Sunday, April 30, 2006

My Mexican Heritage: Or Why This Afro-Latina Caribena is Staying Home on May 1st

I write this from Los Angeles where I've been for the past few days promoting my novel Divas Don't Yield. Only now do I realize that when I return home at 12:33 AM, it'll be May 1, 2006 - the day on which U.S. immigrants are being encouraged to stay home in an effort to demonstrate how vital they are to this nation's economy. So before I began to pack to check out of the hotel and catch my plane, I wanted to share one of the many reasons why I, too, will beg out of the economy tomorrow.

About this time last year, I spent a week in Mexico. As part of the Rockefeller Foundation's Next Generation Leadership program, I and twenty-three other fellows visited Mexico City and Chiapas. Upon my return, I had lunch with my parents at el Gran Bohio, a mom-n-pop shop and one of our favorite restaurants in the East Tremont section of the South Bronx. As I ate my carne guisado con arroz blanco, I shared with my Puerto Rican dad and my Dominican Mom the things I learned during my trip.

Suddenly, my usually reserved mother says in a quivering voice, "I spent two months in Mexico."

My mother is a deep well of complex emotions. She hides this (not so well) behind a taciturn demeanor. Before that moment I only knew that Ma came from the Dominican Republic to Washington, DC in the fifties as the domestic of diplomat at the age of twenty-three. After an argument with the diplomat's wife, she stole out at 4 AM on her day off with only three Dominican pennies in her pocket and none of her paperwork to board a bus to New York City. I had to prod my mother to get this incomplete story so just imagine how much I have to nudge to learn how she ended up living in Mexico for two months. Until that time I never thought my mother had been anywhere besides the United States, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. It gets to the point where Ma becomes so emotional, my father has to complete the tale.

At one point, in order to stay in the country, my mother had to leave the U.S. and then re-enter. So she crossed the border to Juarez and checked into a hotel for the night. However, when my mother tried to re-enter the United States the next day, she experienced problems and was not allowed to re-enter the country. Ma had no choice but to return to the hotel.
She was in her room crying hysterically when the woman who worked for the hotel's laundry service came to her room to return a dress -- the only one Ma had packed for what she thought would be an overnight stay. Recognizing my mother as another Latina, she asked in Spanish what was wrong. My mother explained that she could not re-enter the U.S. but had no money to stay and nowhere else to go.

"I have to leave because I can get fired, said the woman, but you stay here, and I'll be back."
At the end of her shift, the Mexican woman took my mother home with her. Ma stayed with the woman and her three children in their one-room apartment. The children -- two daughters and a son -- usually slept in one bed, but they gave up the bed for my mother and slept on the floor the entire time she stayed with them. After two months, Ma was able to leave Juarez and enter the U.S.

It's at this point where Pa has to take over. Ma is so choked up on tears that she cannot continue to tell the story of this woman - a stranger to my mother who herself was a stranger to her homeland - who opened her home to her and shared with her the little she had. "For years afterwards, your mother would send the woman and her family money," Pa says with clear pride and approval. "Just like she did her own relatives in the Dominican Republic."
"Well, what was this womans name?" I ask.
My mother finds her voice again. "Sofia."
"For real?" I put down my fork. "Wait a minute. . . am I named after her?"
My mother could not believe my surprise. She's adamant that she's told me this story a million times, but as I said, my mother is a woman who has experienced a difficult life and sometimes feels the wounds as if she only incurred them yesterday. This is why it took me until the age of thirty-three to hear for the first time that I was a namesake let alone that the woman I was named after was from another Latin American country.

So I have many reasons why I will stay home on May 1st. Being a Black woman of Puerto Rican and Dominican descent born in the United States, several of the reasons will be obvious to some. I tell the story of my name to share a reason that is not so obvious. Of all the things I can be reflecting on tomorrow's day of protest, I will be thinking about and honoring the Mexican woman whose name I carry.

I don't know if she is alive or if she has transcended.

I don't know if she remains in Mexico or if she has crossed back onto the land that once belonged to her ancestors.

I don't know whether or not, if she is here in the United States, if she has come legally or not.

What I do know is that once my mother found herself in an unfamiliar place, and a stranger who was a native to that land showed her compassion and kindness. I know that this woman did not care where my mother came from or the color of her skin or the amount of money she had in her purse before she decided to support her. I know after my mother who, despite being a contributor to the United States economy and playing by all its rules of residency, still suffered rejection and scrutiny by this country, yet found a haven in this woman's humble home.
And I know that this woman was Sofia Enriquez de la Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico.


TSP said...

I'm such a wuss. I just cried. Why aren't more people that kind? I hope she, that Sofia, is ok wherever she is.

TSP said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Unknown said...

You and me both, LOL! I cry every time I tell this story or re-read it. I have no idea where Sofia is, but I know if she's no longer on earth, she watches over me just like my grandparents. :)