Tuesday, December 8, 2009

A Mexicana in India: First Impressions

It's my third morning in Delhi but already it feels like I've been here forever. So far, the smells and sounds of India remind me of the smells and sounds of Mexico. The congested streets with honking cars & motorcycles and the smell of burning wood used to light fires, all remind me of Mexican cities. It doesn't look or smell just like Mexico but the similarities are sufficient that I feel at home in Delhi.

The night I arrived, I was exhausted from having waited for two hours for my baggage at the airport but stepping out into the streets of Delhi felt so natural in a way that European cities never have that effect on me. I love Vienna but I still remember stepping out into the streets and feeling as if though I had arrived in a completely alien world. Eventually, it felt like home but always when I have returned I feel like an outsider.

I was worried that I'd feel that way in India. I worried that I would feel too much like an outsider and that I'd feel lost in this new culture. While I do feel that way to a certain degree, the feeling is more akin to the one I feel when I go to Mexico. It's home but not home. It feels uncomfortable but not too uncomfortable. It is welcoming but skeptical of me. It is feeling out of place but of belonging somehow.

There are differences, however. At a glance, people in Mexico and most of Latin America deeply value beauty and appearance—not that Indians don't but for many of them it doesn't seem to be high on their list of priorities. I was talking about this with Dave. Dave thinks that it's because in countries like Mexico and the United States, physical appearance is put on display whereas in India it is not. Women here are discouraged from wearing short skirts or revealing clothing. They do not show off their legs or their cleavage or most of their bodies actually. They do not feel pressured to take great time and pains to groom themselves the way people in the United States or in Latin American countries feel pressured to do so.

Similarly, men have no incentive or pressure to go to the gym and pump iron until they are rippling and bulging with muscle. Despite the India media and Bollywood movies which encourage the Westernization standard of beauty, the people on TV and on film seem so far removed from most Indian's every day lives that they feel little pressure to build up muscles and show off legs. Given the effects Westernization and industrialization are having in cities like Delhi, I wonder how long this will last.

A couple of weeks ago a former Venezuelan beauty queen died due to a cosmetic procedure—she was getting her buttocks filled with silicone. Instead of staying in the rear area, the silicone traveled to some of her organs and her brain ( I think) and killed her. An extreme example, but cosmetic surgery is frequently encouraged in Venezuela and other Latin American countries as a way to achieve beauty. It doesn't really seem to be something that is encouraged in India. As a result, it seems at first glance that Mexicans—especially the middle and upper class Mexicans and pretty much all Americans, are more physically attractive than most Indians—at least if you go by the Western standard of beauty. Granted, I have only been to one city and I've only been out in about the city for a couple of days, so I may be entirely wrong in this observation but it's interesting to me at least that the first thing I noticed was how attractive or unattractive people here are. It makes me wonder what that says about me.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Mexicana goes to India, Prologue

This is how you know you don't quite belong in this country: you fill out an American passport application, turn in all the correct documentation and anxiously wait for it to arrive--your key to freedom! Then just when you think you can't wait any more, your passport arrives...missing your second last name.That extra name that makes sense in Mexico baffles Americans. The name that any other Mexican would acknowledge while simultaneously drop becomes the bane of your existence because no one can figure out who you are.

What to do about a person who uses their first last name on a license but then has both last names on a birth certificate or certificate of citizenship? If you have no idea, don't worry, you are not alone because the government doesn't really know what to do with you either.

I thought that when I was replacing my passport that it wouldn't be too difficult. I am an American citizen after all. I have the documentation to prove it. I follow instructions. This shouldn't be too bad.

But wait that's not where the story begins. The story begins with a plane ticket. I bought a plane ticket to India. India's on my bucket list but more importantly India is the other love of my boyfriend Dave. If India were a woman, I'd be worried. Thankfully, India is a country and so I am going to India to taste the air and inhale the food--or something like that.

I bought a ticket. I hadn't gotten my passport, yet, but I figured that was a technicality. There is a reason why travel websites tell you to get your passport before you book a ticket. The name I entered included my first and second last names. I was thinking that my passport (once I'd actually gotten it, of course) would have both my last names since my birth certificate has both of my last names and my certificate of citizenship has both last names and so does my social security card. But oh no. No, no, no this was not to be because you see my driver's license had only my first last name.

A long time ago my parents had gotten me a state ID with just my first last name because a second last name--my mother's surname would simply be too confusing for Americans to wrap their minds around and so to make it easy, so that I would not be known as Ms. Flores instead of Ms. Ortiz, they chopped it off. It made sense. I mean even I was confused by having two last names when I was a little girl trying to figure out why I had no middle name but two last names. When I got my license the secretary of state used my information from my state ID perpetuating the use of just one last name.

So there I was sitting at work holding my brand new passport with my mouth wide open because suddenly I could not use the ticket I had bought. I tried calling Orbitz since I had booked my ticket through them. They told me I had to cancel my ticket and then book a new one--what sense does that make? Shouldn't it be easy to change your name on a ticket you bought for yourself?

If only it had been that simple. But no, I would have had to pay an extra $1000 in order to cancel and rebook my ticket. It would be way less expensive to change the name on my passport, right? I mean I had requested the use of my second last name in my passport application so it was their fault, right?

Nope. It was my fault. At least that's what the nasty lady who is one of the managers at the Chicago Passport Agency yelled at me through her bullet proof (but not sound proof) window. After letting her know that she was being rude, she dispensed with me by sending me to another window. Explain to someone else this business about your two last names cuz I have no idea what you are talking about. The second man I spoke to was very nice but by then I was too upset to listen. I left in tears. Would I ever get to leave the country again?

Luckily, Dave came to my rescue by further investigating wh. at could be done about my passport. And what I had to do was this: go to the DMV, have them change my name on my license, bring it back to the Passport Agency, apply for a new passport under that name and pay the full fee, again. Still cheaper than a $1000. So after much grumbling and gnashing of teeth, I went. I returned to the Passport Agency and nearly $400 later, I had a new passport, a state ID and a driver's license with my full name.

At last my freedom was assured! India here I come!

I just hope no one calls me Ms. Flores or I may scream.

Friday, August 29, 2008

OMG! The Mexicans Are Taking Over!

So I few weeks ago I read an article about how in just a few short decades the majority of the population in the United States will be Latino. I thought that was pretty hilarious but I what I found even funnier was a comment that some guy posted in response to the article. He claims that it's happening much faster but that the government doesn't want you to know. Damn! I guess the secret is out.

What is also interesting, is that immigrants are also taking over European countries and will also soon outnumber the "natives". This begs the question: how long will it take until immigrants wipe out those darn white people? I don't know but I suspect that the dude who made that comment is certain that it is imminent and that we are going to launch a genocide of the white people. Then again we can just try to breed them out. I mean honestly, how else do you explain all these multiracial people running around? Yes...that must be our evil plan.

But seriously, in this ever changing , ever globalizing world, how do you hold on to your culture? Are you still Mexican, Indian, Ethiopian, Palestinian, German if you are one or two or three generations removed from your family's point of origin? I met a guy, recently, who is genetically Korean but who does not identify as Korean but rather as "main stream". I have no idea what that means but I suspect that like many children or grandchildren of immigrants, he does not feel comfortable identifying with a culture that he is so far removed from.

Now the guy who made the comment about how the Latinos are taking over the country was probably a dude who is very far removed from his culture or cultures of origin. Maybe his family was originally from Ireland but now he identifies as white or maybe his family was originally from India and now doesn't know how to identify himself. So what I want to know is this: are Latinos really taking over the country or is it an entirely different type of people--people who were originally Mexican, Guatemalan, Colombian, etc., but who will eventually become "white" or "mainstream"?

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Dating A Mexican

Okay, so I'm not actually dating a Mexican--for that matter I have never dated a Mexican (another story for another day) but here are some things that I've heard about dating a Mexican woman. "Oooh! Your dating a Mexican girl?! Mexican girls are
Good in bed!
Always having babies!
Good cooks!
Less likely to use protection!
Gold diggers!
Great dancers!

People who have actually dated Mexican woman may or may not agree with some of the things on the list but what irks me about this list aside from the fact that it's full of stereotypes is that most of the items on the list have negative connotations. They are not nice things to say about an entire group (be it female or male). Recently, one of my boyfriend's (he's Indian) friends said that Mexican girls are feisty and why doesn't he just have his mother find him a nice Indian girl.

At first, I was a bit annoyed by this statement but when I thought about it some more I realized that what bothered me was the use of a stereotype to justify a break up. But when you watch the way films or TV portray Mexican women, all you see are these stereotypes of women and that is when you begin to understand why people assume that Mexican woman are a certain way. And here's what really gets me: many Mexicans have bought into these stereotypes as well and act out these supposed traits. So here's my question, if a culture has accepted these stereotypes as truth, are you less Mexican because you don't fit into these stereotypes? This is not a rhetorical question but a serious one. At what point does a stereotype of a group become accepted as truth by that very group? And more importantly, how do you know when you're acting out a stereotype as opposed to just acting as the person that you are?

Monday, June 23, 2008

Where are all the Mexican actors?

I am currently working on a staged reading of a docuplay about gentrification in Logan Square. For those unfamiliar with Logan Square, it is a neighborhood on the west side of Chicago that for decades has served as an entry point for different immigrant groups. At the moment it is predominantly Latino (mostly Mexicans and Puerto Ricans) but the yuppies and hipsters have started colonizing it over the last few years, so who knows how long this will last. This, in part, is what the play is about.

So I walk into the first rehearsal, expecting to see a bunch of latino actors but no. There were supposed to be 10 actors but only 6 came and out of the six, 4 of us were Latino. Now this is technically a good percentage but that leaves us with four missing actors! Where are the other four Latino actors? No seriously, where are they?

Every year, hoards of young actors arrive in Chicago freshly sprung from their conservatory programs. They are wanting to act, to start their own ensemble theater companies, to be "artists", to be the next Gary Sinise. Most of these young hopefuls are white. Now given the ratio of Latinos to white people in the general population (especially in a city like Chicago), one might imagine that there are more Latino actors than there actually are. But there are no hoards of Latino actors just like there are no hoards of African American or Asian American actors. Where the heck are they? Hiding? Sleeping? Lost? Maybe they are all in the same theater company, which they started because no one else would cast them?

I don't where they all are but I know that there aren't that many which is why I shouldn't have been surprised when I showed up to rehearsal and I was told that they were having difficulties finding Latino actors. But I was surprised. I stepped out of theater for a while and I forgot, somehow I forgot that there weren't enough of us to go around. Given that there wasn't a single Latino writer and no Spanish speakers amongst the writers of this script (which was about the gentrification of a Latino neighborhood) I should not have been surprised. But I was. I guess after all this time, I had hoped that things were changing. I had hoped that the success of theater companies like Teatro Vista and Teatro Luna had helped to somehow stimulate and encourage more Latino actors, writers and directors. And they have. And things are changing. But we're not there yet. We have not yet reached the point where there is such a plethora of Latino writers, actors and directors that there are hoards of them.

Perhaps if there were hoards of them I would have had a Latino or Latina mentor in theater to look up to and guide me all the while understanding my cultural background and the baggage that comes with it. I've had great theater mentors and none of them were Latino. Through all the classes and productions, I never came across a Latino in theater who could have guided me. Funnily enough though, all my mentors were African-American. I guess somewhere deep down I must have figured that if I couldn't have a Latino mentor, I could have one that was also a minority. It was easy to relate to them. They had similar struggles, similar troubles. I sometimes wonder what it would have been like to grow up with a Latina to look up to, to mentor me--someone who really got where I came from. Growing up there were such few Latino celebrities to look up to. I loved Gloria Estefan because even though she wasn't an actor, she had made it! She was out there! She proved it could be done! If only she had been Mexican...

My second rehearsal produced more Latino actors. This time there were 6 of us, an improvement to be sure but again it had clearly been a struggle to get us all together. One of the actors from the first rehearsal had dropped out. She's the artistic director and an ensemble member of a Latino theater company in Chicago. Given that there are so few of us who make it that high up the ladder, she was in high demand and was offered another job. So she left and because she is so well connected with other Latino artists, she was able to find a replacement for herself. But again, this incident underlines the fact that there are really so very few us.

This docuplay which is about gentrification contains little Spanish. The writers interviewed residents in Logan Square but most of the Spanish speakers were not included in the play because it's too hard to incorporate it when you don't know the language or the culture. This is not a criticism but it does highlight the fact that Latinos rarely get an opportunity to have a voice. And those that do find their voice or have a voice are like me, like the other Latino actors in that rehearsal--well educated, "americanized," and often middle class. The average Mexican in Logan Square is not like me. And yet, we are not so very different...

It's hard being Mexican in this country and it's even harder being Mexican in theater but I have hope. There is hope because even though they had a hard time finding Latino actors for this staged reading, they found enough to put it together--which is more than I can say about the play that I wrote in college. And who knows, maybe one day I will be some young Mexican girl's mentor or role model.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

A Beginning

I have read articles and books about being stuck between cultures and while many of them talk about this struggle, few of them really get that each person who is in a situation like that is essentially creating their own individual cultures. So this blog is my attempt to share my journey in building my own culture, my own rules.

I was born in Mexico but I grew up on the southwest side of Chicago amongst Mexicans whose families had been in the U.S. for more than a generation. Needless to say that their values and beliefs were very different from the ones I was being raised with. So I never really felt comfortable around people of my own culture. I never considered Mexican Americans that were born and raised here true Mexicans and I rarely acknowledged them as anything other than American. I thought I was more Mexican than any of them would ever be because I had actually lived there and my Spanish was flawless. (Geesh, I was a brat!) Looking back, this attitude was partially a reaction to the fact that I never felt that I was truly accepted by Mexicans living here and partially a way for me to differentiate myself from every other Mexican. That was then.

As I grew older I made friends with people from other cultures and other backgrounds and perhaps it was because they were so different that I felt at home in their company. I felt safe. But it was merely a way for me to escape from the problem that this blog is about. How can you be Mexican and American at the same time? I don't know. And that's the point.