Just recently, I returned from an out-of-state Mexican/Indian wedding. The groom was Mexican (actually half Mexican and half Polish) and the bride’s family was Indian. Before I go further, I need to clarify that I’m talking about Indians from India and not Native Americans. To say that the festivities were interesting is an understatement. The only thing Mexican about the wedding was some of the food during the reception. The strongest mark was by the bride’s Indian heritage.
I was struck by Indian culture’s classicism. Almost everything in the festivities (all of which I’d seen for the first time) was rooted in some sort of long-held custom. The night before the wedding, the bride participated in a number of rituals to prepare her hair, skin and appearance for the ceremony. The bride and groom were kept separated (in ancient times so that neither would be injured or otherwise unable to make it to the ceremony). At the wedding, the groom carried out the custom of paying for the bride (exchanging goods to compensate for the daughter). To carry out the ceremony’s symbolism, the groom gave a small amount of cash. Going into the Sikh temple, I had to cover my head with a scarf. The men sat in areas segregated from the women. Following the wedding, all the guests ate. Particular attention was paid in feeding the bride and groom. I was one of the people responsible for getting them food. At the ceremony, the Indian women sat apart from the men. During the dancing, men danced separate from the women. One of the repeated themes was keeping the men and women separate.
I feel fortunate not to regularly engage in those customs or belong to such a society. I remember that one of the Indians told me, “This is one of our customs although I’m not sure what the purpose is.” You would think that this was a young person that told me this. It wasn’t. The person was one of the elders and also an immigrant. The point that this person made is that the custom was followed for so long that the people forgot why it was followed in the first place.
While I’m an American born of Mexican parents, I pick and choose what customs I feel are important. I don’t blindly keep a custom just to keep it. I don’t accept the explanation, “It’s how it’s always been. We’ve always followed it.” While it is necessary to keep one’s customs since customs are an important characteristic of culture, customs were once brand-new practices. Customs didn’t come from nowhere. Somebody did something new and enough people kept repeating it that it eventually became a custom. Just as much as customs came into being, customs can also end. Not all customs are worth keeping. Some are downright cruel and barbaric. I would ask that before you follow a custom, ask yourself if it’s something worth following.
Just a few days ago, I read a very fascinating interview with Jessica Alba in Latina. In it, she addressed many of the accusations and insinuations that she’s not latina enough. I admit that I was one of the people that were against her. I remember how Alba’s father said how he didn’t speak “Mexican.” At first, I thought that it was ignorance. However, after reading the article, I saw that the ignorance wasn’t her father’s but mine.
The gist of why Alba isn’t latina enough had to do with two things: her being multi-ethnic and not being raised around Spanish. At one time being a part of different worlds and yet never being completely accepted by any. Her story is that of many latinos in the United States.
The strange thing about the lack of acceptance is that it’s not just confined to those people that are multi-ethnic but even those that are 100%. I’ve had situations involving groups in SW Detroit where I haven’t been accepted despite being 100% Mexican, speaking the language pretty fluently (minored in Hispanic Studies) and having been back to Mexico a number of times. The fact that I don’t dress the part or that I speak with a different accent makes me an outsider. I have been punished for leaving the group.
I’m calling for everybody to get past their ignorance, respect everybody and listen to others’ stories. While we might have taken different journeys, we’re all going toward the same destination. All that we want is acceptance. If we can’t be accepted by our own, then how can we be accepted by others?
Lately, I have begun to think about this a lot. Maybe it’s because I read my girlfriend’s Latina. Maybe it’s from hanging out with my girlfriend’s crew-one pocket is comprised of a good number of Spanish speaking people. So whether it has to do with somebody speaking Spanish or their last name being a Spanish one I have to ask myself, “So what is ‘Hispanic?’ ”
When I visit Mexicantown in Southwest Detroit, I sometime feel like I’m a world apart from its residents, which is funny because many of my childhood’s fondest memories are tied to some of Mexicantown’s well known locations. Around fifth grade, I lose the think Spanish accent that I carried from kindergarten up until that point. I don’t have a low rider and don’t have any real interest in them. I don’t have a single tattoo. I don’t have a Mexican flag flying off of my car or anything with the Mexican flag on it. I still speak the language and can read it, although I can definitely say that English is my stronger language. I wonder, “Am I still Hispanic?”
I can honestly say that some in the Hispanic community would consider people like me “sell-outs”-something comparable to the Hispanic version of an Uncle Tom. The moment that I learned to impeccably speak and write in English and lost my connection to those images that some associate with being Hispanic was the moment that I lost my culture. The funny thing is that it wasn’t anything conscious or anything imposed on me by my parents. My parents weren’t the type of Mexican parents that prize assimilation so much that they rob their children of any ties to their culture and instead leave them with the homogenization that is American culture.
For the record, I don’t consider myself assimilated. I’d prefer to call myself integrated. I say this because, while I consider myself as American as the rock music that I listen to, I also have a strong sense of my Mexican roots. I am fortunate enough that I have been to Mexico numerous times. I know who my family is over there and communicate semi-regularly with them. I’m very familiar with the food and have a working knowledge of the customs. I am Mexican and American at the same time.
I think that the excessive worry about what our culture is stems from the conflict between a culture (American) that devours elements of other cultures and another (Hispanic) that has a distinct sense of what it is. You have the fear of American culture and the sometime blind stubbornness of the Hispanic one for not accepting the other as much as they themselves would wish. Hispanics should worry about losing sense of themselves and Americans shouldn’t wish Hispanics to lose their connections.
Before Hispanics can fully reconcile their Americanness, I feel that they should recognize the fact that the definition of what it is to be Hispanic has been changed. For me, there isn’t one definition. Hispanics are those that immigrated to the United States. Hispanics are those that are children of immigrants. Hispanics are also a mixture of various bloods flowing through their veins. Hispanics are light-complected or as dark as dark can be. Hispanics are all of these things.
For 62 years, Ellis Island, the first federal immigration station, served as a beacon drawing newly arrived immigrants to the United States. Second to the Statue of Liberty, it was one of the most recognized icons for immigrants.
Ellis Island helped to regulate the flow of immigrants through its screening process. First of all, immigrants needed to have the required papers in order. Then, they would go to the Registry Room, where they would submit to a medical inspection, as administered through doctors with the US Public Health Service. Their ship’s manifest would include their name as well as their answers to 29 questions. This information served to help the agents cross examine the immigrants. Only people that passed the health standards or demonstrated that they would not be a burden to the public or be an illegal laborer could pass through as US citizens. From this point forward, each incoming immigrant’s history would detail their point of origin and their subsequent date of entry.
So why is it now so complicated to track people coming into the country? Even after all of these years, there are numbers of Americans that can trace their ancestry to at least one person entering through Ellis Island. Can the same thing still be said about people coming into the United States? Do we still have that same ability to track them back to their specific point of entry and point of origin? Ellis Island helped to establish the paper trail, which began their new identity as Americans.
One of the major problems that the United States has is its inability to track everybody arriving in the United States, which includes those that would do harm. One of the things that the 9/11 attacks and other terrorist activities has shown is that not all of the terrorists entered here illegally. For example, Mohammed Atta (United Airlines 11-NYC) and Marwan Alshedhi (United Airlines 175-NYC) entered legally using visitor visas. After it became public that some of the terrorists entered with visas, then local, state and federal authorities started rounding up people who had overstayed their visas. It took 9/11 to motivate the government to start working on tracking people using visas to enter the United States.
Before anything else is done regarding immigration, policy changes start with regulating the flow of traffic. Whether the United States decides on deportation or amnesty, there is no way to do either without first of all cutting back on the people entering to allow us time to figure out what to do with current illegal immigrants. If they are to be deported, then the people that overstayed their visas or otherwise illegally entered must be located.