The first time I went to Mexico, I was 8 years old, just a little older than my oldest son is now. I didn’t go to Tijuana like most Americans seem to, and I’ve still never been there. We went, instead, to my stepmother’s home in Merida, Yucatan, the very tip of the boot of Mexico. We flew over the ocean for a bit, and I imagined the plane sinking into the gray expanse. After a stop in Mexico City, we landed in Merida. It was all people, cement, and noise. Lucy hustled us into a cab and said something in Spanish to the driver. Or yelled it. When she switched from English to Spanish, her voice always seemed to get much louder. I stared out the window as we drove over bridges and crossed highway lanes. I read signs I was incapable of understanding. When we were off the highway, I noticed the colorful houses, the bars over the windows, and people and dogs everywhere on the sidewalks. We finally stopped, not at a house, but at a tar paper shack with a tin roof, which sat upon a dreary patch of rock and dirt. Tiny people emerged to greet us. I was taller than all of them. My stepmother was short at 5 feet, 0 inches, but her family was even smaller. Hands stroked my hair and mouths kissed my cheeks and I was hugged by what seemed like thousands of people and there was Spanish all around me and none of it made sense. A girl approached me, with wide open eyes and long, stringy black hair. She was maybe 12 years old, Clarita, I would later discover her name was. My stepmother’s youngest sister. She stared excitedly into my eyes and spoke exuberant Spanish words at me. She seemed to be asking me a question. I knew the words “si” and “no,” and I chose to answer with “si.” Before I knew it, I was being pulled away from the family, down the sidewalk, past stores and houses and parks, through alleys. Clarita held my wrist lightly, leading me along. Every few minutes, she would pause and ask me a question, and I would reply with “si,” and off we continued. I had never been in a city like this before, with so many people out on the street. I felt Clarita’s eagerness thrum through me. I absorbed it all. Suddenly, a look of concern washed across Clarita’s face. We had been gone too long, I understood. There was a moment when I realized that I had no idea where I was. There was the briefest flash of fear. But Clarita quickly tugged me back through the maze of the city to the house.
Diegolina, whom I would soon be instructed to call Abuela, was crying. “Ay dios mio,” she lamented, taking my face into her hands, clutching me fiercely to her body. Then more Spanish. My stepmother yelled into Clarita’s face, and Clarita took off.
I was a freak in Mexico, the good kind of freak. People stopped in the streets and openly stared at me. Strangers touched my hair and bought me chips. Grown men whistled at me, assuming, I suppose, that I was an adult. My stepmom explained that many of them had never seen a (white) American before. I was not a beautiful girl. I had crooked teeth and was awkward, large, and ill-dressed. In Mexico, I was suddenly a celebrity and it made me both embarrassed and proud.
I stayed out in the streets until 1 and watched in horror and interest as the other kids burned the tail of a black scorpion. I went swimming in an underground cave with bats, the turquoise water filled with fish. I visited Mayan villages and ruins, stared at the women in their beautiful white dresses embroidered with flowers of every color. I ate a freshly slaughtered pig. I watched a man break a chicken’s neck on an interminable bus ride and sell it to a woman next to me. I got so sick I stopped eating and drinking and fainted in church. I caught a baby sea turtle in the ocean at Progreso Beach. I danced at a stranger’s quinceanera, in a ridiculous polka dot dress. I was bitten by hundreds of mosquitoes as I slept on a hammock in one room with 8 of my stepmom’s relatives. I became fluent in Spanish.
When we left, my stepmom’s entire family accompanied us to the airport. Many of the younger cousins had never been to such a place. In the bathroom, her family members pumped liquid soap into bags for later, amazed that it was free. I grew up fairly poor, but I had never seen poor like this. We had toilets at our house. We had walls and a roof and enough food.
I have never gotten along with my stepmom.There is no malice there, at least not anymore; we simply do not belong together. I don’t know why she took me with her on the two trips she made to Mexico during my childhood. I know it wasn’t intended to be an educational experience or anything like that. She grew up barely surviving; that kind of bullshit is for gringos like me. And I am certain it was not because she couldn’t stand to be away from me for very long. Regardless of her intention, it changed the way I saw things then, and now, and for that I am grateful.