I’ve had plenty of time to reconcile with the idea that no matter where you go, you have to remember where you came from, as if you might forget to feel proud of your origins.
I live in a humble neighborhood. Many families here live in 2 bedroom homes or apartments and if you are tempted to make a Mexican people joke, go ahead, because they don’t hurt anymore, and yes we can absolutely fit a lot of people into cramped living spaces. This is the kind of neighborhood where everyone runs outside to wave Mexican flags when Mexico wins a soccer game. We’ve even had the National Guard come out to settle a riot during a Lakers victory a few years ago.
When my parents split up, my mom had to figure out how to make enough money for us to live together, not go hungry and still pay for a babysitter to stay with us while she worked all day. We went from living in a neighborhood that in the ’80s was quite diverse to where we live now, which is a primarily Hispanic neighborhood. I don’t usually prefer to use umbrella terms, but we really have various Spanish-speaking families from Mexico, Central America and Cuba, to name a few.
Before I moved, I had friends of varying ethnicities, but here I became immersed in a neighborhood that strongly advocated Chicano culture, though to this day I still feel so detached from it. Many of my friends grew up together and we all went to the same schools as their older siblings. I was the newbie and had a lot to learn about the area’s history and which places served the best Menudo on Sundays.
Things really got interesting when we were almost out of high school and one by one we received our acceptance letters. Some of my friends had been itching to leave for years and were more than pleased when they were accepted into universities like Wesleyan and Brown. They had invested all of their time into school activities and leadership groups and had crafted their personal statements to best reflect how much they deserved to pursue higher learning.
The friends who I’d helped for years with their essays and homework split town in quite a hurry.
After 4 years, some returned and much to their dismay, found themselves back in the crowded homes they had been glad to get away from. After they’d gotten a taste of life outside of our southern California suburb, they returned with a bad taste in their mouths caused by the familiarity of home and the risk of running into someone from high school while shopping for groceries.
I’ve heard it preached so many times that no matter where you go, you’re obligated to remember where you came from. I wanted to believe that it meant that you could be anywhere in the world and still carry with you all the pieces of home that make you who you are, but when it falls from certain lips, the words mean that no matter how successful you become or what better things you find outside of the “bubble” of home, you are not allowed to forget your humble roots.
You’re not allowed to forget you shared a room with your brother or with several sisters.
You’re not allowed to forget you had a house full of people sharing just one bathroom.
You’re not allowed to forget eating beans and birria at every big family party.
You’re not allowed to forget what color your skin is and that it still has a bearing on what people think when they meet you.
If we spoke eloquently, we were teased for being “too smart” and “white washed”, a term I find ridiculous.
If I couldn’t handle spicy foods or said something incorrectly in Spanish, I was called a “pocha” by the neighbors.
If you married a white guy and didn’t teach your kids Spanish, then you “forgot where you came from”. Come on.
These are the words I’ve heard from other people’s relatives as well as our peers who never wanted to or couldn’t go to college, as if that divided us so much that we forgot how many years we spent together in junior high and high school. How can anyone forget where they came from?
Let’s say one day I did reach the kind of success that would allow me to provide for my family. A part of me would still be afraid of forgetting where I came from, even though my heart has always wanted comfort, shelter and happiness. It just still feels like wanting more means we don’t care about the humble beginnings anymore, but there’s just no way I’m going to forget that I used to push the grocery cart home by myself after buying everything with food stamps.