Never, ever, will I forget the day when my other me reached out her hand to hold a space for my existence. Never will I forget the day that her pale white skin juxtaposed against my fragile immigrant brown arms; when my little brown fingers almost touched hers as I reached for the wrapped, creamy chocolate that gently lay in her hand. That day, as I entered the Napa Valley on the Evans bus, surrounded by acres of seemingly endless and fruitful grapevines, I had lost sense of the four cardinal points. Here I was, a ten year old, having lost my sense of direction, spatially and emotionally. I had been uprooted from Oaxaca, my homeland, and transplanted into a strange new soil.
Never again would I truly taste the same food and interact with the same friends. Never again would I greet and be greeted by all of the familiar faces in my birth town, nor would I walk upon the same texture of earth.
I felt deeply displaced. Yet, within my dislocation, I felt a small sense of recognition and belonging as I stood next to my other me. Her blond hair and blue eyes were strange. Her smile was welcoming. No words needed to be said. If she had spoken, I would not have been able to decipher her code, for she spoke a Germanic language and I spoke a Romance tongue inherited from my Spanish ancestors. I'm not sure if she spoke. But I felt her message; there was no need for words. All I vaguely remember is her smile.
Did she know that we had left almost everything behind? Did she know that I cried inside when I saw the river of my home valley disappear into the distance as the taxi cab drove away? Did she know that upon my departure, my confused tears didn’t know whether to fall down my face or hide inside the concaves of my eyes? Whoever she was she seemed to know that we were a migrant family, that we were the faces that hid behind the hotels, restaurants and vineyards. My father’s dark, parched skin, his rough, calloused hands, his thick, cracked fingernails and his severely broken English spoke for themselves.
That day, we had arrived at San Francisco International Airport on a busy, cloudy morning. The semi-paved streets of my town could not compare to the three-dimensional proliferation of concrete that spread in all directions, even towards the sky. Eventually we made it to Napa. We rode in my father’s noisy brown diesel van from the Evans terminal to our new home. I saw uniform and almost identical houses, as if they had popped out en masse from a factory and dropped down into the ground and sprouted like genetically modified plants. It was an orderly beauty, like industrial agriculture, where almost all pieces of land were growing the same homogenized crop. It was amazing, but different from my home.
Over the years, I lived a confusing and exciting experience. There would be moments when I would be at peace, but often I couldn’t help but feel resentment towards whomever or whatever was responsible for my dislocation. Was it NAFTA? Was it Neoliberalist economic policies? Which nation or government was to blame? Was it my family’s fault? Was it no longer economically sustainable for farmers to plant their own heirloom seeds? Was this happening only in the Americas? Why were we part of the largest global migrations in human history?
I remember when I was a child, when the sun's warmth embraced me; when the mountain winds of Oaxaca caressed my face and the streets and stores greeted me with familiar voices and smiles. I remember living in that post-colonial indigenous land, under a different but unchanging sun, surrounded by different colors and faces.
I am part of the Latin-American diaspora. I thought that I had lost my past. I thought that I had lost everything that had nurtured me. No longer was there a place that I could truly call home. I lived a melancholy, floating existence--but there exists a flaming sun. In my labyrinth of dislocation, the sun never abandoned me. It stretched its long rays out from the equator to embrace me wherever I went, comforting me and reminding me that its energy was found in all the animals and plants that I coexisted with. It lived in the omnipresent sky, reflecting on the moon, and became part of every bite of food that I consumed. No matter how many cultural and political borders I crossed; no matter how many losses I faced, I had a home within the sun, and no one could ever take that from me. That is why, within my diasporic melancholy, there lives diasporic hope.
This is me ten years after moving into Napa Valley, my new home. The words I share today are the product of my academic and life education: my border-crossing experiences and the inspiration and motivation that I found in my classes, such as my former high school Chicano and Latin American Literature class. In that class we were taught to always do our best and to always be impeccable with our word. We learned that the examined life is truly the only life worth living, that we must honor our ancestors and live the path of the Four Directions: the way of the Teacher, the way of the Healer, the way of the Warrior and the way of the Visionary.
I’m not sure where I would be had I not taken that class. As a recent immigrant, sometimes it’s hard to fit in and find an authentic way to become grounded, and to respect one’s own history and identity while living in a new world. I could have joined a gang; it could have happened in middle school because I felt frustrated and disconnected. I could have dropped out of high school because my parents were constantly working and rarely had time to support me in school. I could have crawled up inside myself and pretended to fit in. Fortunately, I found a precious space in a classroom where I felt like my own history and roots were important. In no way did I feel like a foreigner in my classroom. Among the writings of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Alfonsina Storni, Octavio Paz, Rudolfo Anaya, Pablo Neruda, and the art work and films by other Chicanos and people of the Americas, I felt like the classroom was my second home.
I experienced ethnic studies in that time of my youth. I was part of Vintage High School’s Mecha Club, took Spanish for Spanish-Speakers classes and enrolled in the Chicano and Latin American Literature college prep course. Never did I learn to hate white Christian males. Never was I recruited to join a subversive group in order to overthrow the US Government. Instead, my humanity was acknowledged. What I did learn, alongside Asian, Black, and White students, was a more accurate cultural, artistic, literary and political history of the different contributions that Latin-American immigrants and non-immigrants have given to the fabric of the U.S. identity. We did not become academically incompetent. Rather, we read writings like this:
We believe in the nexus of art and education
We believe that imagination and creativity have no borders
We believe that to speak for ourselves, we must think for ourselves
We believe no one has the right to judge anyone’s personal path
We believe in Fate and Destiny
We believe in night dreams and daydreams
We believe in the healing power of our personal stories
We believe that words and images have power over physical abuse
We believe that skin color is not what separates us, but what makes us unique
We believe in self-identification
We believe in the strength of community
I want a better life for the coming generation, for all my brothers and sisters. I want them to graduate from high school and college. I want them to know that we no longer have to live in the shadows. I want them to know that everyone who surrounds them is a reflection of themselves: that in their dislocation and identity crisis there is opportunity for growth and change. I want them to know that “brown” is beautiful. I want them to be more than a floating face. I want us to be powerful: faces that have the power to change ourselves and change others. I want us to be doctors, teachers, lawyers and artists. I want them to know that if we work together we can not only help resolve our problems within our own borders, but beyond our borders as well.
Currently, our neighboring state of Arizona has banned Ethnic Studies. There is a war going on in Arizona. There is fear and tension in the streets and in the schools. Currently, they cannot deal with diversity.
Napa Valley has its own diversity. Roughly half of the population has roots in Mexico and the rest of Latin America. If we can have an internationally renowned wine industry, can we work towards having an international model for understanding and working with diversity? Can we not be a model of inclusiveness? Can we not have an internationally renowned education system?
I am part of the Napa Valley Ethnic Studies Advocates. Last Thursday, over 500 community members came together to take part in the screening of Precious Knowledge. Unending waves of parents, educators and students of all ages entered the Napa Valley College Performing Arts Center, filling each and every seat, leaving only room to stand.
The shortage of space and the long lines at the question and answer session show that our community is hungry for Ethnic Studies. That hunger must be kept alive!