Not in Kansas Anymore

17 November

I am grateful for diversity. 

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OK this picture is meant to be rather tongue-in-cheek because Ensenada is located in Baja California. If California is still in the name, did you really even leave? But I use this photo because it’s the only one I have to represent the idea that I’m beginning to embrace other cultures besides the ones I’m most comfortable with (which basically only includes the culture of white girls from southeastern U.S.).

When I moved to Flagstaff, Arizona for about 10 minutes in 2001, I worked for a gentleman who, among other business ventures, owned a Mexican restaurant. I was his bookkeeper and the slew of illegal immigrants that staffed the kitchen used to call me La Princessa. I’m convinced it was a term of endearment. I also worked as a cocktail waitress at a bar/nightclub nicknamed The Zoo. We had “Latino Night” every week and, when the patrons asked for “la cerveza”, I, knowing zero Spanish despite living in Arizona, gave everyone a Corona. Because I used to drink Corona like water as a freshman in college and I knew that right there on the bottle it says, “la cerveza”. I was a disastrous cocktail waitress (and my tips reflected that), but it was especially awful on Latino Night. I had much better luck with the NAU frat boys on Dime Beer Wednesdays. But that’s a story for never.

The point is, until living in Southern California, I had largely viewed other cultures, and specifically the Hispanic culture, as one to coexist with, but not necessarily to mingle with. I could tolerate it, but I did not necessarily celebrate it. I’m going to get skewered for saying this, but this blog is known for its authenticity so here goes…until 18 months ago, I thought all Mexican food tasted the same, Dia de Los Muertos was creepy, Mexican blankets were silly souvenirs from your Spring Break at South Padre, Mariachi bands were annoying, and not understanding the language was a valid reason for pretending like the Hispanic culture (and its people) were just a phase in U.S. history. Like horchata or kimchi. (However, never once have I chanted “build the wall” and I believe that DACA babies have just as much a right to be here as I do.)

NOW…before y’all start commenting really awful things about what a narrow-minded ho-bag I am, hear me out.

I have lived in Kentucky, Georgia, Virginia, Kansas, and Pennsylvania. And Flagstaff, AZ for about 3 months until 9/11 sent me running home to all that was familiar and safe. I have not lived anywhere that has challenged me to accept another culture not only because it co-existed with mine, but because it was the majority and I was not. Stay-at-home white moms are all the rage in pretty much everywhere we’ve been stationed since 2010. I knew how to fall in step with downtown Richmond, Virginia and the Power and Light District in Kansas City. I discovered my place among the Amish and I ordered sweet tea and fried chicken with the best of ’em in Georgia. But here, I avoided the taco trucks because…well…all Mexican food tastes the same, right? And I was annoyed that there are 2 country music stations on the radio, 1 pop rock, 1 hard rock, and the rest are Spanish-speaking channels. Also, I didn’t speak the language. I once said to Mom after we had been here for about 6 months, “This is the closest you can get to living in another country without actually leaving the U.S.” And, I wasn’t wrong, but I was voicing it as a complaint. I should have been praising that observation.

Something happened to me in Ensenada. I allowed myself to become immersed in their culture for a few hours. Yes, I took shots of homemade tequila in the back of one guy’s store until I spent entirely too much dinero on Talavera serving bowls, but there was something else. The Hispanic culture isn’t garish, it is colorful. The people aren’t loud, they are expressive and warm. And, for the love of all that is good and holy about guacamole, not all Mexican food tastes the same. Tumbleweed and Chi Chis should be sued for what they did to this white girl’s palette. Dia de Los Muertos is a beautiful tradition that embraces death and invites us to draw nearer to those who have gone before us. Mexican blankets are the perfect protection between your bum and the desert floor, especially if you are waiting for the sun to set.

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I still don’t love Mariachi bands, but I think that has something to do with my disdain for brass instruments. I barely tolerate the trombone, but I have never been a fan of the trumpet.

The truth is, the Spaniards came up from Mexico and moved into California, establishing the mission system all the way up the coast. The only people who pre-date them are the tribes like the Tvonga people in the Los Angeles area. So, yes, I do actually think that blonde-haired, blue-eyed girls are the minority in these parts, but that’s OK. It has opened my mind and broadened my experience. And I’ve even learned some Spanish along the way. It did not occur to me until recently how deeply I’m going to miss the rich tapestry of heritage that makes up Southern California. A person can live here a lifetime and not fully comprehend the hundreds of cultures that endure, side-by-side, and primarily peacefully. But just by being exposed to them, it has made me a better person.

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