That expression, full circle, I know now what it means.
On March 1st, I posted this picture. Yes, a selfie, essentially. Shot so as to make you believe that someone so mesmerized by me took it, or that it was by Divine design. But that’s not the point. In that moment, there was a sentiment driving this picture that I wanted to capture.
Self-conscious at the judgment of the passerby’s, but determined, I walked up and down 5th Avenue, between 28th and 29th Street for a total of sixty minutes until, after exploring every corner, I found that right spot where the sun hit just right. And then I had to crop it because some man’s head was somewhere in the background.
The caption on the picture: Deadlines. Assignments. Deadlines. Assignments. No sleep. Oversleep. Heartache. Love. Wants. Musts. Solitude. Deep within, a bright light contained, pulsating, peeking, shy. Now? It asks. Yes, now. Always, now. And then I looked up. Day 60. March One.
What did it mean? Yes, I was overwhelmed. Deadlines for my MLA (Master of Liberal Arts). Scene presentations at Atlantic. Hurting over my relationship, its absence, and not knowing what to do with the emotions. Struggling at work. Feeling like 2016 was running past me sixty days in. Afraid of never fully “Being” (whatever that meant). That “light” forever contained by the externals that had shaped so much of me along the way.
So, on March 1st, I expressed myself as we do in this day and age: on Facebook. I had yet to fully embrace Instagram and some other ones. And Twitter feels too impersonal. Whether it was with an artistic intent, or for the 21st century go-to therapy method of FB validation, I’m still unsure (though I want to believe the former).
What I am sure of is that it started this introspection into something bigger that had been triggered a few days before.
The Spring semester at Atlantic started with a bang. By the end of that first week, we had partners chosen and the reading of plays began. The expectations and stakes were high and we all felt it. No more introductions. Just, boom, get to work.
But the reality of a full time job, my graduate school assignments, evening classes, all that walking, curbed the ideal, which was to dedicate an hour every day and, even more over the first two weekends, until finding those plays that my scene partner(s) and I could agree on wholeheartedly. So, the alternative became to go off a short list of plays that one of our teachers recommended. Perfect! And they were all sooo good too.
Except that of that list only one play was a possibility for my Script Analysis scene partner and I. The play, set in New York City, consisted of a predominantly minority cast (Latino and Black). But my scene partner could not identify with the male character in our scene and felt that he should not work on something that he would not be cast in. I understood. It would have been a difficult scene for me, as well, because of an accent required that would have been very hard for me to work on given the time frame.
But his decision triggered a relapse into a subconscious chatter that had once been very loud and I thought it to have tired out. It was the chatter that judged “Look at her. She should apologize for being Mexican.” [GASP!]
The chatter got loud on March 7th. On that day, my Performance Technique partner and I presented a scene from a play set in Maine about two best friends who in the end discover that they love each other.
Now, Maine, as of the 2010 census is 94.4% white. What does that mean? That, in contrast to my full blooded Irish scene partner, I did not fit the bill. Like at all. And, while it had crossed my mind, I did not dwell on this “minor” thing because well, there was no time to dwell on it. We were up.
Also, truthfully, there was a part of me that felt defensive.
Here’s the thing. I know that your physical make up and your ethnicity plays into casting. It was that I am Latina that got me cast in commercial work in Texas. That’s the market that the client wanted to reach. But, in NYC, I had not yet wanted to give that a thought. At least not while in Acting School.
A naive part of me also wanted to believe that the work should overshadow the type. And that that should be the focus. But when our teacher observed how well my scene partner fit the part and that it was difficult to believe that I belonged in this world we were recreating, oooh man. #Falling #SomeoneCatchMe.
The color of my skin had never been so evident to me.
Here’s the deal. I understand that, as an actor, it is our job to tell the writer’s story. To honor the truth of the play and its message. Someone watching this Maine play with someone who looks like me would distract from the story. What’s a Mexican doing in Maine? I get it. As an actor I should have been more responsible in choosing a story.
Time constraints aside, however, I did not have the luxury to turn down this play because it didn’t matter what play I chose, I would not fit the bill in any one of them.
The truth of my experience as a brown actor among a cohort of predominantly white actors is that the stories available are those that represent a people that I don’t resemble. The truth of my experience as a brown actor is that I don’t have a choice but to often dismiss the color of my skin because, as the social dynamics of this country go, I have to learn to play white because it is expected; and not the other way around.
“No se me achicopale”
There is something that this reality does to your psyche that is hard to explain. Perhaps the best Mexican expression that comes to mind is “te achicopala.” This sense of contraction the way paper gets smaller as it burns slowly.
I observed myself over the course of the following two weeks and noticed this withdrawal. The light within felt dim and I walked with this sense of apology. What. the. hell. was I apologizing for?!
I clarify that my teacher’s observation was part of this bigger, constructive, message that had to do with my choice of action* and my choices for the character. She is a brilliant and caring teacher. It was the filter through which I heard it. A filter set in place by so many exchanges growing up that had everything to do with my color of skin and heritage; but that I had learned to suppress.
Much of our identity as Mexican people in the United States gets wrapped up in the struggle to be here. That even though we may be born here, or that our ancestors lived in land that was Mexican before it was part of the Union, we still have to explain ourselves because it is not assumed that we are. And if not citizens or permanent residents, Mexicanos have to live in the shadows afraid to be found out. And, I believe, that the whole community, even those assimilated, feel it. We are never just American and we find ourselves fighting to belong.
There is a shame, whether overt or subtle, that comes with this reality and it gets embedded in the subconscious somewhere along the way.
For me, I can think of that time my white elementary teacher demanded in front of my peers, while hovering over me, that I pronounce an English word correctly. She would pretend she did not understand what I wanted until it was said correctly. I can think of the constant conversation growing up about the handicap of an accent (I worked so hard not to have one). I can think about that one time at a leadership conference for Latinas when one of the young women responded “No” very disdainfully at my inquiry on whether she was of Mexican heritage as well. I can think about several times I was asked in college, over and over again, what I ate. Clearly the expected answer: rice and beans. Just to name a few examples.
There is also something about the absence of Mexican American teachers throughout your academic experience that has an effect on a young first generation Mexican American like me. When trying to understand a concept, or voice an opinion, and it is hard to engage because the cultural reference, or the vocabulary, that you want to use is not understood by the teacher, you learn to circumvent. Eventually, it becomes too hard and it silences you instead. And you apologize.
My Private Life
So the weeks transpired and March 29th arrived. This was the day for My Private Life.
For My Private Life you are assigned to research a historical figure, someone who died before you were born, to write a two minute monologue for this person and present before your peers. The monologue is then followed by a Q&A. Your classmates to whom you have assigned a role ask the questions. Essentially, they are your scene partners in this moment of the story where your character is asking something so big from them it is close to impossible to obtain.
Further instructions for this assignment: choose someone that you would be cast to play. In other words, don’t play Marilyn Monroe unless you know you could really be cast as her.
I chose la Doctora Matilde Petra Montoya LaFragua. She was the first female Mexican doctor. The story goes that Dra. Matilde had to petition the President of Mexico, then Porfirio Diaz, to change the law so that she could graduate from the School of Medicine in Mexico City.
It was 1887 and she was facing strong opposition from a conservative school board and government who were pressed on denying her the following step to her studies, which was to sit for her professional examinations. Dra. Matilde was fighting a conservative body that really believed that female education should be limited to that which served her household, her husband and her children. Moreover, higher education for a female could, essentially, corrupt her sense of morality.
I learned about la Dra. Matilde, as we all learn about history in this day and age, through Google. Specifically, www.google.com.mx. If I remember correctly, I googled something along the lines of Mexicanas importantes de la historia (important historical Mexican women). I asked for Google’s help because, truthfully, my mind could not think of a single Mexican or Mexican American woman of historical significance that had died before I was born.
Which made me wonder. This apologizing…could it be because of an absence of historical role models? The knowledge of people who link me to a heritage that is defined by more than the struggle to belong in a “foreign land” or the migration for a “better” life? (Better meaning United States).
But then I remembered December 28, 2015.
At Renee’s in Mission, Texas, three of my tías along with my mom and abuelito, sister and four of my cousins gathered for an early celebration of my birthday and a belated celebration of my sister’s birthday. It was a last minute and casual gathering. One of the most memorable of my life.
On this day I learned something about two of my tías that revised my identity.
A favorite topic of conversation for my family is education. (Education, family and faith are the three pillars of the Flores Huerta dynasty).
On this morning, over tacos de machacado, frijolitos, cafecito, biscuits and pancakes, my tía Blanca and my tía Norma shared their higher education odysseys. They recounted the obstacles they faced for admission into university in Mexico. They spoke about walking into the Head Master’s office without appointments and making a case for their respective admissions.
It was amazing listening to them because suddenly I could see them vividly in their late teens, early early twenties, advocating for themselves and for their right to a place at these schools.
These women, whom I had identified simply as my tías all of my life, suddenly appeared before me as Pioneers. Women who had knocked on doors and paved a way for themselves pursuing professions that had not yet been stepped into by their female ancestors. And, in that moment, I realized that I had never been alone in my journey. That my search for opportunity and expansion was their inheritance, which they had inherited from my grandparents, whom had inherited it from their parents, who had fought and made their way amidst years of Mexican government instability and had emerged proud of such accomplishment.
As I researched for the person to portray for My Private Life, was it any coincidence that I immediately found la Dra. Matilde, who had opened the door for my tía Blanca to become a Doctor? In the words of my Performance Technique teacher, there are no accidents.
So there I was. Facing my classmates. They were the Diputados (the members of parliament) and, dead center, was Porfirio Diaz. To the left of me, slightly behind me, the Mexican Flag.
I had never stumbled or shaken so violently.
My teacher’s follow-up question was “how did it go?” (I love how Atlantic asks you to assess your work.) I said, “I was nervous. It was hard learning the lines with an accent. I felt a great responsibility to say the right thing.” She assessed (not verbatim), “this is a woman with a big purpose. She is fighting for her right to be a doctor but she is also fighting for Mexican women to pursue professions in Medicine and anything they want, really. She is fighting for recognition of their intellect and equality. She operates from a place of conviction that they should do the right thing. And, instead, I saw insecurity.” A la M.* My teachers are so brilliant.
“What was your action*?” She asked. I said, “to let me on your team.” “No,” she said. “She is telling them to ‘do the right thing.’”
And so once again I faced Porfirio Diaz and the Diputados. Nervous, but with a new action, la Doctora Matilde spoke. And she did not apologize for being a woman. And she did not apologize for demanding her right to practice Medicine. And she did not apologize for taking up these men’s times. And she did not apologize for wanting to change the law. She stood firm, grounded, guided by the conviction that what needed to change was them, their narrow views, the system. Guided by the conviction to do the right thing- to speak up and assume success.
That moment when…
It was momentous. To declare my heritage so loudly, with conviction and through an accent. To allow my peers to see what for years, in the attempt to define myself as American, I had to play down, though not consciously and deliberately.
See, there’s always been in my heart a huge sense of pride for my heritage. As a first generation Mexican American, who grew up on both sides of the border, I am aware of the history of the Independence of Mexico, the Mexican Revolution, Zapata and the Adelitas. My great grandfather was a Colonel in Pancho Villa’s army. My cousin is a brilliant Ballet Folklorico Dancer. A print of Diego Rivera’s Vendedora de Flores (Flower Seller) decorated my dorm room in college for the whole four years.
And when I’m at home, around my family, and in that part of the world within the geography of the Rio Grande Valley and in my grandfather’s terraza in Reynosa, Tamaulipas, I can think out loud about Josefa Ortiz de Domínguez, instrumental to Mexico’s Independence. I can talk about Maria Felix and Dolores del Rio. I can dream about playing an Aztec Princess.
Outside of that context, however, it’s as if that Texas-Mexico border, and that checkpoint in Falfurrias, had restricted that they travel North with me.
Borders Schmorders… or in the words of Argentine composer, Leo Dan, “Fronteras, ¿por qué fronteras?”
Perhaps the enforcement of geographical, racial, language and gender “borders” will forever remain. Those in power, of limited vision and in the interest of bigger pockets, may, like the Diputados, continue their fight to enforce them. Or maybe, like Porfirio Diaz, one day in the interest of some other reward, make a concession.
But what I know now is that a “border” does not define my identity. What defines me is that lineage of pioneers, the courage of my ancestors, my grandparents, to find their way to prosperity and progress. The courage of my tías to ask for the education they wanted. My parents’ commitment to the actualization of a life for their daughters beyond their imagination. I’m an extension of la Dra. Matilde, her ancestors, her contemporaries, of those who followed in her footsteps, and history lives through me wherever I go.
Yes, historical factors in the United States of America have allowed for “white” voices to express themselves more loudly and freely. Yes, the system as it is IS harder to enter for a “brown” actor. But, as la Dra. Matilde would say “La historia ha triunfado a tu favor también. ¿Qué esperas? Alza tu voz. Actúa. Que al cabo, ¿qué son fronteras? ”
There was never a reason to apologize, after all. The light shines brighter. April 1.
Here’s a short filmed poem for Dr. Matilde. My Ode to Dr. Matilde.