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THE NATION

In the Middle of the Unending and Unresolved Mexico-U.S. War

September 20, 1998|Barbara Renaud Gonzalez | Barbara Renaud Gonzalez, a commentator for National Public Radio, is now working on a book, called "Mestiza."

DALLAS — Mexican. A word that depends. Sometimes people spit it out, like they did in school, when the word was spiked with all the hate I could possibly carry on my first-grade back. It was a word my Tejano father denied as his heritage. To my mother, the word was delicate as jacaranda, perfumed with stories, immense as the lapis lazuli sky of Mexico, where she's from.

Like the story of the U.S.-Mexican War, a PBS production aired nationally last week, the words depend on who is telling the story. You see, the U.S.-Mexican War is my becoming, a Mexican American who calls herself a Latina, a Chicana, because my story begins with this war. My family, as descendants of the Cavazos land grant in Texas, resided between the disputed boundaries of the Nueces and the Rio Grande rivers that served as the excuse for the war. As a result of the U.S. victory, my ancestors became Americans overnight--and ultimately lost about a million acres now encompassed by the famous King Ranch.

I'm glad I don't have any land left. Though my father has grieved all his life, and clings to the one scrap of land remaining as proof that we were something once, that we belonged. That proof is a family cemetery in San Perlita, a town known as a little pearl that reminds me of the Magi's lesson of the price we pay for wealth.

No, if I had some land, then I would think I am better than someone who doesn't. I'm not. My Spanish ancestors claim the land from my Indian grandmothers. After the U.S.-Mexican War, my father's cajun side came to Texas and married the rest of it through a union with a mestiza of South Texas whose family had always been here. Now, my land is my language--an amalgam of English and Spanish, the disputed territory of Tex-Mex and Spanglish, the Calo that embarrasses people like my mother, and all the words I absorb from the rich dialects of blacks and immigrants I meet.

I'm in the middle of this war because I'm an American by birthright, and a Mexican by heartright, though neither side accepts me as the human legacy of this war. All my life, I have been told that my English is really good, considering I was born in Mexico; my Mexican relatives called me a gringa who doesn't speak her Spanish like a native. It took me a long time to realize wars are resolved by meeting in the middle. I embody a war from which all the others revolve, with its mutual lessons of conqueror and conquered, each side hungering for what the other seems to have, while we deny the best of each. It is my destiny, then, to be a witness to the war that has no end in sight.

But I don't think we want to resolve this war. There are no Chicanos in the creative production of the U.S.-Mexican War, except for one. That's because neither side wants to share the land, and meet in the place where I reside. The Americanos devour tacos and the Mexicans devour English--but neither recognizes me, because we are afraid of the middle ground. Of the America we might become.

Neither side wants to become something new, something different, because that would be inferior to who they imagine they are. There is too much at stake, a journey we don't want to make, even when we know there is more to this, as we warily eye each other across the river amid barbed wire and abrazos.

Yet the resolution is in that borderland where I live. That is the place in the disputed territory that provided the excuse for the war. I am that middle which has seen the masculine imperative that demands war, the racism seeping from both sides, the pretensions of class from all angles, the profiles of feminism and sexuality that dissolve into the other like the streams that flow into the Rio Grande. I have seen this because I cross borders every day, and I am telling you there is another world to discover.

In Guanajuato, Mexico, where I lived, the upper class was confounded by my casual brown presence in the coffee shops along with my laptop--an emblem of status there. But they were more confused by my friendliness with the waiters who look just like me. The middle class envied my English but rarely my concern for civil rights. They have no experience with the ideals of democracy, only the ideals of class. The Harvard-bred leaders of Mexico don't recognize equality, they've never lived it and will never pay my relatives a decent wage. They want to be like the United States in our consumption, not the consuming of democracy, nomas fijate the assault on Chiapas, the Wounded Knee of Mexico. Mexico, like the United States, glorifies her Indian heritage as she does everything possible to destroy her flesh-and-blood Indians.

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