Book Review of the Week: Mexican Enough

Dr. Jessie Voigts's picture

One of the most interesting books that I've read about straddling cultures was written by Stephanie Elizondo Griest, entitled Mexican Enough: My Life Between the Borderlines. Her book is a journey of self, of culture, of language. It is compelling reading, not only for the subject matter, but because she writes of daily life in a vivacious and readable way. We were lucky enough to sit down and chat with Stephanie about her new book - here's what she had to say...

 

Stephanie Elizondo Griest

 

WE: What led you to write Mexican Enough?

SG: Aye, it¹s complicated! For starters, I¹ve always had hang-ups about being
a 'bad Mexican.' Even though I grew up 150 miles away from the Mexico
border and much of my mother¹s family speaks only Spanish, I never learned the language or culture -perhaps because I was so hell-bent on escaping South Texas. In college, I studied Russian and Mandarin and then jetted off on a four-year jaunt across the Communist Bloc (the adventures of which inspired my first book, 'Around the Bloc: My Life in Moscow, Beijing, and
Havana'
).

While traveling in those nations, however, I was struck by how fervently
Stalin and Mao tried to destroy centuries of religion, tradition, and
ritual by forcing their citizens to conform to socialist culture. Yet hundreds of
thousands of people defied them. During the Soviet regime, for example,
countless East Europeans risked banishment to the Gulag by illegally
distributing newspapers printed in their native tongues. Even today in
China, Muslim Uighurs and Buddhist Tibetans gamble with imprisonment by
practicing their faith.

All of this made me reflect on how, in the United States, those of us who
haven¹t needed to fight for our culture have often deserted it. I, for
one, had totally abandoned my own Mexican heritage. Gradually, I realized the need to turn inward. So, on Dec. 31, 2004, I quit my day job, put my stuff
in storage and flew to Mexico City. My goal was to learn Spanish and
explore my ancestral roots, but history had additional plans. Mexico was on the brink of a social revolution back then‹what with the populist rebellion in
Oaxaca, the Zapatista Red Alert in Chiapas, the fraudulent presidential
election, the drug war, immigration rallies - and I was running around with
a pad and pen. 'Mexican Enough: My Life Between the Borderlines' is the
result: a memoir that combines root-searching with journalistic reportage.

 

WE: What are some of the complexities you've found in being an intercultural
being and writer?

SG: My greatest challenge has been rising above my own preconceived notions of a culture and then ­ through my writing ­ attempting to persuade others to do the same. For example, the first time I landed in Beijing International Airport and saw a People¹s Liberation Army soldier standing guard, I thought: "That's one of those blood-thirsty soldiers who murdered those student protesters on Tiananmen Square!" In reality, though, that guy was probably 10 years old back in 1989. Our world is an intensely complex
place: it is imperative that we not jump to easy conclusions. Sometimes in my
writing, I catch myself making outlandish claims like "Russians
think/feel/do _______." Instead, I should be saying: "My friend Nadezhda
-- who is highly educated, makes x rubles a month, and lost a brother to a
Mafia dealing gone awry -- thinks/feels/does ________."

I also struggle over which details to include in my stories. Say some gracious host offers me a bowl of yak penis soup. I'll ask myself: will I contribute to the misperception of this being a backward culture if I write about this? Because if you think about it, if you're going to kill that poor yak anyway, why waste his penis?

These sorts of things really keep me up at night.

 

WE: How important is culture to people - and is culture even a definable
concept, or is it always changing?

SG: Culture is sacred, but it is also dying throughout the world. The United
States in particular is a graveyard for culture. Studies show, for example,
that only 17 percent of third-generation Mexican-Americans still speak
Spanish fluently. That is why it was so important to me to travel to my
motherland. I realized how much culture had been lost since my family¹s
arrival to the United States, and I wanted it back to pass along to my
successors.

 

WE: When travelers head to different cultures, how important is it to try to
learn the language? What is it about language - and communication - that is
critical to understanding?

SG: Body language can certainly get you far in life. I've passed countless
hours at dinner tables around the globe, laughing hysterically with people with
whom I shared no common language. (Yes, liquor was generally involved.) But I almost always study the language before I travel to the land. It is
simply disrespectful to expect people to speak your tongue. And there is no way I could function as a journalist without a working knowledge of a language. Translators can only do so much.

WE: Is there anything else you'd like to share with us?

SG: Take to Mother Road! She is one of the most formative teachers around. She will push you to your physical, spiritual, and psychological limits -- then
nudge you one step further. She will teach you to be self-reliant and
self-sufficient, which will in turn make you self-confident. And I deeply
encourage everyone out there to travel to their motherland at some point in
life, to learn from the roots that grow within. Even if you can't find a
living family member, you can ask around for the local historian (or oldest
living resident) to see if they know your family name. Request relevant
birth, marriage, or death certificates at the equivalent of the county
clerk's office; make rubbings of tombstones engraved with your family name
at the local cemetery; fill a jar with earth.

If nothing else, you'll leave with the satisfaction that you witnessed the same sunset as your ancestors. That your boots collected the same dust.

WE: Thanks so much, Stephanie. Inspiring, to say the least! For more information on Stephanie's books (and life!), please see: http://www.aroundthebloc.com/

 

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