September 13, 2000
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.
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!
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Links to other dispatches
Neda - Ummm, I didn't mean to start a revolution