Thursday, January 17, 2013

Culinary, Cultural Identity

Today let's talk about identity.

One of the English classes I'm taking this semester is Transborder Chicano Literature. I've been kind of wanting to take it for a while since, living in the Southwest, I always wish I learned more about this particular area (reading Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony, which takes place in New Mexico, in my Major American Novels class, for instance, was great--but moments like that are infrequent). So much of this literature, so far, has dealt with questions of identity. And discussions like this make me wonder, do I deny part of myself and my identity?

You see, let's put it this way: three of my grandparents were from Mexico. But I grew up speaking English and probably thinking I was white until I don't even know when. Even though when I was in kindergarden, it was a normal thing to visit relatives and hear more Spanish than English, in my bilingual class (that was my second kindergarten class--I started late here so the bilingual class was the only one open) I was with the English-speaking kids. It's kind of funny to think of now: I was probably the only Mexican girl grouped with the white kids, even though I realized no such discrepancy (kids really don't know race exists, do they?). But that's the funny part, too: I think I tend to look racially ambiguous. Especially before I came to Phoenix for college and got a tan: I used to be very white, and I still am light. Usually it was only the people who actually were from Mexico who could tell that that was my background, too. So I guess I always grew up on that line between worlds. The question I have now is whether that is a bad thing, whether I have missed out or repressed anything or some such thing like that.

But what I find funny when I consider these questions is what I have, in some ways retained from that cultural background. I don't really speak Spanish, though I can understand some of it if people aren't talking too fast or if I can see it in print. I'm pretty sure most of the songs in Spanish I listen to are by Josh Groban. But I have the influence of food.

That's right, I'm turning this into a food post. You see, especially because I live in Arizona, I don't always realize certain tendencies in what I eat--some of them are just normal to this area, no matter your background. But I have Abuelita hot chocolate in my cabinet right now next to the Earl Grey tea--but that's something they sell at Target. I have tortillas in my refrigerator--but they're from Trader Joe's. I made pinto beans last week that I bought at a farmer's market--but I also have a bag of black beans that I got at Whole Foods. I once got sad looking through all the stores because I couldn't find any jamaica (hibiscus) to make iced tea--but I don't remember ever drinking that until I was maybe twelve. I usually like tortilla chips best--but that's also because I'm part hipster and avoid the junk food Lay's/Cheetos/etc. I have Cholula hot sauce--and I can't think of an excuse for having it besides that I bought it at World Market. Oh, and I've been known to put hot sauce on eggs. And butter and sugar on toast (do they do that in the South, too? I'm not sure. Although, lately, it's true that I've been switching the sugar for a mound of raw honey).

What amuses me most is when I blend these things together: that, I feel, is me marking my culture. To drink my hot chocolate while eating scones or wrap salmon and spinach in a tortilla or drink jamaica while eating potato salad, those are the types of things I find entertaining. Because I think, ultimately, culture lives inside you. Identity is partly given to you, but also partly formed by you. And I have always grown up on those borderlines between cultures: and there I am happy to remain. Perhaps that's one reason I have come to have such affection for Arizona, despite not having been born here.

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