Essays The Worlds that Collide in Me

PBS – When Worlds Collide, The Untold Story of the Americas After Columbus, 2011

I spent a good part of my childhood traveling between my hometown of Los Angeles and the South, the lands of my parents and grandparents in Mexico and El Salvador. Early on I sensed that these journeys were momentous, imbued with profound and varied meanings. I couldn’t help becoming attuned to my parents’ emotional intensity as we undertook these trips, which for them were not encounters with the ghosts of the past but with places and people very much of the present. Shuttling between North and South, contrast occurred on every level of experience—language and landscape, religion and food, the rhythms of music and everyday life.

So I grew up in-between, and that experience—the constant negotiation amid signs from one side or the other—became the central theme of my life and writing. You could call it the experience of being “mestizo,” the word in Spanish that has long been used to describe the new culture that derived from contact between New World and Old. Indeed, I remember hearing the word a lot as a child. It was probably my mother who pronounced it most often. She even invoked it in her poetry:

Soy hija del conquistador y del conquistado…
Soy la hija de los dos lados

(I am a daughter of conquistador and conquered
I am the daughter of both sides)

This was my mother tapping into the deep historical discourse of mestizaje, the term that refers to the “mixing” that results in mestizo identity, and which to this day remains a centerpiece of the grade-school curriculum in Latin America. As I grew up, this idea of a history and identity at once divided and united—which echoes to an extent e pluribus unum was both a source of pride and confusion. I was told that I had both Indian and Spanish “blood.” And that my native language came from the “Old World,” the Iberian Peninsula, but had been transformed with vocabulary, rhythm, and meaning from the indigenous languages of Latin America. I was not one or the other, but both. This was not always a comforting or even particularly logical thought, especially for a child. I was the master and the slave?

That was just the beginning of my difficult dance with the subject. As an adult in the United States, I confronted paradigms that negated my in-between-ness: the “melting pot” seemed to want to do away with the cultural difference presented by my immigrant family, and while the Civil Rights Movement stirred the hopes and passions of all peoples “of color,” the emphasis on the division between black and white seemed to leave out the shades of gray (or brown) in between. Similarly, the diametrically opposed poles of Spanish and indigenous in a simplistic understanding of mestizaje seemed terribly limiting (leaving out, for example, the powerful presence and influence of Africa in the Americas dating back to the early colonial period), and could not possibly capture the complexity of my consciousness.

In my early twenties, I voraciously read Latin American poetry looking for a mirror to my identity. For me, César Vallejo, the modernist master of Peru, came closest:

¡Cuatro conciencias
simultáneas enrédanse en la mía!
!Si viérais cómo ese movimiento
apenas cabe ahora en mi conciencia!
¡Es aplastante!

(Four consciousnesses are
Simultaneously snarled in my own!
If you could only see how that movement
Hardly fits now in my consciousness!
It’s crushing!) 1

Crushing indeed! When I was a twenty-something, Latin America and the entire world seemed to be bursting out of old molds. I witnessed firsthand a leftist revolution in my mother’s El Salvador, contemporaneous with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War. A few years later, the Zapatista rebellion in Chiapas, Mexico, declared that the indigenous past and present was not merely a colorful backdrop for the pageant of mestizo history, but its own autonomous narrative. There was near constant economic and political turbulence. Directly tied to these crises was the movement of people—migrants, refugees, exiles moving from the South to the North, bringing new bodies, languages, and more. I am the son and grandson of such people, a child of change.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the talk in the intellectual, artistic, and activist circles that I was part of was all about “crossing borders” and “hybridity,” refashioning the by-now ossified concept of mestizaje in an attempt to recapture the dynamism of Latin American history and culture as well as to rejoin it to contemporary political struggle. We celebrated everything “syncretic”—rock en español, rap in Spanglish, the fusion cuisines of Los Angeles (back then, teriyaki burritos, harbingers of Kogi Korean BBQ tacos to come) proclaimed our identities fluid and centerless, always becoming.

By the end of the millennium, these ideas were integral to our understanding of (and, often, resistance to) “globalization.” But in the end, our new cultural vocabulary didn’t resolve the old problems. We were still playing in the same hall of mirrors that the Spanish of the 18th century represented with the famous “casta paintings,” the ultimately failed attempt to capture the permutations of racial identity as European, African, and indigenous American bodies merged across time. That is to say, we were taken more with the surface play of identity than with the profound forces at work shaping it. At its best, the discourse of hybridity emphasized the constant process of identity-making; at its worst, it was much like a United Colors of Benetton ad, the radical chic of the moment.

The first decade of the new millennium brought us 9/11 and with it a broadening resistance to the idea and practice of moving across borders at will—and the complicated identities that result from that movement. Now, breaching the line could mean a terrorist threat, so the United States built the greatest national security bureaucracy in history, with its watch lists, promises that technology would keep us safe, and a decidedly low-tech wall along some 700 miles of the border between us and Mexico—not to say the rest of the world.

For reasons both personal and professional, I spent most of the first decade of the new millennium stationary in the North; the South became for me a place of painful memory. I’d also realized how big the North was—and how much of the South there was already in it. I wrote a book about migrants from Latin America fanning out from their traditional corridors in the Southwest across the entire United States. I saw indigenous Mexicans in northern Wisconsin and hung out with Salvadorans in Washington, D.C.; the entire map of the country had become a migrant destination. In spite of all the rhetoric about redoubling the “enforcement” of our borders (the height of which is the crudely nativist SB 1070 in Arizona, currently enjoined by a successful judicial appeal on constitutional grounds), these efforts have been easily surpassed by migrant desire, which is the third point of the triangle of forces that make up globalization—the other two being the flow of capital across borders and, of course, the unfettered movement of (now mostly digital) information. There is a strong resemblance in this process to that of identity-making in the Americas since “contact” between the New World and the Old. Maybe now the “modern” or “post-modern” world is merely catching up to the experience of Latin America—500 years later.

When I was introduced to filmmaker Carl Byker, the opportunity presented itself for me to return to the South—and to visit Spain, “la madre patria,” as Latin Americans call it with great colonial gusto, for the first time. I arrived in Mexico City over two decades after the earnest twentysomething I was went in search of his “roots.” Within a few hours of my arrival, I was standing on the lavastone pathways of el Cerro del Tepeyac, performing for the camera a “standup” about the Virgin of Guadalupe, whose miraculous appearance to the indigenous Mexican (and now Catholic saint) Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin is often invoked as one of the origin myths of mestizaje—the primordial moment of collision and melding between Old World and New.

I felt vertigo on the Cerro.

I had barely begun re-acclimating to the altitude and acrid air of the erstwhile Mexica (Aztec) capital. But more than that there was the striking experience of difference—the jumpcut between Los Angeles and Mexico City. I had spent many years as a writer and activist declaring borders and nation-states moribund artifacts of colonial history, that we were all hybrids and interconnected in one form or another. So how was it now that I felt such fantastic contrast?

We can talk endlessly about the experience of globalization and our transnational selves, but these have not done away with place or history. Most of all, they have not done away with material difference, as in the gap between the rich and poor and who gets to live with clean air, water, and food and who doesn’t. Here, culture and the economy, identity and politics intersect— and there is a lot more at stake than a public radio station’s “world beat” playlist or the “inclusiveness” of advertising imagery.

This constant production of difference was set in motion by the collision of two great worlds over 500 years ago, the construction of new identities on a scale never seen before in human history. A bewildering process that the Spanish had no vocabulary for, they ultimately turned to husbandry for the noun that would come to describe the sons and daughters of Old and New Worlds. USC historian María Elena Martínez, a key scholarly consultant for When Worlds Collide, tells us that “mestizo” originally referred to the crossbreeding of animals; its etymology reveals the verb misceo, “to mix.” As Americans we recognize it, since it is at the root of miscegenation. The last anti-miscegenation laws in the U.S. were repealed in my lifetime.

Which returns us to my mother’s poem about being a daughter of conqueror and conquered. My in-between-ness, my mixed-ness, my mestizo-ness is a fact of colonialism. And it also represents hundreds of years of resistance to it—from early indigenous rebellions to labor movements to the agency inherent in the remaking of Old World culture in the New.

Traveling to Mexico, Peru, Bolivia, and Spain to film When Worlds Collide, I noticed evidence everywhere of the primordial wound of colonialism—and of resistance, of negotiation and hybridizing, of crossing new borders and globalization.

I stood on a cobblestone street in Cuzco and heard an indigenous musician render Simon & Garfunkel’s “Sounds of Silence” as an evangelical Christian song accompanied by an Andean “quena” flute.

In Potosi, Bolivia, our van climbed up the muddy switchbacks of the (in-)famous Cerro Rico, where, our guide Soledad Ari Fortun told us in a voice both defiant and melancholic, “so much silver was mined that you could have made a bridge with it to Spain, and back to Bolivia again with the bones of the millions of indigenous that died on the mountain over the centuries.”

In Sevilla, Spain, I sat in a cramped kitchen—the cooks were preparing our food only a few feet from our table—at a restaurant that had originally opened in the 17th century as an “ultramar,” popularizing recipes using New World ingredients. We often think of “contact” between Old World and New as “conquest,” a word that implies a total imposition of the former upon the latter. But as I ate my “American” diet of tomatoes and potatoes on the other side of the Atlantic, I could taste the way history had moved in that direction as well.

And in Mexico City I stood on the lavastone steps of the Cerro del Tepeyac, telling the story of the miracle of the brown-skinned Virgin of Guadalupe appearing to an indigenous man. A Catholic virgin, that is, represented much like an indigenous goddess.

Which is the story of conquest.

Which is the story of survival.

As I write this, I am about to embark on a new journey to the South. This time I am the parent, bringing my three year-old twin daughters Ruby and Lucía with me, along with their mother and my wife Angela Garcia, who, as a mixed “Hispana” from New Mexico (where she is sometimes called a “coyota,” a caste term from the colonial era still in use today), has an altogether distinct experience of crossing borders.

I hope that we will begin to bequeath Ruby and Lucía the sense that the difference they will encounter—in culture, and the way the economy and politics help to shape it—is the result of an experience across an immensity of space and time.

And I hope they will feel at home.


1 Clayton Eshleman, editor and translator. The Complete Poetry: A Bilingual Edition, Berkeley, CA, University of California Press, 2009, pgs. 366-67.