Bad Mexican

Nearly every award I have received in life has been at least partly due to my heritage. But what kind of Latina can’t speak Spanish?
What Are You, Stephanie? Nothing is more humiliating than trying to be half of yourself while the other half keeps intervening.
Illustration by Leif Parsons

I’m sputtering down Interstate 10 in a ’92 Mazda, en route from Los Angeles to my parents’ house in Corpus Christi. Today is the Tucson–El Paso leg. At some point, I veer off the highway onto an isolated farm road curving along the Mexican border and wind up in a desert choked with cactus and brush. The air conditioner has perished, so it is hot as blazes. I roll down the windows and contemplate my thirtieth birthday, which is a month away. My twenties were consumed by my first book, a memoir about traveling around the Communist bloc. During the decade it took to research, write, and publish it, I grew keenly aware that I was living backward, more in my past than in my present. It is time to move on, but where? To what?

When asked this on my book tour, I had a ready reply: Learn Spanish. Despite being third-generation Mexican American (on my mother’s side) and growing up 150 miles from the Texas-Mexico border, my Spanish is best described as Tarzan Lite: a primitive vocabulary spoken entirely in present tense. My mom faced so much ridicule for her accent growing up, she never taught my sister or me how to speak Spanish properly. I mostly picked up curse words in school ( ¡pendejo!) and opted to learn Russian in college. Studies show that only 17 percent of third-generation Mexican Americans can speak Spanish fluently, but it riddles me with guilt—especially now that I’ve entered the publishing world. I’m turning down invitations to speak to groups I supposedly represent because I literally can’t communicate with them.

A logical life plan would be to venture across this desert and explore the land and tongue of my ancestors. Yet the very notion terrifies me. Ask any South Texan. To us, Mexico means kidnappings and shoot-outs in broad daylight in Nuevo Laredo. The unsolved murders of young women in Juárez. It means narco-traffickers in every cantina and explosive diarrhea from every comedor. When I was in high school, a college student got snatched off the street while partying in Matamoros during spring break. Bound and gagged, he was driven to a ranch run by a satanic cult. Next thing you know, he was menudo. One worshipper wore a belt made of his victims’ spinal cords.

So go to Mexico? Thanks, but I’d rather return to Moscow and track down my old mafioso boyfriend.

I’m cresting a small hill now. Glistening pools of water appear on the road up ahead, then evaporate. It is dizzyingly hot. I glance at the gas gauge. It’s nearly empty. Cell phone: roaming. Not a soul has passed me on this road. If the Mazda breaks down, I’m toast. Better turn around and rejoin the highway. My foot hovers above the brake as I grasp the clutch.

Something appears in the distance. Objects in the middle of the road. Moving sluggishly, then quickly. Bears? What kind of bear prowls around the Arizona desert? No. They must be wild dogs, big ones, standing on their hind legs and … running?

No. They are people. Mexicans fleeing the border. I slam the brakes and blare the horn.

¡Agua! ¡Tengo agua!” I scream out the window.

They must need water. I have two bottles. I must give one to them.

But … what if water isn’t all they need? What if they ask me to take them somewhere? Of course I will say yes. How can I deny a ride to people in the middle of the desert?

But what if they don’t just want a lift? What if they want my car?

Or what if they take it? Toss me into the cactus and roar away? That is what I would do, if the tables were turned: Throw out the gringa and go.

The irony here is immediate. Nearly every accolade I have received in life—from minority-based scholarships to book contracts—has been at least partly due to the genetic link I share with the people charging through the snake-infested brush. What separates us is a twist of geographical fate that birthed me on one side of the border and them on the other. They are “too Mexican.” I am just enough.

The Mazda has slowed to a crawl, but the border crossers have vanished. Water shimmers where they stood. I pause a moment, wondering what to do, then slowly begin to accelerate. As I look off into the desert hills from which they descended, a surprising thought flashes through my mind: I want to go to Mexico.

By the time I’ve dropped off the car in Texas and flown home to Brooklyn, where I’ve lived for three years, I’ve regained my senses. I can’t go to Mexico. That would entail quitting my day job, cramming everything I own into storage, and ravaging my savings account. It’s just too easy—and I’ve done it too many times before. It’s why I’m nearly thirty and still sleeping (alone) on a futon in a cramped apartment with multiple roommates while my friends have wandered off, bought houses, and procreated. Besides. What if I did learn Spanish—and nothing changed? For years, this has been my pipe dream: If only I spoke Spanish, I would be more Mexican. But what if it isn’t possible to become a member of an ethnic or cultural group—to will yourself into it, to choose? What if you can only be born and raised into it?

That would rule me out. I made a conscious choice to be white, like my dad, one day in elementary school. Our reading class had too many students, our teacher announced,

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