Maya Sheth/MiC.

Te voy a contar una historia…

Una historia de muchas lágrimas

Mis lágrimas y

Las lágrimas de mi familia 

Una historia de mi vida

Una parte de mi vida 

Tan significa 

Que me va a tomar años para entender 

Años, años y años

Pero 

Es parte del viaje 

Acompañeme 

For the first time ever in my life, I embarked on a trip 20 years in the making: I set foot into the country of Mexico.

The country I dreamed of visiting since I was a tree-climbing toddler, theater performing teenager and now an anxious, stressed out young adult. Dreams that started in my childhood bedroom back in Wyoming, MI, created in the twin bed with the Spider-Man sheets. During my adulthood, I was still that small Mexican boy with caramel skin and shaggy hair that dreamt about visiting Mexico, living with that childlike wonder and waiting for the day I would see Mexico in all its glory…

What does Mexico look like? 

What does Mexico smell like?

What does Mexico feel like?

Since I was a little kid, I always knew I was Mexican. I spoke Spanish at home, I ate Mom’s spicy enchiladas, I learned that my parents were immigrants from Mexico and how to navigate life under these circumstances. I went to quinceañeras, feeling the booming bass in my heart, and ate all the wonder pan dulce. These things were normal to me because it was all I knew, but this understanding of my identity had always been something in my peripheral mind. 

I remember the day when I discovered how much culture I truly held. 

I was in third grade and it was like any other day. During our usual snack break, I pulled three items out of my lunch box: a banana, Tajín y mi concha…

Three of my favorite foods in the entire world!

I peeled the banana, popped the cap off my Tajín bottle, sprinkled the seasoning on the top of the banana and took one big bite. Once I finished eating the banana, I took another bite of the chocolate concha. As I finished my lunch, my teacher walked up behind me to peer over my shoulder and with a curious voice, she asked, 

“What’s that?”

I shifted my body to quickly inform her,

“It’s a concha! And this is my Tajín! What, you don’t know what this is?”

I was astonished that she didn’t know what I was eating. This was my normal, and I had to realize that other people didn’t eat my “normal.” I remember little Pablo feeling a bit perplexed, but also filled with a belly full of pride. At an early age, I was proud of my Mexican heritage and cherished the food I brought to class. All the other kids were eating their lunchables, peanut butter jelly sandwiches and other classic American lunchtime favorites, but there I was enjoying my favorite foods….

Un platano

Un poquito de Tajín y

Una concha

Eso era mi lonche

There were even times before school where I would join my mom in delivering lunch to my dad during work… 

Una torta con frijoles, Aguacate y

Una Coca-Cola  

Eso era su lonche 

Even with all this self-admiration I had in third grade, growing up in America, there were times when my Mexican identity was questioned. 

Growing up in the U.S., I thought to myself…

Am I Mexican enough?

What a silly question! But this silly question stuck with me — especially when it came to my Spanish speaking abilities. 

I spoke Spanish at home with my parents and in other settings when visiting our family friends, but for the most part I primarily spoke English. I’m the youngest out of my siblings, and I always knew that my Spanish was not the strongest out of the bunch. 

In high school, some kids would tease me and my Spanish by calling me a “gringo.” Now the word gringo can have multiple meanings, and it isn’t always used as an offensive word. It can refer to a traveler, a person of foreign birth, a person who doesn’t speak Spanish or Hispanics that speak very little Spanish or aren’t in touch with their Latino roots. Still, I never liked being described as a gringo because I knew personally that I was tapped into my Mexican roots to the best of my abilities. Though it was a surface level comment that people would use against me, I would still think to myself…

Am I Mexican enough? 

Despite these incessant doubts about my identity brought about by living in the U.S., the dreams of visiting Mexico that were imagined from my Spider-Man bed all those years ago never faded. 

And this spring, those childhood dreams finally became a reality: I visited Mexico, consequently gaining new confidence in my native tongue, and more significantly, my Mexican identity.

From the moment I entered the Benito Juarez International Airport en la Ciudad de México, I was in a country that felt so familiar yet so different. My brain was trying to make sense of where I was because I couldn’t believe I had actually arrived. It was only four hours earlier that I was back in the cold Chicago dawn saying goodbye to my parents. Then in the blink of an eye, I was waiting in the immigration line to officially check into Mexico.

My Tío picked us up from the airport and took us on a speedy tour of Mexico city in his car. He insisted that we had to do a bit of sightseeing before we headed to my Abuelita’s casa. As we were swerving through traffic and dodging the hectic drivers, he talked about the history of Mexico City: how it was built on a giant lake, the history of the ancient Aztec civilization and much much more. He was giving me a whole history lesson and I was absolutely loving it. 

I was listening to every word he was saying with the biggest smile across my face. While he focused on getting us home in one piece, talking as he was making turns and shifting into different gears, my face was lit up, staring and listening to him talk about Mexico with such passion.

Es importante que mires la ciudad, Pablo. Mayra ya ha visto la ciudad, pero quiero que tú mires este país donde nacieron tu mamá y papá.”

During the drive, I had my entire head out the window, taking in the beautiful Spanish architecture, working street vendors, bustling traffic and hastily shoppers. I couldn’t believe that I was finally in Mexico. Buildings proudly waved the Mexican flag on their roofs, letting it dance with the wind. The red, white and green flag was a sharp contrast with the blue sky, perfectly bleeding into the background.  

As my Tío continued to tell me this story, I couldn’t help but burst into laughter. He wasn’t saying anything funny and I don’t even know why I began to laugh, but I know that it was joyful laughter. I was in awe that I was finally here.  

My skin was soaking up the warm climate and friendly sunshine, a gentle reminder of life back in California. 

My lips were moving, speaking my native Spanish language with my Tío, a language spoken beautifully in my household back in Michigan. 

My eyes were seeing a city inhabited by Mexicans, built by Mexicans and owned by Mexicans, a sight that is very rare in the U.S. 

My ears were listening to the distant conversations of people going about their normal lives, a lovely reminder that I can understand and be confident in my native Spanish language.     

The drive from Mexico City to Cuernavaca reminded me a lot of Los Angeles. As the highway slithered through the heart of the city into the countryside, I caught a glimpse of the Mexico City skyline. Again, my brain was searching for something that was familiar to me, but I would soon realize that Mexico was an entirely unique experience. There were mountains in the distance and rolling hills splattered with colorful homes. With my head peering out the window, I enjoyed the welcome of warm air accompanied by the striking sunlight. Even if I did feel this uncanny feeling of home, my brain stopped playing tricks on me and I had come to realize that Mexico City is nothing like Los Angeles and that there is no place on Earth like Mexico.  

For the next four days, I would spend time with my tías, tíos, prímos and prímas, running around Cuernavaca, cooking food and enjoying each other’s company in Abuelita’s casa. There were some family members that I hadn’t seen in over five years and some family members that I got to meet for the first time! It was just as much of an emotional moment for my tíos and tías as it was for me because growing up in Michigan; my family was alone — we only had each other to lean on. Our family was mostly back in California and Mexico, so I didn’t have aunts or uncles close by and I didn’t get to spend nights sleeping over at my cousins’ growing up. It took me 20 years to see so many family members in the same room at the same time and I got just a taste of that lovely familial connection for four days. I helped my Tía make handmade tortillas, and I even got her own tortilla recipe to share with friends back in the states.

My short time in Mexico was filled with an immense sense of happiness, thanks to my family that eagerly welcomed me with open arms. On my last day in Mexico, my Tío drove me through the city and entrusted me with a final history lesson, detailing the ways that the U.S. stole land from Mexico and how the U.S. directly contributes to the instability in Latin American countries. This made me realize that despite how much I learned about myself during this trip, there was still so much left to learn about the country itself — its complex history and that has informed my family’s legacy. I’m prepared for this lifelong journey of learning and growing alongside my family in Mexico. There are so many untold stories that I want to hear…

Es un viaje muy largo

¿Tendré paciencia?

Sí, creo que tengo la paciencia

¡Esperé veinte años!

In visiting Mexico, I was finally able to find some of the missing puzzle pieces that helped form the full picture of my Mexican identity. I have tried to search for these pieces in the United States, but with no luck. Part of me knew these pieces were back in Mexico, so I was excited to finally have had the chance to experience the country’s beauty. With every passing year of my life, my puzzle gets closer to completion as I learn more about myself and my Mexican ties. When I saw the Mexican flag waving in the center of Mexico City, I felt an enormous amount of pride, a sense of pride I haven’t always felt when looking at the American flag. This is a feeling that I want to continue to dig at and understand, even now that I’ve left Mexico. 

Another aspect of my identity that I’m excited to delve more into is my proficiency with the Spanish language. I grew up with this chip on my shoulder, always nervous about how I spoke Spanish and constantly feeling the need to prove to myself that I could speak it well. However, my time in Mexico made these reservations fade away entirely. I found confidence in my ability to speak Spanish and this directly enabled me to easily connect and have conversations with local street vendors and family. The few times I spoke English during the trip were to share a few sentences with my sister. Other than that, I was fully immersed in the language. When I walked into the stores in Mexico, people spoke to me in Spanish, and I felt welcomed. In the U.S., when I enter tiendas y supermercados, the workers sometimes speak to me in English, probably assuming that I don’t speak Spanish. But being in Mexico validated my skills and made me realize that speaking Spanish is something that I’m extremely proud of, and I’m not taking shit from anybody now about my Spanish proficiency.

Now, I make sure that my Spanish consistently improves. Being able to translate conversations and documents over the summer at my internship made me realize how I can utilize my skills at the professional level, but conversing in the language in Mexico added an extra sense of validity to my relationship with the language. I know I need to improve, but I also know that I’m better at speaking Spanish than the majority of people. The older I get, the more my Spanish improves and the more I begin to recognize that I am Mexican enough, and that I don’t need to prove that to anyone but myself. 

There are many parts that make up my Mexican identity. From the molé I eat, to the José José records I spin, to the El Milagro trucker hat that I rock, my Mexican identity is alive and well. 

I am thankful that I was able to visit Mexico over Spring Break, especially because traveling to different parts of the world is such a privilege. This is something that my family hasn’t even gotten close to experiencing, and I am eternally grateful to have had this trip come to fruition after 20 years of dreaming.

To stand on the land where my parents were born was magical. I saw the culture they were a part of and the people and places they had to leave in order to move to the U.S. It put things into perspective for me and helped me realize how and why I am the person I am. Mexico is the reason that I am breathing. The love and challenges my parents faced in Mexico has, in a sense, been passed on to me and my siblings. Being in Mexico introduced me to the origins of my Mexican identity, and I’m now able to have an even greater appreciation of myself, my family, the people who live in Mexico, Mexican immigrants and Mexican American citizens. I left the trip saying goodbye to my Ablueita, tíos, prímas and prímos with more questions than answers, but one thing I learned was that…

I am Mexican enough.  

There are many more stories I need to tell and I can’t wait to share them with you. 

Gracias.

MiC Columnist Juan Pablos Marcos can be reached at marcosj@umich.edu.