Saturday, February 23, 2013

Where are all the Mexicans? And/On Being ‘ChexMex’

People say I’ve always had a strong work ethic. Most attribute this quality to how my parents raised me, but I think of this particular ethic as more apart my genetic toolbox – apart of my Mexican-”ness.” Anyone who knows me well knows that I am the last person to hammer down an argument for Nature over Nurture – I believe we are more so the products of our socialization. And anyone who knows me at least somewhat knows I have always held down two or more jobs at any given time. No, I never mowed lawns. I never did landscaping or worked “back of house” at a restaurant or any other stereotypical Mexican occupations you may be conjuring up right now.
I’ve been working since before it was legal for me to begin doing so – since the age of fourteen when my family members paid me “under-the-table” at a shipping franchise in Texas. It was in college when I began to feel guilty at being only a student and started serving at every restaurant from fine dining to overnight diners. Currently, I am contracted by Clemson University for a full-time course load, adjunct teaching two courses at a local community college, and once again waiting tables for extra cash in my pocket and side (work) thrills. I say all this because I think my pulsating need to overwork in order to feel alive may be in my blood – in my Mexican genetics.
The inspiration for this post comes partly out of my current work experiences – particularly when I started working at a fusion sushi bar in town and quickly noticed there was not one Mexican on staff. Let me be clear, I have worked in the service industry off-and-on for almost ten years and one thing I could always count on was seeing Mexican cooks in the kitchen and Mexicans washing dishes. In fact, living in Texas and California all my life meant not going a day without a Mexican (pun half intended). Then I started to look around campus – around my neighborhood – around town. Where were all the Latino/a students and families and workers? Where was Raza and mural paintings and breakfast tacos from local taquerías? As I looked around all I saw was Black and White but no Brown.

My recent move from the blue state of California to rural up-state South Carolina forced me to notice the sheer lack of racial diversity here, of diversity in general. From L.A. to the deep South, I went from city grid streets and gridlocked traffic to winding country roads – from neighborhoods flying rainbow PRIDE flags alongside American flags to neighbors on tractors and country folk riding horseback along the streets. I remember saying to a colleague just yesterday, “It’s like gay people don’t exist here. I mean, I know they exist but they aren’t visible like they were in Long Beach. In California, people are proud of their gayness. Here people hide it.” I went from having a Chinese best friend and knowing an impressive Asian population on the West Coast to only meeting Asian foreign exchange students at Clemson.

When I told a friend about my Clemson hire, it was the Fourth of July and we were gathered on the rooftop terrace of his beachfront condo in Long Beach watching fireworks ignite over the Pacific. I remember looking out at the coastline and seeing fireworks shows all along the distance – from Seal Beach to Huntington and all the way down to Newport – and he told me something that I remember taking too lightly at first – that South Carolina was the first state to succeed from the Union.

I remember him telling me that I should be prepared for deep South racism. I said, “No way. Deep South is Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia!” – nothing to worry about, I thought – surely growing up in conservative Texas had prepared me this experience. And when I moved here in the heat of the 2012 election, I remember driving through my rural neighborhood and bring surprised by Obama sign after Obama sign in a region that is an unapologetically Red one. Turns out, I live in the “hood” because the more I began looking around the more I saw only African Americans.

White-Washing Myself; Marking (My) Whiteness

Growing up in the upper-middle class suburbs of North Dallas always made me somewhat ashamed of my brown-ness. Try to envision a golf course community – a Starbucks every two-square miles marking the outer territory – and a community in protest for the building of a Wal-mart not for the ill treatment of workers but for the “types” of people it would draw  into town. A childhood friend of mine – who remains one of my closest platonic friends today – would purposefully skip the bus so we could walk home together from middle school. She would joke with me, “My parents said your parents can’t afford a pool in your backyard!” And I would fire back, “My parents said your parents couldn’t afford a lawn guy and that’s why your brother mows the lawn.” Little did we grasp our keen understanding for irony and classism at the time. This has become a vivid memory of mine as well because I remember in that moment feeling ashamed that my two-story home was not as big as hers.

Growing up, I always felt naturally inclined to embrace an identity more on my mother’s end of the racial spectrum – my Anglo side. Do not misunderstand me: Spending family holidays with my father’s Mexican side was preferred and always something I more looked forward to. It meant never knowing which of my 30+ cousins would be there. It meant three generations gathering together on any given occasion and tamales every Christmas and piñatas on birthdays and a feeling of closeness – the feeling of familia – that went unmatched by my mother’s side. But I remember never feeling afraid to bring my friends around my mom’s side of the family. I now know the reason for this was because it was easier to embrace the idea of whiteness in a community where “Being White” meant being superior. White was the default. It meant performing yourself a class above the rest and looking down on others and being judgmental. I spent my whole life at the “borderlands” now even knowing it because I refused to locate myself here- or at least remained ignorant to the fact it was even a place inhabited – or perhaps was never allowed to see my brown face looking back at me in the mirror.

It wasn’t until my graduate work that I began to feel a sense of pride for my Mexican heritage. I took a Master’s level seminar called “Postcolonial Dimensions of Rhetoric” – which, oddly enough, was taught by a cooky elderly white woman who mistook my roommate/classmate Jesus for “Jose” or “Josue” every once in a while. It was in this challenging scholarly space that I was forced to confront my Latino identity and was ultimately allowed to genuinely embrace the concept of Chicano Power. I learned and internalized concepts like Victor and Edith Turner’s “liminality” and “communitas” as well as “Santa María de Guadalupe.”

Call me, “Chex-Mex”

Recently, our department has been conducting hiring for tenure-track professor positions – which, in academia, means flying applicant finalists out separately for several days and assigning a strict itinerary of dinners with the chair, meetings with the dean, brunch receptions, teaching demos, job talks, and research presentations. At one reception, I met a scholar where in our cordials we somehow began talking about my new puppy Dexter. When she asked me the inevitable question of what breed he belonged to – as they always do – and I didn’t know how to respond since explaining his origin is always time consuming and risks “tune-out.” My usual script is this: “Well, his mother is Hound and Labrador and his father is Boxer and Catahoula; but the Vet thinks he has Shar Pei and Pitbull in him. I don’t see it though.” But in this moment, I found myself swift and succinct:
“He’s a mutt. Like me.”

And the feeling that accompanied this response stuck with me because it struck me as oddly freeing. It was revealing in a sense because it felt “off the cuff” and honest. But also because I knew what I was doing in that moment. I was paving the way toward a discussion about my racial/ethnic identity. I was traveling the road less traveled – or the road I had always sought to avoid. When the conversation took this turn – although not immediately – I tell her what I tell many people who similarly ask me, “What are you?”

I told her, “I’m Chex-Mex.”

I mostly say this because I think it sounds catchy. And when I get the usual puzzled facial response, I enjoy the clarification: “Not like the cereal. Like half Czech, half Chilango.”
Meaning my abuelito was a native of La Ciudad de México
Who either legally or illegally immigrated to Texas and
Changed his surname to Castillo.
After the Castillian empire in Spain
As in Spanish royalty.
He had settled in Los Estados Unidos
Married a Texas-native in my grandma
Who was born to a Frenchman
Who fell in love with a Mexican woman
Where they had run away to Wichita Falls.

All I have are stories of my father’s father – and vague stories at that – about how he was a brick layer who did mosaics for a side living – about his alcoholism – and his punishments with the switch. I never had the opportunity of meeting my Mexican grandfather since he died in a fatal car crash on Route 66 on his way out to a job in California. The most vivid story I have about my Latino grandfather is my father’s memory of first hearing the news about his sudden death – of his mother screaming, crying, and pounding the walls in the next room of their small two-bedroom house shared by his seven siblings – Lupita, Olivia, Dolores, Elena, Candelaria, Ernesto and Alejandro – all of whom go by whitened nicknames to this day. In fact, my father told me they were not taught Spanish at home because the fifties was a time where many 1st generation and 1.5 generation children were instructed to only speak English as a way to more easily assimilate into American culture.

My mother’s familial lineage took an equally interesting turn of events. It seems as if Life just happens that way. I am coming to know that we can only be prepared for the unprepared. My grandmother was born full-blooded Czechoslovakian before the country was split into Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Her family came to America through Ellis Island during the early 20th century. I know this because, during a junior class trip to New York City, my mother made sure to have me look at their names permanently inscribed onto the walls at Ellis Island. I think it interesting how these markings of identity are allowed – as a way for governments to keep tabs – while certain markings of identity (see: Exit Through the Gift Shop) are considered illegal and subject to erasure. This reminds me of the subversive nature of Chicano Mural Paintings that mark Hispanic neighborhoods across the U.S. as a visual way for Latinos/as to (non)discursively stamp their existence onto white culture. To shout, “HERE WE ARE!” It was in my 11th grade year that I was becoming interested in filling out the branches in my family tree and – in some cases – raking up the dead leaves. My mother passed down a story to me that made me think about the power of memory and remembrance. And it is here in this space that I tell it again – perhaps not entirely accurately either since this is how I remember it told to me – which doesn’t make it any less accurate for me:

After making the long emigration voyage by boat, the Cvetkovich family had reached New York City safely and healthily. I imagine their arrival as something that happened right out of James Cameron’s “Titanic” – where Rose looks up at the Statue of Liberty with a blanket over her head as rain begins to pour – although much less traumatic than arriving in the wake of the S.S. White Star line Titanic sinking, I’m sure. When the family began to settle after the first few months, my great grandfather quickly became homesick for Eastern Europe. He was not coming to know America as the “land of opportunity” that had been told to him at home. His wife, on the other hand, loved the United States. One night, her husband abandoned her and her two girls (Sammie and Mille) and fled back to Czechoslovakia. He took only his son Nicky with him, who would later be reunited with his sisters years after his mother’s death. Nicky informed his sisters that his father did not take the girls because he saw their gender as a weakness. In hindsight, it seems Nicky’s male-ness made him the high-priced commodity of his family in his father’s eyes. 

It is just now that I am coming to realize how perhaps my scholarly fascination with masculinity studies stems from the fact that I come from a combined history of absent fathers. But here I am focused on locating race.

This abandonment made my “Gram” and her sister intensely close growing up and I could see this strong bond as a child myself. In my teenage years, she would later tell me stories of how the two used to lock themselves her mother’s the bathroom as teenagers to smoke cigarettes. Even as a six-year-old, I remember how alive she was around her sister upon our visit to Flint, Michigan for my grandparent’s 50th wedding anniversary. And when my grandma moved to Dallas upon a stroke which left my grandpa blind – where he died shortly thereafter – and my great aunt Sammie flew down for the funeral – it was Gram’s sister who was her rock. I remember sitting in the car as we drove Sammie to the DFW airport and the silence from my grandmother as my aunt Jody pulled into the airport terminal. I remember seeing the two life-long confidants say their goodbyes, their subtle embrace, and my Gram seeming more sad for her sisters long-term departure than her husbands life-long departure. And when Sammie died a few years back, I know my grandmother took it really hard. As it turns out, my grandmother does not know the real reason behind her father’s abandonment. I think she speculates that the reason was because he had another family in Europe. But my Gram would meet an Ohio native of Irish and (I think) German decent which would later give me – her grandson – a Whiteness I could attach myself to – an “acceptable” lineage needed to grow up a “half-and-half” trying to pass for Anglo in a golf-course community.

Upon talking to a friend/colleague of mine at Clemson who is on an expiring student visa from Switzerland, I was schooled about the intense racism between Western and Eastern Europeans – for instance, Poles and Czechs – between lighter complexions and darker features. When I look inward, I have to face the fact that I have less Whiteness than I remembered I thought I had – or at least that I performed myself with all my life. I had spent a lifetime performing myself along a White mindset when my body was distinctly marked the opposite. I remember how people would ask me in high school if I was Mexican and I felt obligated to agree with them – for to outwardly deny such would be a blatant lie and downright disrespectful to my Mexican family – and I would counter it with something along the lines of “I’m mostly white.” This took so long for me to pin down because of the invisibility and elusiveness associated with whiteness. It is only when we, as Nakayama and Krizek remind us, demarcate and label whiteness that we can begin to comprehend its slippery and ubiquitous nature. People still mistake me for Italian or Middle Eastern and I now correct them by telling them, “No, no, I am Chex-Mex.”

“Performance Cartography” & Locating Latinidad

As my search for more brown bodies in rural South Carolina continues, I cannot help but be reminded of a brave essay I came across recently by Karma Chavez (Take a look at the piece for yourself). She puts forth a “performance cartography” as one empowering way for stamping her marginalized identity onto Latinidad. As a queer Latina feminist, Chavez takes the concept of maps – which have historically functioned as colonial tools to reinforce white constructions of space – and reconstructs it alongside storytelling and “theories of the flesh” (see also: Moraga and Anzaldua, 1983). Theories of the flesh are profound for how they bring forth stories we tell from/about our “homeplace” (see also: D. Soyini Madison 1993). I hope to have done one such thing here – to have used my personal narratives and memories to work through issues of identity and subjectivity as they relate to race/ethnicity/nationality.

Since Latinos/as have historically used embodiment and stories to navigate the present circularly with the past and into future, I advocate that we similarly adopt an “embodied mindset.” More so that we seek out spaces of belonging, put forth competing discourses that intersect and overlap, bring about new understandings of ourselves, and remain always in the process of “becoming.”

Refs (In Order of Appearance) 

Turner, V. W. (1967), ‘Betwixt and Between: The Liminal Period in Rites de Passage’, The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, pp. 93-111.
Nakayama, T. K., & Krizek, R. L. (1995). Whiteness: A strategic rhetoric. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 81, 291-309.
Chavez, K. (2009), ‘Remapping Latinidad: A Performance Cartography of Latina/o Identity in Rural Nebraska, Text and Performance Quarterly, 29: 2, pp. 165-182.
Moraga, C. and G. Anzaldúa. (1983), This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, New York: Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press.
Madison, D. S. (1993), “That Was My Occupation’: Oral Narrative, Performance and Black Feminist Thought’, Text and Performance Quarterly, 13, pp. 213-32.

- By Ryan Castillo, M.A. - Lecturer in Communication Studies at Clemson University.


  1. Thanks, Ryan, for writing this. I would also draw your attention to this: Calafell, Bernadette Marie. "Disrupting the Dichotomy: 'Yo Soy Chicana/O?' In the New Latina/o South." Communication Review 7.2 (2004): 175-204.

  2. Thanks for the read suggestion - I just cracked it open in fact. There are a few interesting questions Dr. Calafell asks toward the beginning - "What would Chicana/o come to mean to those children born Mexican American in the South - the next generation? What would Aztlan, our physical and symbolic nation mean to those who had never visited it or had no concept of it?" - I think in a lot of ways my post is a response to that.

  3. Ryan, this one line will stick with me for a very long time: "It was in my 11th grade year that I was becoming interested in filling out the branches in my family tree and – in some cases – raking up the dead leaves."

    ~ carlos

  4. It is striking how similar our journeys have been/are, though I am not Chex-Mex like you, hehe. Complexities associated with navigating very real border boundaries are often what I rely on when I just resort to telling people --when they ask "what are you?" meaning "what nationality or hyphenated identity are you?"-- that my family is from the U.S. --> "We didn't cross the border. The border crossed us." Most people chuckle. Most of the time, they get it. However, oftentimes I have to give a quick history of the SW U.S. for them to actually "get it" which of course raises other questions about the whitened, sanitized nature of most mainstream American history. I had a pivotal moment in grad school when I took my first Chicana Feminism class (an eye-opener that pushed me to pursue the doc degree). This is still a fine line to navigate even in the ranks of the critical, scholarly, (mostly) consciously aware academic elite.

    A few months back, I was asked to attend a dinner with a TT job candidate. A colleague and I (he's from Tanzania, educated in the U.S.) quickly realized why we were asked to attend this dinner = the candidate is Latina and we were meant to embody diversity examples of professors in this small liberal arts community of North Carolina. It was really interesting to us (fine, fun, but a little annoying) to then have to up-talk our diverse (and obviously embodied) identities as authentic. In fact, the colleague who invited us along to the dinner (also Latina) kept somewhat putting us on the spot about our heritage, where we're from, how we've adjusted to life in NC, etc. At one point, the candidate herself made a joking comment about the other Latina at the table not being a real Latina because she ordered her food at the Colombian restaurant in a particular way. In a striking manner of pointing out authenticity levels of judgment, I kinda sorta decided in that moment that I would have to be more cautious about embodying diversity (Latinidad) in these types of contexts - not that I can downplay my embodiment or brownness, but I would surely be more aware of these diversity display dinner invites I may surely get in the future... as one of the few brown faces with those magical 3 validating letters after my name in a mostly black/white region of the country. There is good stemming from this embodiment, too. I was recently featured in the OLAS (Organization of Latino American Students) newsletter run by students here ( I'm happy to be here for the Latino as well as other racial, ethnic, other minority students generally. But that authenticity that is questioned periodically can be an odd opportunity for introspection that I'm not sure I always welcome.

    Thanks for your blog contribution, Ryan!