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Stephanie gets down in Texas


A Melting Pot or a Salad Bowl?
September 13, 2000



My family when I was only seven
Like many Americans, I fall into the "mixed breed" category. Half of my roots dwell beneath several villages in Mexico; the other half are buried in the Kansas prairies. Strong, self-sacrificing women form the base of both sides of my family tree. Take my mother's father's mother Ramona, for example. Back in the 1920s, the only work men could find in Hidalgo, Mexico, was down in the coal mines. When her husband was killed by a runaway cart down in the mines, Great-grandma Ramona swore that none of her sons would ever have to take such risks to put tortillas on the table.

So, late one night, Ramona gathered all five of her children, including my 5-year-old grandpa, and headed for the Mexico-Texas border. It cost five pesos to cross the bridge, but Ramona talked someone into rowing her family across the river by candlelight for only 50 centavos per person. Once across, she managed to find food and shelter for her family in a country where she didn't know anyone and did not speak the language. Rather than endanger their lives working in the mines in Mexico, Ramona's children grew up and earned their living by opening barber shops and restaurants in the United States.

The beautiful Texas landscape
My other maternal great-grandmother, Carmen, descended from the villagers of Cruillas, Mexico, who were relocated to a ranch in South Texas in the 1850s by a man named Captain King. Legend has it, King convinced 120 men, women and children to dig up their ancestors' graves, round up their donkeys and chickens, and follow him to Texas to a stretch of cacti and mesquite (land) known as "The Wild Horse Desert." This soon became the largest modern ranch in the world with 75,000 herds of cattle and nearly one million acres of land -- that's nearly the area of Rhode Island! The King Ranch also was known as the birthplace of the American cowboy. Many of my great-uncles were just that -- vaqueros (Spanish for cowboy) who broke horses, roped cattle and lived on the open range. Although she gradually became totally blind, Great-grandma Carmen cooked, cleaned and cared for all 12 of her children.

My mom grew up in the nearby city of Corpus Christi, Texas, with three brothers, 10 half-siblings and two adopted siblings. Her own mother died when she was three and her father lost his leg in a motorcycle crash, so she was raised by her tia and tio (aunt and uncle). For years, this family of seven lived in a one-bedroom house with no air conditioning -- not even during the blazing 100 degree summers! -- on a daily diet of beans, rice and tortillas. When she turned 18 years old, my Mom pulled herself out of the barrios and became the first in her family to ever go to college! Go Mom! After college, she met my dad.

Little is known about my father's ancestors. Our family's last name is Griest and often Germans think that we are one of them. But, Germans don't share the same pronunciation of our name. We say Griest so that it rhymes with the word "Christ." Germans pronounce Griest with a long "e" like "creek." Anyway, as far back as anyone can remember, the Griests come from Kansas. My grandma on my father's side was the first in her family to finish high school. Simultaneously, she managed to raise two boys and run a hamburger joint called M&M Burgers in the small town of Minneapolis.

My dad became another "first" when he left the Kansas prairie at the age of 17. Having taught himself musical rhythm by whacking on garbage cans turned upside down, he drummed his way around the world with a U.S. Navy band. When I was little, he filled my ears with wondrous tales of far-away lands like Hong Kong, Newfoundland, and Morocco. If wanderlust prowls in our genes, I think I inherited mine from my dad! My parents met at a jazz club in Corpus Christi on Halloween in 1966, married the following Ground Hog's Day, and had my sister Barbara and then me.

My favorite part of growing up in Corpus Christi was playing at the beach (the Gulf of Mexico was only a 10-minute drive from my house). Another great aspect of my town was the cultural diversity. My schools were always racially mixed, with about 50 percent Latinos, 40 percent European-Americans and 10 percent African Americans. I was dark-skinned enough to fit in with the Latinos, but my blue eyes allowed me to mingle with the Anglos too. Actually, I blended in so well that people often forgot that I was both. Every once in a while, I would hear someone say something mean about Latinos or whites and then they'd look at me apologetically and say "Oh, I didn't mean you. You're not really Mexican/gringo." I think they meant that as a compliment, but I felt that comments like this were racist.

While it can be nice to be able to blend in with different crowds, not fully belonging to any one crowd can get lonesome. Generally, I relate more to my Mexican heritage, but I have never felt 100 percent Mexican because I am not fluent in Spanish. Even though our town is only 150 miles from the Mexican border, my mom faced constant discrimination for her Spanish accent while growing up in Texas. To protect my sister and me from undergoing the same cruel treatment, my mother never spoke Spanish in our home. Truthfully, I didn't want to learn Spanish when I was young. Everyone at school (including Latinos) made fun of people who "sounded Mexican." Sadly, this behavior led me to believe that America was one big "melting pot" in which everyone should try to assimilate to the dominant race.

Fortunately, I went to college and shed those views! By joining organizations like the National Association of Hispanic Journalists and taking classes like Chicano Politics, I developed a great deal of pride in my Mexican heritage. Ironically, the experience that brought me closest to my background was studying abroad in Moscow. I realized how important culture was to a society when I met Russians who had gone to prison for secretly worshipping at church and Lithuanians who had been tortured for publishing newspapers in their own language. The people I met had made tremendous sacrifices to uphold their sacred customs and traditions so that they wouldn't fall into the Soviet "melting pot." So why was I trying so hard to jump into America's?

After my term studying abroad, the first thing I did when I returned to the U.S. was enroll in an intensive Spanish class! Since then, I have tried to learn all I can about this colorful part of my ancestry. Now, I love tejano stars like Selena, writers such as Alma Guillermoprieto, chile rellenos, the Virgen de Guadalupe and -- above all - the Spanish language (even though I still have trouble with past preterit!). While Mexican culture will always be closest to my heart, I enjoy dabbling in other cultures as well. I have studied Middle Eastern dance, the Chinese language and Islam. My bookshelves yield writers like Marina Tsvetaeva, Chen Ran and Fatima Mernissi. When I feel like cooking, I can whip up Indian daal, Greek moussaka and Italian eggplant parmigiana.

Today, I no longer think of America as a "melting pot" where everyone must abandon their unique traits in order to assimilate into an "American" identity. Rather, the beauty of our country lies in the fact that it is more like a salad bowl. We can retain the cultural traits that make us special, but still form a harmonious whole when we all mix together. To me, the greatest part of being American is the opportunity to sample all the succulent tastes our diverse world has to offer!


Please email me at: stephanie@ustrek.org


Links to other dispatches

Neda - Ummm, I didn't mean to start a revolution
Irene - Wait, this isn't Beverly Hills 90210!
Daphne - Just your average flame-throwing, Brazilian family
Teddy - From tear gas and lies to LOVE!
Kevin - Trailblazing from Inglewood to Korea
Rebecca - But Great Grandma, that's the Titanic!
Nick - All Things Connect