I rent a small room on the second-floor art gallery. It’s called Pandeo.
Pandeo is on Calle Miami. Every street in the neighborhood is named after a U.S. city or state. The neighborhood itself, Napoles, is named after an Italian city. I have asked around about why that is. No one I’ve talked to knows. It makes me think about my own role as an American, and as a foreigner, even if my mother is Mexican and I’m *fluent* in Spanish.
A veces me siento como un extranjero.
The gallery on Miami has vicissitudes of activity, but that doesn’t bother me. I like silence and I also love interacting with people.
One Tuesday, I was walking out of the gallery, past a few people dressed in paint-splattered clothes. Someone was playing Biggie on their Macbook. The stool under the laptop was rattling and the noise was tinny.
Instinctively and as I had been taught by my mom, I asked,
“Do you need help?” They looked at me incredulously, as if I asked them for something wholly unreasonable.
Neta? Estas seguro? En realidad si.
I nodded my head and sprinted upstairs to change into clothes I didn’t care about. As I was putting on my MIT PE shirt, I saw my speaker on the edge of my desk. I thought it would be a good olive branch and an improvement over the Macbook speakers. I headed downstairs with my peace offering.
Traje una… uh como se llama… speaker?
I meekly showed them my speaker. This wasn’t the start that I wanted, stumbling over my Spanish and messing up a simple word. I immediately blushed. I am fluent, but I forget words sometimes and I felt very out of place.
Jaja, se llama bocina! Gracias, que chido.
The closest painter stepped down from her stool and walked over. We set up the speaker with her computer. I noticed the Macbook UI was all in French.
They looked at me and raised an eyebrow, glanced down at her laptop, and chuckled.
Ah si, jaja. Soy de alli.
I was a little confused. They had blonde hair and green eyes, attributes I don’t normally associate with Mexicans, especially from Mexico City (although there are some). But she had a perfect chilango accent—the slang demonym associated with Mexico City. It’s how my coworkers at work speak Spanish, it’s how most of my family speaks it, and it’s how this French woman was speaking it.
Oh wow! Que cool!
They started painting the wall again and laughed.
Porque cool? Solo es una nacionalidad.
“It’s just my nationality.”
I am Mexican-American. I was raised in Northeast LA (NELA represent) in a majority Latinx neighborhood. Until MIT, I had never been to a school that wasn’t at least 60% Latinx. I spent most of my summers in Mexico City. I only speak Spanish with my mom and I consider myself a native speaker.
But here was this French painter, who told me they had only been in Mexico for three years, who sounded more Mexican than me. I am not insecure about my Mexicaness. Right?
I’m going to revise what I just wrote because I was being dishonest.
I’m Mexican-American, but I am half Mexican and I’m white-passing. I am Mexican-American. I was raised in Northeast LA (NELA represent) in a majority Latinx neighborhood. Until MIT, I had never been to a school that wasn’t at least 60% Latinx. But MIT is 9% Hispanic (not Latinx, take notes), and I am in a primarily white major. I spent most of my summers in Mexico City but haven’t been back regularly since middle school (we got busy). I only speak Spanish with my mom. I consider myself a native speaker but I forget words sometimes, and on certain other words, I sound slightly gringo. My mom didn’t teach me any slang.
But here was this French painter, who told me they had only been in Mexico for three years, who sounded more Mexican than me. Even more than my mom.
It made me kind of insecure. Like I wasn’t Mexican enough.
It’s really cool. The French painter had constructed an entire other identity that they didn’t have three years ago, just by living in Mexico and learning the language.
And I have realized that I am not “not Mexican.” I just wasn’t raised with a Chilango identity. I would call my upbringing Mexican-American and maybe specifically Chicano (although that has its issues, perhaps for another day).
The Mexican identity, as any nationality, is inherently multidimensional. It is a country that has been ravaged by colonialism and finds itself now a confluence of ethnicities and languages.
I am not “not Mexican” because I don’t remember all the words or don’t use the slang of the city.
I just represent a different form of that identity.
And that is beautiful.
I picked up a brush and wet that bad boy with paint. We had a lot of wall left.
Gabriel Owens-Flores is an aerospace student in the class of 2021. This summer, he is working on a CubeSat at the Panamerican University in Mexico City.