Over the next several months, my blog will largely be devoted to work I’m doing in Deborah Blum’s long form journalism class at UW-Madison’s School of Journalism. For our first assignment, she asked us to blog about winter. Where we take that idea, she said, is up to us…
This post isn’t about winter. It begins with a memory of one winter night in 1992 when I grew new roots, or more accurately, discovered them. And like Wisconsin’s long, stark season of frozen animation, it concerns a state of suspended belief and identity. It’s about a question I asked 19 years ago that still hangs, like an icicle.
Who am I?
I was 11. Mom picked me up from hockey practice and stopped at the corner gas station to fill up. She left the car running as she pumped gas. Only in these latitudes would a driver risk explosion when faced with the choice of turning off the ignition, stepping into wind that cracks your knuckles dry and bloody, and having to reheat the vehicle.
I can’t say why I asked the question. Maybe it was one that had subconsciously rubbed me, like a pebble in my shoe. And maybe, in some intuitive way, I had known the answer all along.
“Mom, why am I darker than you and dad?” I asked casually, “Why don’t I look like anyone in the family?” I’d asked the question before, and had usually gotten some sort of indirect answer that must have satisfied me at the time.
But this time, mom took a deep breath, and looked through the windshield. “Well, Mario,” she said, “It’s because your father’s Mexican.”
The answer seemed to float for a moment, along with the vapor from our mouths. I remember being excited, for 10 whole seconds, to think there was something suddenly novel and exotic about the man I’d known all my life.
“Cool. Dad’s Mexican?!”
“No, Mario…That’s not your father. Not your biological father, anyway.”
It would sound like something in a movie, something invented for dramatic effect, to say at that moment I felt a profound physical shift deep inside, as if I were a bucket of water and somebody had picked me up to dump me out. It really would sound made up.
My dad—the man I have always called, and will always call dad—is not my blood father. He’d adopted me before I developed conscious memory, I suppose. I’d met my biological father when I was a child. He was not a stranger, but I did not truly know him. I still don’t.
In Central Wisconsin, Mexican was a dirty word. As if it described not a place of origin, not a nationality, but a character defect. Marshfield was, and is, mostly white, composed primarily of tall, handsome, Germans and Nordic-types. There were Mexicans, yes, but they usually worked on farms outside of town, some families staying for the winter, others moving on to warmer climates when the season changed.
They were uneducated, was the consensus. They were poor, they were dirty. They were the butt of jokes. When I thought of Mexicans, I thought illegal, undocumented, illegitimate. And I was ashamed.
I had no way of knowing there was anything to be proud of. I didn’t know that Mexico had a rich, colorful history. If culture consists of shared stories, language, and ancestry, nobody let me in on any of the good stuff. I hadn’t known that being Latino was, well…cool.
But even undocumented Latinos have long belonged here. They’ve earned their place in the state’s economy. The estimated 75,000 to 115,000 illegal immigrants in Wisconsin form roughly 40 percent of the state’s dairy workforce, and the numbers continue to grow.
And here you’ll find the ambiguity. It’s OK to make fun, to call them spics or tell them to learn English or go home, but in the end, what would our farmers do without them?
But perhaps a bigger question is what effect all this has on the Latinos who were born here, those raising families, the lawyers, the teachers, the j-school students?
Last Friday, I spoke with Karma Chavez, an assistant communication arts professor and expert in immigration politics and xenophobia in the United States. Chavez, whom you’ll hear more from in future posts, grew up Latina in rural Nebraska.
She said that while individual circumstances may vary, shame is a common thread running through Mexican-American experience.
“Latinos here have to figure out ways to assimilate, to just be normal and to disidentify with migrant workers. Especially in the rural Midwest,” said Chavez.
“I remember the anxiety I felt every summer to know the migrants were coming,” she said, “because all of a sudden people could connect my family to the people in the field. I’d think about all the racism attached to that, and I always dreaded that part of the year…”
Developing a Latino identity in rural Wisconsin, I’d argue, is an interesting process. As far as I can see, identity consists of three important elements. We are all born into unique worlds. We have parts of ourselves given to us by our families and we acquire certain values, heritages, advantages or disadvantages.
We also grow into who we are. We experience, we discover our skills, aptitudes and interests. To some extent, this part widens as we mature, but we eventually find a certain core that supports us even as circumstances change.
But there’s also a third element that makes us who we are: who our society, our communities, our friends tell us we are. We learn to see ourselves as others see us. If others see us as white, Latino, black, rich, poor, educated….then damnit, we think, there must be some truth to it. And when we learn our identities from society before we discover them for ourselves, then we might be in a pretty dangerous place.
Over the next several months, I hope to take a closer look at what Wisconsin tells its minorities. The object isn’t to guilt or to preach (what good what that do?) but to explore, learn, and hopefully find some answers.