fading Culture

Veronica Padilla

I've read about Hidalgo's fight, admired Diego's paintings, contemplated Sor Juana's words, and have realized I do not belong with them. I belong to a different group, one that possesses a bi-cultural tradition that arises when Mexican and American attempt to harmoniously intertwine. I belong to the group that honors Chavez's heroism, marvels at Baca's murals and identifies with Corky Gonzales's poetry. But, to be honest, I'm lying to you. The Americanization process that has been quietly working within me has caught me so off guard I can no longer place myself among the Chicanos mentioned above. I once labeled myself as pure Mexican; then, with age, I realized I could not ignore the American culture that was growing on me, so I slapped on a new label and called myself Chicana. And now, although I still call myself Chicana, I've realized that the Mexican part of this label is slowly peeling off. I've been frantically trying to stick it back on by gathering the scattered pieces of tradition and language my parents must have considered unimportant to mention. I am determined to regain the Mexican part of me I have lost. Hundreds of years of family history and culture is not about to end because of me.

The realization of my gradual loss of identity and the feeling that there is a definite difference between what it is to be Mexican and Chicano came as the result of an unforgettable visit to my parents' home country. For two months, I was submerged into a culture that, at the young age of eleven, I thought I knew extremely well. Sitting in the back of the plane, I had few concerns. Concern number one: I was afraid the cabin pressure would make my eardrums explode. Concern number two: I was worried I would not be accepted by the individuals I'd soon encounter. I eliminated the second bothersome thought rather quickly. Why wouldn't they like me? I thought. I'm Mexican too. But once my sneakers touched those stone-covered streets and the glances and comments began, I knew I did not fit in. I soon realized that to those around me, including my family, I was only American. I was, to them, a tourist--touring a culture I thought I knew well. Their concept of me was clear: my "Mexican" was in America and my "American" I carried in my suitcase, in my ideas, in the way I spoke . . . and that is what the natives saw.

My Abuelita was the first person to innocently surprise me with Chicano stereotypes I was completely oblivious to. The first morning with her was comfortingly familiar: I picked up the mess my younger siblings had made, made the beds, then ran to the kitchen to help. It was no trouble at all; I was already accustomed to the routine. Apparently, grandma didn't know. "You do that at home too, mi'ja?" she asked, slightly lowering her eyebrows and studying me as though there were something she had forgotten to take note of. "Si, Abuelita. Siempre," I answered. My reply must have triggered something within her--her shoulders relaxed, the wrinkles around her eyes fell back into position and her hands resumed the flattening of little maza balls. I was positive the next words out of her mouth would be an invitation to make tortillas. Wanting to avoid making the little disks I secretly hid under my place mat at home, I told her I'd sweep and mop instead.

The look she had just finished putting away managed to find its place upon her face once again. This time, the look seemed to question, "You know how to hold a broom?" I took the broom within my hands, walked to the furthest spot away from the kitchen and cautiously swept. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Abuelita nudge my Tia and softly whisper to her, "You help me sweep later." I am ashamed to say I was furious with my grandmother. My Mexican cousins and other children, some even younger than I, helped her with chores all the time and she never complained. What was I doing wrong? The floor was so clean you could practically eat off of it, the plates were spotless, the beds had no wrinkles, and yet, she assumed I couldn't do housework because, according to her, I didn't do it at home. How I wished that I had gone to the ranch with Abuelito instead. But then again, I was probably better off with grandma. Abuelito would have made me get onto the donkey that had managed to drag my cousins through rows of thorn-filled bushes and trees. Yes, I was better off with grandma.

Frustrated with seeking to impress my grandmother, I spent many days on the balcony listening to music, drawing endless rows of brightly colored houses and watching people pass by. There was one little girl in particular I saw often. She seemed to be around ten, a year younger than I. I recall her tanned skin and her long, dark brown hair which moved swiftly behind her as she chased her brothers. I'd look down at my pale skin, run my fingers through my short, reddish brown hair, wondering why so many girls looked like her and why I wasn't one of them. Hoping she'd ask me to play, I walked downstairs, sat on the steps to the doorway and waited. After what seemed like an eternity, the girl began to walk towards me. My happiness ended quickly as I realized my Spanish was not only comprised of rolling r's and ñ's, it was creatively united with gh's that sounded like f's and ch's that sometimes sounded like k's. There would be no way for me to live through a conversation without the urge to utter a word in English. I felt embarrassed to say those beautiful Spanish words accumulating at the tip of my tongue. I imagined the embarrassment I'd face if a word came out wrong. Every step she took made my heart pound so much I was convinced she could hear it, just as I could. Finally, dreading the worst, we were face to face and she spoke. "You're not from here, are you?" Her words were cut short by a voice that shattered every feeling of acceptance I tightly held on to. "Marita, don't talk to her. Can't you see she doesn't want to talk to you?! She's just one of those stuck up American girls. Come inside." She left, and I ran to Abuelita and cried.

From then on, I tried everything to avoid going outside; I couldn't stand the embarrassment. Although I exhausted the details of the rejection, Abuelita remained convinced I was being ridiculous. "Ay mi'ja, people just think you're stuck up because you're so quiet. Forget about it. Go get ready for church." Abuelita's words were not much comfort, but I was relieved to think embarrassment would not follow me to church . . . . I was wrong.

Mass was comfortingly familiar. Perhaps this feeling should have hinted at the awkward situation I would soon face. When it came time to receive communion I got up, right hand under left, ready to receive a symbol of the only thing that was not different in Mexico--my religion. As it came to my turn, I made no eye contact with the priest but looked down at my cupped hands. It took me awhile to realize he wasn't placing the Eucharist within them. As I looked up, he sternly whispered, "Open your mouth." I was confused. "Open your mouth?" I thought. "But why?" I found myself saying in Spanish. "Because that's the way you should receive communion," he answered. This idea was something new to me, something different, and later I learned from grandma, something they did in Mexico. Flushed face and all, I managed to crack my mouth open, then stumbled to my seat. Mass ended with the following words, "I know many of you have come for the fiestas of the pueblo. Those of you who have children, please remind them that the communion should not be received in the hand. It is not correct. I am aware the children are use to that in America, but it is not okay here." As he spoke, I attempted to make myself smaller--it didn't work. Those around me, I thought, knew the priest had said that because of me.

Once in the United States, I released the anger I had felt at not being Mexican enough and transformed it into a frustrated concern to find my roots. Have I just been frightened by the Americanization process I have seen take others over, and therefore, see the presence of a Pocha (a full scale Americanized Mexican) in me, instead of a Chicana? I suppose it is possible that by thinking of things too much one begins to believe they are coming true. Or am I gradually losing a part of me? Whatever the case may be, I'm determined to keep my language and traditions alive. If it's possible to surpass the amount of culture my parents hold, I'll gladly do so. I'm worried about what may happen to the generations after me if I and others of any ethnicity do not know enough about our own culture to pass on and keep alive.