Bohemeo’s is a comfortable little coffee shop on the lower East side of Houston. With open mic nights hosted every week, there are always musicians and wayward poets milling about the place. Latino-themed material isn’t preferred or even specified, yet performers from all Latino walks of life dominate the stage on Sundays. The cafe is literally saturated in culture; paintings by featured local Mexican artists cover all imaginable empty space. It’s here that countless members of the Latino community find empowerment; a sense of peace with where they’ve come from. And it’s here that I realized I had a huge problem. Half of the blood in me comes from Spanish ancestors, yet I have no clue what any of my heritage means to me; how that blood runs down to the foundation of my life as an American.
My last Sunday at Bohemeo’s, every poet seemed to recite pieces especially cluttered with Spanish euphemisms and inside jokes. With rabid passion, each poet set a fire in the pride of their people with stanzas that stung the audience with the realities of immigration, sex trafficking, the battle against the English language. Spitting verses in both English and Spanish, every performer flip-flopped between the two languages with a fluidity that downright scared me. You see, I don’t know Spanish.
An aura of shame started to grow around me. I was having a His-panic attack. Dear God, what if they could tell I couldn’t understand anything they were saying? I couldn’t let them find out. When the crowd laughed, I laughed. When they jeered, so did I. I only did what one is forced to do when desperate measures are called for: I faked it. By pretending to understand, I lied my way around possible humiliation. Either lie or admit I was an Americanized punk-ass, a gringita pendeja. What else had I lied about? How many other times had I gone through the motions with no comprehension behind them? The answer rang back: countless masses I’ve attended, all the quinceaneras I’ve been to. Every Garza family reunion reminded me how many cousins I had — and how many names I didn’t know. I’d been lying long before that Sunday at Bohemeo’s.
Ours wasn’t a Spanish-speaking household. Growing up, my dad spoke only English, though he was fluent in both. Since I didn’t know Spanish, I was isolated from an entire world of experiences that orbited around the language. I’m someone with a knack for conversation and attention whore-ish tendencies. I feel left out of the loop when I don’t understand what people are talking about. When I don’t understand what people are saying, I feel stupid. And when I feel stupid, I get angry.
Let’s face it. In a country that glorifies its ride to success on the great White Stallion, it’s easy to recline against the part of your family tree unblemished by a Garza, Cienfuegos, or Alvarez. Justifying speaking only English with, “Hey, man. My mom’s white,” gets you off the hook with a clean conscience. But I also change the channel when the hollow gaze of malnourished Indian youth penetrates my lunch hour so I can eat my Sloppy Joe in peace. Cowardly? Hell yes. But it’s such a worry-free existence. Discrimination is such a hassle. Avoid them by giving society what they want. I’m not calling every white person a racist. But everyone is guilty of assigning negative characteristics to other races almost immediately. My experience with Mexicans growing up is less than glamorous. I grew up with the gutter-rats that give the good Mexicans a bad name, so I can see why it’s so easy to stereotype. I do it all the time. But Jesus, think of all the things we miss that make a culture wholesome just by being biased. I’m sick of letting that ignorant mentality get in the way. It’s clogging my sense of self-worth, rendering me uncultivated and starving.
This is exactly why I don’t plan on wasting this move to Chicago. This is a city where the Latino culture runs rampant through the streets. I want to grab food at an amazing taqueria on the South Side. I want to catch a Mexican pride festival. I want to stop going through the motions without any meaning. I want to find out the ‘why’ behind everything, and relate that to the whites, and everyone else. The richness of my culture isn’t just for the brown-skinned. You don’t have to know Spanish to celebrate Dia de los Muertos. What makes someone Latino? As far as I’m concerned, a Latino is anyone who loves and respects the beliefs and values. Americanization is unavoidable, but that doesn’t mean we have to let it bleach us out all together. Acknowledge where you came from. And never forget it.