FAMILIA/FAMILY: ON FAMILY, LANGUAGE, AND WALLS by EUGENIA VELA

We are on the I-37 halfway between Austin and South Padre Island, Texas. We started our trip late today, the pink sky already changing to a deep orange on our rearview mirror. It’s my favorite time. When my husband and I drive together to Savannah, Nashville or the closest Texas town, we reach a point when we turn the music off or pause the podcast, when the comfortable silence ceases and we talk. We can talk for hours. I turn to my window and I see a giant, white Ford truck merging into the interstate. I snap a picture, thinking: Texas.

“When you hear the word ‘Texas’,” I say, “what do you think about?”

My husband describes the swinging saloon doors in his grandparents’ kitchen and the smell of tobacco in his grandfather’s pickup truck. We talk about the sight of a long empty road ahead of us, and nights listening to music at Stubb’s outdoor stage. I tell him about watching the Longhorns play and the magic of hearing 100,000 people scream, “Texas! Fight!” We recall the humidity driving through Beaumont on our way to Louisiana and sitting by the fire at his parents’ backyard. I think of the windmill farms en route to Marfa, and the sign of VALENTINE City Limit, Pop. 217.

This is our last drive together for a while, because after the beach, I am on my way to México without him; first to my hometown of Monterrey to see my parents, then to Mexico City to visit my sister. Seventeen days doesn’t sound like much, but a pull in my chest warns me this trip is different.

We talk for a while, ignoring the darkness that surrounds the word Texas and focusing on the light. It’s like a part of me knew—I knew that I needed something other than my husband and the wonder of Austin to bring me back in one whole piece, hoping to feel welcome when I walked through San Antonio customs three weeks later.

*

When I met Brittany she talked about her family. She focused on the main four: father, mother, big brother and little sister. Brittany was in the middle—the tallest one, the goofiest one, and the underestimated one. A few weeks into our friendship she introduced me to her brother, the man who would become my husband, and soon after I met the rest of the family: cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins’ significant others and friends of friends of grandparents. They were a kind and loud bunch, fascinated by my Mexican-ness and perfect English.

They were as foreign to me as I to them. Their houses, their eating habits, their clothes, they were all things I read about in books and watched in movies about the American South.

I enjoyed our differences. I looked forward to holidays spent with the entire clan, something I never experienced with my own extended family in México. Thanksgiving dinner, Easter egg hunts, fireworks on Fourth of July—always a family affair, the focus of which were beer and food. We rarely sat down and talked about anything other than schoolwork and jobs. It was easy. Unlike my own family dynamic, this seemed easy.

A few of my favorite things about this family:

  • Dance parties on the back deck, complete with Grease, Red Hot Chili Peppers and “Short Skirt/Long Jacket”.
  • Aunt 1’s response to anything on Facebook with “LOL” and “LMAO”.
  • Aunt 2’s heavy drawl when she turns to me and my husband and says, “I love y’all.”
  • Cousin 1’s quiet demeanor during family events, standing close enough to listen but far enough to avoid being dragged in.
  • The constant group texts to confirm dinners, summer plays, future Christmas plans and birthday parties.
  • Uncle 1’s big ole bear hugs, tight and long and overwhelming.

The truth is, when I fell for my husband, I also fell for the entire package, with the concept of family. A year or so into our relationship, I remember him saying, “Please never stay with me because you like my family.” It was an odd thing to say, as if he watched me hug and laugh with the group and wondered if I loved them more than him, or if I loved him because of them. Or maybe he was warning me, making sure I didn’t sign the contract before understanding nothing is exactly as it seems.

Before we even discussed marriage, my husband and I talked a lot about family. Not only the one we hoped some day to form, but the families that raised us and defined us as individuals. I would never be able to reciprocate the big welcome his family gave me—my own is small, and he has met the core three: my father, my mother, my sister, all of whom live in separate houses. He has met my paternal grandmother, a couple of aunts, and one of my cousins. But I gave him a warning myself: that Christmases spent in México would always be small and quiet. That he would have to deal with leftover divorce drama and tears, and with the occasional harsh words from an ignorant relative. That he would have to get to know my best friends as my family, the family I chose and grew through the years. That as much as I wanted to bring two tribes of different cultures together as one, things would always feel lopsided.

For some reason, this made me feel insufficient, like I was lacking a crucial value wanted in a wife.

*

Lenguaje.
Idioma.
Lengua.
¿Porqué la presión para escoger?
Juntemos los dos. Poco a poco, se convierten en uno.
Ahora, vamos por el tercero. Por el cuarto. Por más.

My husband chooses his favorite Spanish word. Calcetines, he says.

My sister bursts out laughing and my mother giggles respectfully. “I guess I never really thought of that,” my sister says. “That is a great word.” Socks.

My husband continues with his list of favorite words: pantalones, chilaquiles—simple words we never really think about, basics like clothes and food.

I sit at home reading, and I hear the ding! after every right answer. I hear my husband repeat after the Duolingo lady: “Mi marido tiene un elefante.”

My spouse has an elephant.

Not exactly a useful sentence, but the basics are there.

He stands up from the desk and walks around the house. “Zapatos,” he points at shoes. “Mesa,” he points at the table. “Corbatas,” he points at his ties. “Mujer bonita,” he points at me.

I try to remember how I learned my own language growing up, accepting the rules as they were taught, and I ask my mother how she managed to help me learn two languages at the same time.

“Leyendo, escribiendo, practicando,” she tells me.

“You’re going to do the same for our kids,” my husband says. I remind him we are going to do it together. So read, write, practice.

A few of my favorite things about home:

  • “La M” in San Pedro, Garza García, looming over my childhood home. A mountain view that can never be beat.
  • Waking up at 6 am on Sundays to get tacos de barbacoa and an ice-cold Coca-Cola Light with my dad.
  • The colors, everywhere: food, walls, furniture, clothes, jewelry, streets, photographs. Every color intensifies in México.
  • The loudest laughter and the crudest humor, Mexican people have a magic ability to find light. We are open and untamed.
  • Las mujeres—strong and vulnerable, with warmth I have yet to find in other women.
  • Sitting, talking, smoking, and eating with my friends for hours. We refuse to leave the table after lunch is done, because the sobremesa is the best part.
  • The cheers you hear from every single street corner during a World Cup—“¡Mé-xi-co! ¡Mé-xi-co!”—because fútbol brings the country together like nothing else can.

Whenever my sister addresses her class on sexuality, she brings up my marriage. She teaches her students that sexuality goes beyond a person’s attraction to men or women, but merges with religion, nationality, skin color, etc. Sexualities change depending on historical context, she says, today’s politically irrelevant sexuality may turn contentious tomorrow. “It never bothered our father that I like women,” she tells her students, “but my sister married a gringo.”

Everyone has their own version of what is “right” in sexuality, in love. Everyone draws their own lines in relationships, in culture, in family. Definitions. Borders. Walls.

I wouldn’t understand it for years, but when I chose to marry a gringo I didn’t only choose the man. I chose the color of his skin, a pale that turns gold after a day in the sun, and the way his Texas accent draws out the “i” in the word “drive”. I chose his family, from the Hill Country and McQueeney, San Marcos and Seguin. I chose his childhood, lived throughout the South—in Alabama, Kentucky and Kingsville, with a few lost years in California. I chose his summers spent floating in rivers and camping in Big Bend. I chose his taste for ranch dressing and Lone Star beer, and his black leather cowboy boots with the state seal etched in front.

And he chose me.

At the end of our first date, he asked me to tell him about Monterrey. He said it like a white boy does, “Mon-eh-ray.” I giggled, but tried to teach him how to roll his r’s. Mon-te-RREY, I said. This became a game; he would say a Spanish word that’s been Americanized, and I would repeat it in the correct Spanish pronunciation. Like such:

Kay-so. Queso.
Co-row-nah. Corona.
Tah-ko. Taco.
Hoe-lah. Hola.
A-dee-ohs. Adiós.

And so it went. He laughed and told me about his high school Spanish teacher, that she would love knowing that he was on a date with a Mexican girl. It was karma for never paying attention in class. I have witnessed him paying attention ever since, while I talk on the phone to my best friend or chat with my mother over breakfast; while my friends and I laugh and say, “¡No mames, guey!” and “¡Eres un pendejo!”. I have seen the wheels turn in his head before making a joke that will make even my dad laugh. I have heard him sing “El Rey” in the shower and seen him scarf down some lengua in my grandmother’s house. I have seen tears fill his eyes as he takes a taste of my salsa verde—just one little taste because he can’t take much, but he will always try.

*

I breathe in my mother’s scent, recognizing the perfume I gave her last Christmas. My wet cheek rests on her chest and I realize we live most of our lives in the kitchen, screaming and crying and laughing between milanesas and black coffee. I describe to my mother this burden I have carried for years of being caught in the middle; a constant back and forth between language and countries. I ask her how my children will feel some day. I ask her if they will ever be made to feel like they are not Mexican enough or American enough, not brown or white enough. I ask her if they will ever be made fun of for mispronouncing a word, if they will ever fully understand both their histories. I ask her once again how to raise children I do not have, worried already about them hearing the insults I keep reading in the news. The names my people are called by a man who deems himself a leader. I hope she knows that I cry not only for myself, but also for all the others who don’t share my good fortune. For those who don’t have a mother to stroke their hair and listen to their stories in a kitchen stocked with food, stocked with privilege.

The news articles pop up daily. But I share with my sister the words I read recently that stunned me; words shared by the family I believed accepted me years ago. I tell her that on social media they post words that make me feel like they forget where I am from and how I got here. They share posts that talk about immigration reform and express fear for their family’s safety, post words of support for someone who dehumanizes the people that shaped me. I can’t help but think that I failed—if this is how they feel, then I failed.

I replay the first time we met in my head and how they welcomed me, but maybe they never really understood me. Maybe I never tried to understand them. I never asked them to celebrate El Grito with me, like they invited me to celebrate the Fourth of July. I never invited them over for pollo con mole or chile relleno, like they invited me to try deer sausage and sweet potatoes. I never insisted that they learn how to say my name correctly, instead waving it off like a joke. Maybe I was already expecting the worst at the very beginning, buried under my own prejudice and cynicism. I drew my own lines, made my own definitions.

As I read the words that sting me, I think about my own country. A country that is full of passion, love, and countless flaws. A country that depends on its people’s humor to sustain itself. A country that looks to its neighbors for support, a country whose women look to their neighbors for hope. A country that fights to keep its people, but understands when they must leave. A country whose contributions are constantly overlooked, whose people are narrowed down to a stereotype, whose customs are appropriated but mocked. A country that fights, but still lags behind. A country that tears itself down.

And again, in my silence, I can’t help but think that I failed.

I talk to my husband and my sisters of blood and law, my Texan parents and my lifelong friends, and they say:

“You could be the one that starts the conversation.”
“Tienes todo el derecho.”
“No te quedes callada.”
“The most important things are the hardest to say.”

Their encouragement reinforces this family I chose and the one I was born into, the people who listen to my every word and refuse to stay on one side of the border, deciding instead to fall in the middle with me. Their encouragement makes me believe I have to say something. But I do not know what to do or what to say or how to say it.

So I do what I know how to do.

I write, I read, and I practice, hoping I will one day find the words in either language.

—–

Eugenia Vela is a 27-year-old Mexican writer currently living in Austin, Texas. Her words have been featured in Red River NoiseHuman PartsAustin VidaLumen Mag, and Elite Daily. When she is not writing, Eugenia is usually reading, eating, or planning her next road trip. Find her on Twitter and Instagram as @euvelab. Visit her personal site eugeniavela.com for more.

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Vagabond City Literary Journal

Founded in 2013, we are a literary journal dedicated to publishing outsider literature. We publish art, poetry, and creative nonfiction from marginalized creators.

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