On a late May night, after a prayer meeting, as we walked through the twilight and mosquitos back to our cars, somebody asked me: are you a first-generation immigrant?
Of course, she wasn’t questioning my belonging. I mean, not on purpose. She just wanted to know if I was Hispanic by birth or last name.
Woman, please. Some of my people have been here longer than all your people. I’m busy trying to belong in this world as a woman and a mother. Do not question my skin color, too.
I didn’t say all this. My anger came later.
When the first stay-in-place order hit, I went out to my backyard. I unspooled a tape measure and measured out shaky lines in one direction, then another. Squares. One long bed, two square beds. I shoveled, turned dirt over, squatted beside the dirt, and ran my hands through the virgin soil, shook out the weeds and the rocks.
It took me ten days to prep five beds. When the baby woke up from his nap each afternoon, I’d feed him and then buckle him into the stroller, adjust the sunshade over him and dig, sweat pouring off my forehead while he watched and sucked his fingers.
I’ve felt a connection to the earth since I was a little girl, weaving in and out of jungle-like gardens, dodging tall corn plants, popping sun-warmed cherry tomatoes into my mouth, straight from the vine. Wherever else I’ve had to fight to belong, there’s no question about it when I’m working with my hands in the dirt. This is who I am, I know, proudly, as I shovel and plant and tend.
I remember my mother’s stories from childhood: shucking corn, and the silk hurting her hands and making everything itch. I remember running through my grandfather’s fields as a child, stumbling over furrows made from rock-hard clods of earth. I remember how he sat in his garage, drinking a Shiner, every day in the evening after work. He didn’t speak very much English and when he offered me a ride on the tractor with Po Po, I declined, big-eyed.
It took years for me to meet and meet again my Hispanic self.
My dad is white. Growing up, I considered myself white. I am white. I navigate white spaces just fine. I look white if you don’t know any better.
But I’ve always felt a little “other.” I felt it when friends admired my skin which tanned dark and never burned. I felt it when my hair was twenty times the size of my friends’ hair—thick and coarse and curly. When I went to a historically Hispanic college, I felt other, too, but in a different way—it took years for me to meet and meet again my Hispanic self. I am still reconciling the two halves.
Now, my husband is Hispanic, some of my best friends are Hispanic, and my children are Hispanic. I feel at home with all of these people in a way I didn’t feel at home with people growing up and I recognize the otherness in me by its absence, now, and not by its presence.
I’m still figuring it all out—what do these things mean? My mom is awakening to the places that she hid away so that she could be the Hispanic woman people wanted to have around. As she awakens, so do I.
And so, the question my friend asked me about my immigration status incensed me—it was so personal. How could you touch all these tender places? My instinct was to curl around my most vulnerable places, to protect us—all of us. The question was surgically precise, a razor edge straight to the marrow.
I think about my grandfather—skinny and wiry and hard like a fence post. Can farmers pass their gut instincts down to their grandchildren, even the ones they barely know before they die?
My grandfather bought himself 60 acres to farm when my mom was very young. Must have been some miracle, for him to have acquired that kind of capital in a place where white people owned land, not the Hispanics who had been working it for generations.
As I garden in my own little plot of mostly bank-owned backyard, 116-odd miles from where my grandfather farmed sixty years ago, I wipe the dirt from my face the way he might have. The dust gathers in the creases of my inner elbows the way it might have for him. I am happier, in the dirt. I wonder if he was happier, too, and I suspect he was. I suspect he also felt like he belonged when he was here, this close to the earth.