Not too long ago I was at a BBQ at a friend’s place. My husband Christoph and I were having a great time. We didn’t really know anyone at this thing aside from the couple that had invited us and that was just fine by me. By “just fine” I mean horrifically terrifying because deep down, within this loud and abrasive exterior, I’m shy. Christoph is the exact opposite. He doesn’t mind a sea of new faces. He’s good at being flawless. It’s irritating and makes me want to choke the life slowly from his eyes, but I don’t because I love him.
Christoph was having a great time at this party. He’d already dashed in and out of a couple different conversations, always exiting on a positive note. The man’s charisma is palpable. His ease with others makes everyone comfortable around him and it’s fun to watch. I, on the other hand, awkwardly attempted to chat up complete strangers in another part of the backyard whilst wondering if I’d lost my ability to interact with other humans since I started working from home, in a brand new city.
I was knee-deep in a “How do you know so and so? What do you do for a living?” kind of conversation when I overheard someone talking behind me. I didn’t want to be rude to the nice folks that were entertaining my banal conversation, but what the gentlemen behind me said, lit my rage fire instantly. “Pardon me for just a moment,” I said as my eyes began to flicker orange, red and blue with the fire of a thousand offended minorities.
With nothing more than a sentence, this guy had made my ears ring with chaotic fury. His words were still hanging in the air when I twirled around, ready for a showdown. “Just the word Mexican kind of carries negative connotations, doesn’t it?” I could still hear his thought ricocheting off the inside of my skull when I opened my mouth to speak. Luckily for the folks I was boring with my inane questions, shit got real interesting, real fast.
“Actually, I’m Mexican. What do you mean it has negative connotations?” I inquired. Meanwhile, in my head, all I could hear were my ears ringing wildly. I was hoping against hope that I hadn’t raised my voice when I had asked my question. The truth is, I legitimately wanted to know what he was getting at when he said that. I assumed he meant that we all look like undocumented, rapist, drug-dealing immigrants to him. I was guessing he didn’t think we could also be American as apple pie. I’m sure he didn’t think a Mexican might look or sound like me. “Really?” the young gentleman asked, after I’d stated my ethnicity. “Yep,” I said.
“Say something that makes you not an asshole. Please don’t be another one of those people who think all Mexicans are toilet scrubbers. I thought you were cool, man. C’mon. Don’t let me lose faith in humanity at a BBQ full of semi-strangers.” These were the thoughts that flashed in my head as I waited for him to respond. To his credit, he took a moment to gather his thoughts. Clearly, he was making an effort to be more careful with his words and that gave me hope. “Shit. What I meant was that everything you ever hear, as it relates to Mexico, is almost always negative,” he began earnestly.
“On the news no one is celebrating people for being of Mexican descent. Plus, you don’t hear about Mexico’s beautiful beaches, just the drug lords. That’s all you get. Right?” he asked. I nodded as I began to smile. “Well, it’s a good thing I’m here then. Now you know for a fact that all Mexicans aren’t dirty criminals who work the system and can’t speak the language. Sometimes we’re regular people, like everyone else.” He smiled back at me, exhaled a cloud of relief and responded with a simple, “yeah.”
That guy turned out to be an all right dude. He isn’t a bigot or racist at all. He doesn’t seem angry or intolerant. He’s good people and I suppose that’s what makes this happy ending sad for me. What I learned from this exchange was that sometimes even good, smart people think negatively of my heritage. That’s what I found most disappointing at the time. It’s that same reality which disappoints me to this day.
It was disheartening to hear how little some thought of Mexico. In actuality, it’s dumbfounding when you take into account just how deeply ingrained Mexican culture already is in American society. I suspect people spend so much time thinking “all things Mexican” are bad that they forget about Taco Tuesdays, Cinco de Mayo happy hours, their favorite Mexican restaurant, Tequila and Salma Hayek (Gael Garcia Bernal for the ladies, because equality is what it’s about).
Sadly, good people will likely continue to think poorly of the country that brought them all those wonderful things. As for me, I’ll continue to hear what I’ve always heard when someone says “Mexico.” I’ll hear jubilant music and smell delectable foods. Instead of hostility, I’ll feel a warm and familiar embrace. I’ll see bright clouds of color. I’ll hear my family’s boisterous laughter. I’ll giggle at their inside jokes. I’ll miss their voices and traditions. I’ll feel the sun kissing my face as I sit on a bench in the zócalo, drinking my soda out of a plastic bag. Who needs negative connotations when you can have all this instead?