Half Hispanic, half white, Stephanie Elizondo Griest, has spent most of her life being asked which she was.
“I had no answer to this. Both? Neither? Either?” she writes.
Griest grew up just south of Corpus Christi speaking very little Spanish, and admits she went from checking “white” on forms to “Hispanic” when a guidance counselor told her it might help her win college scholarships. (It did, she won a full-ride to UT Austin and later became a Hodder Fellow at Princeton.) Her first book, Around the Bloc, was her diary as a young American woman traveling alone through China, Russia and Cuba. Her latest book, Mexican Enough, is set a little closer to home.
“I got the idea when I was driving from Los Angeles to South Texas, which is a long-ass drive,” she says. “I was near the Mexican border. I was driving along and up ahead, I saw people running across the road. It was such a shock to see that. It was so hot, I just couldn’t imagine how they were going to survive that heat. They didn’t have any backpacks or anything.
“It occurred to me that all these things that I’ve had in my life had been because I am Latina. I got to go to college for free because I’m Latina. Probably the reason that I got to publish Around the Bloc was because I’m Mexican-American and publishers like supporting Latina writers. I realized what united me with these people, the same genetics, was what had me in this car driving home from a book tour, and had them running across the road in the middle of the desert. I realized they’re too Mexican, and I’m just Mexican enough and that’s the reason for this great social difference.”
But how much is Mexican enough? And when is it too much? Even Griest’s family sent her mixed messages.
“When I told them I was gonna go to Russia, which really was dangerous at the time, all they said was ‘Ay, mija, bring a sweater, it’s cold there.’ Then when I went to China, which is really far, far away, they said, ‘Ay mija, don’t forget to learn how to use chopsticks.’ And then when I was going to go to Mexico, which is in their backyard, literally, 150 miles away, they’re like ‘Ah, mija, it’s dangerous there. Be careful.’ I felt much safer, much more secure hitchhiking across Kurdistan than I did going to Mexico and that’s insane, that’s really insane.”
Griest found that it’s not just Mexican-Americans or people who are biracial who struggle with the idea of being enough.
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“That was something that I was really surprised to discover. Gay men in Mexico worry if they’re Mexican enough since they aren’t macho. Luchadores (wrestlers) feel they are selling out if they fight the American way, so are they Mexican enough even if they don’t fight in the traditional Mexican style. The people in the South of Mexico are worried, ‘Am I being too Spanish? Am I not Mexican enough?’ So I sort of figured out that to be Mexican is to be schizophrenic. Cultural schizophrenia is literally encoded in our DNA because Mexico is a nation that is bi-racial by definition.
But Americans don’t worry about being “American enough.”
“Yeah,” Griest says slowly, “hmm, that’s never really crossed my mind. (Laughs) That’s a good thing because to be American is to be so many, bizillon things. If you were to ask people what is it is to be American, it’s the ability to be a self-actualized human being. That’s what I really love about this country, that ability to live out your dreams. I have a deep, deep gratitude to this country because I’ve been able to carve out the crazy, wonderful life for myself. The whole point is that we are all enough. Whatever we are, it is enough.”
— Olivia Flores Alvarez