A couple of months ago, I stepped out of the country for the first time in over twenty years. My parents were planning a trip to Mexico and wanted me to come along. As great as it sounds to go out of the country, I mulled over this for a long time. It wasn’t the flying or awkwardness of visiting other people that bothered me- to be frank, I’ve grown so distant from my family and roots from years of studying and focusing on my career. I didn’t even know if I wanted to go. While studying was always a convenient way to describe this distance, it feels like it has always been there. Growing up, I never liked a lot of things my family liked. Music, certain foods, or even speaking Spanish- I spoke so little Spanish around others. Today, when I speak Spanish, it sounds like an alien taught himself Spanish, then taught me, and gave up halfway. When my mom asked me about the trip, she made me deal- if I get my passport, she’ll buy my ticket. (Who the hell is going to say no to that?) I got my passport, booked the tickets, and we were scheduled to go. It came at a really good time, too. I just finished sending out a stack of applications for doctoral programs. (read all about that here) Something about sending out those applications and putting my future in the hands of cloaked readers made stepping on a plane and heading to unfamiliar territory sound really enticing. It ended up being me and my mom, on our way to Mexico. We boarded, flew away, and I didn’t look back because I didn’t want to.
While on the plane, I felt all of the anxiety of meeting people I’m supposed to know but had no idea who they are. I could even feel my face going through the motions: surprised, happy, excited, grateful, a bunch of other expressions people use to mask how they really feel; anxious, intimidated, jittery. Flying over the houses, landscapes, and local businesses, I felt like an anthropologist, studying everything in this environment with a kind of detachment. Once we landed in Aguascalientes, I was welcomed by my aunt Maria, my mom’s sister. We were picked up from the airport and were on our way to her house. When we arrived, my cousin Maira was having a party
for one of her daughters. I met them and my heart melted. These were two of the sweetest children I’ve ever been introduced to. All of a sudden, the distance I was worried about disappeared, and I finally felt like I was visiting family. My family. As I saw my mom catch up with her sister and nieces, I was drawn to everything about this new setting. I wanted to know everyone, making up for the years of absence. The absence of me not visiting family and the one in my soul, finally recognizing my own place in this family. We went to dinner, and my cousin Jasmin, daughter of my dad’s sister, came to join us. I was friends with her on Facebook before meeting her here, and my parents told me stories about her for years, but it’s when you meet a member of your extended family that you feel like the gaps in your family just evaporate, and you can now really get to know each other. The branch I was a part of on my family tree is now growing sturdier, able to withstand the strongest of gusts.
After dinner, Jasmin invited me to hang out in El Centro, the Downtown area of Aguascalientes. She introduced me to a lot of great little bars, making me open to try concoctions I’ve never heard of, like Pulque, an agave-based liquor that goes great with guava juice, and Mazcal with an alcohol content so high, it can be lit on fire. (Fun fact: “Aguascalientes” translates literally to “Hot Waters”) After bar-hopping and visiting a few more hot spots, we met up with her friends in the area. Meeting them, I was hoping for them to give me an authentic Mexican experience. Quicker than instantly, I realized how American I was, exoticizing them, like I’m in some foreign country about to find animals to poke with sticks. We stayed in El Centro, trying to find a place to chill for the rest of the night. We found a club called Yeah! (the exclamation mark is part of the name) It was this rooftop club with a DJ and shot girls walking around. We danced, had way too much to drink, and for a second, I forgot where I was (metaphorically- I didn’t blackout at this point). I blended in with the crowd and my cousin’s friends, as if we grew up together. I was hoping this wasn’t a bad case of pseudo-assimilation, mistaking meeting new people for family. Then something happened that helped me know for sure I’m catching up with people I know and who know me. One of my cousin’s friends who moonlights as a pizza delivery guy met up with us. We cheered and laughed when we saw him as he was carrying a pizza. He said a customer he just left didn’t want his pizza anymore, and since his job was closing soon, his boss said he could keep it. It was this kind of jovial nonsense that made me feel like I was with people who knew me. He put the door down on the bed of his pickup truck and we continued to eat cold pizza at the end of a Saturday night, with no complaints about the sausage and mushroom topping order. We all exchanged contact info and started a group message thread, making sure everyone got home safe. I was on my way to my aunt’s place. I had no idea what the address was, but I knew where I was and where I was going.
The next few days were spent meeting more family and visiting other locations. I met cousins my age that my parents told me about growing, just like their parents told them about me. I met several second-cousins with children who were in their late teens, with aspirations of studying in America. One of them, Marianna, is practicing to be a professional dancer. Her mother, my second-cousin, told me about how many hours she spends practicing and watching ballet on YouTube. As I was meeting everyone, it was like they were meeting this other person I was becoming; someone who cared about family, and wanted to felt included. It was This Other Person they were soon all getting to know. I still had final exams to grade from my last class I taught, and there was a book I was trying really hard to finish. This Other Person helped me put my books down, and for several instances during this trip reminded me that there are other people, in this case, people in different countries, that wanted me to spare a few minutes to spend time with, even it was only for an instance. I’ve always felt more comfortable in quiet, isolated spaces, where I can be left alone to study, or write, or not be around others while my thoughts race through my head. It was after meeting more and more family that This Other Person and I started to make real time to meet with others. Meeting everyone soon felt very fruitful, learning about a part of my history I never made an effort to learn about. When the day came to an end, I thought a lot about how much I missed out, and why I spent so much time with a reluctance towards meeting them. This Other Person didn’t care about that. He went to bed, waiting for the next day’s festivities. I slowly started to remember the last time I felt that way, like the day before presenting at a conference, or when it was my turn to lead a discussion in class. They weren’t that different, now that I think about it. Me and This Other Person weren’t either.
After a few days, my mom and I went to Jalisco, where both my mom and dad grew up. While Aguas (look at that- I’m even picking up slang here) is more metropolitan, the city we were traveling to was much more rural. We went to visit my aunt Rosalba in Mechoacanejo, a small city just outside of Guadalajara. The drive there took almost half a day. When we got there, I met my aunt’s husband, Zacharias. I’ve never heard anything about him back home, so this was like meeting a stranger in every sense of the word. We really connected after telling him I was a teacher at a community college. He works as the principle at his local elementary school. We shared stories about teaching and the books we love to reference and lecture about in class. After a few of these stories, like that time one of my students passed my class after struggling to turn in assignments while raising a family and working at his dad’s construction company, he asked me to visit his school and meet with his students. It sounded like a great idea, meeting students from another country, observing a whole new curriculum. I had no idea what to expect. I also had no idea just how much I didn’t know about teaching.
We drove to the school that morning, right when the sun came up. It was freezing outside, and there were caws from real roosters at this hour. On the drive, I saw what the city really looked like; not as something wondrous or nostalgic, but for what it was- a rural city, with a small population, where houses are made with whatever materials are available and parcels of land sit there, hoping to be developed. We arrived at the school, where I experienced my first sense of teacher-shock. The school was tiny, with about six classrooms, an administrative office, and a field for outdoor activities. The entire student body was about sixty students. My initial thought was that some of the children from this town stopped showing to work on the family farm, which was my dad’s experience. “Nope”, my uncle said. “This is everyone. I even made it my mission to get all of the kids from this area to school. As far as I know, this is all of the kids. They are all enrolled, all coming to school and doing work”. I’ve never been on a campus with less than several hundred students. This includes all of the schools I attended, going back to elementary school. The school had plenty of resources, and there was no lack of effort or workload instructors gave to their students. There was nothing ostensibly flawed or lacking at this school; it was a small school in a small city with a small student body. I had to shake off this shock, but once I did, it was really easy to appreciate how much my uncle put into this school. I observed a classroom and saw students working, turning in homework. And, just like students here, some were a bit disruptive, or a few were on their phones, and one student really liked being the focus of attention. Yeah- they were just like us. Then…something weird happened.
My uncle asked me to teach a class. There was a class that was learning English, and he asked if I could go over their next lesson on writing in English. Working as a professor at a community college, I’ve had a large range of students, including international and refugee students, working adults, students coming back to school after years of stepping foot in a classroom, and students older than me. This, however, was like teaching in another galaxy. I had no lesson plan, I had no clue where they were with their writing skills, and my Spanish is terrible. How in God’s name am I going to do this?! When I entered the class, every pair of eyes was looking at me, waiting for me to impress them. I was asked to teach, as if I had some kind of valuable insight on the English language. A small phrase streamed through my head: Don’t Freak Out. (dontfreakoutdontfreakoutdntfrkoutdntfrkkouuuuuut) One of the students showed me their textbook and what they were studying. We started on sentence structure by going over basics; what’s a verb; what’s a noun; how do they make a sentence. While sentences in Spanish don’t follow traditional English structure (Subject-Verb-Object; in Spanish, it’s more like Verb-Subject-Object), we sat down and discussed what’s important to know when writing in English. We did sentence trees, translation exercises, and some work from the text identifying parts of speech. When we talked about sentences, I asked them to write a small paragraph about what they enjoy doing the most on the weekends, then worked with in pairs, and took turns translating words, then turning them into sentences in English. They all got about two sentences done, but frankly classes I teach in the States aren’t even this productive some days. The class section was done before we had a chance to work in groups. I stood outside of myself and looked at what they finished- for having a teacher who barely knows what he’s doing, and students writing sentences, working in pairs, and getting writing done, I was impressed by these kids. They got good work done. Teaching in the country I’m from, if I saw this, I’d call it a good day. Their class time was done, and my uncle and I left home. I’ve never felt so exhausted after teaching than on this day. For as long as I have been a teacher, my only goal for my students is that they take something, anything, whatever it is, into their next class. Here, I was not in a position to dictate what they should or shouldn’t take. Instead, I told them how great they did and looked forward to seeing their academic success. I tell that to my students every semester; here, my wonder was as genuine as it was sympathetic. My uncle and I left home, but I wasn’t as interested in chatting. A new facet in teaching opened up for me. I can still see their faces, glowing with an interest in learning, while I stood up there, with a pull coming from my back, begging me to retreat. I did not retreat. I stood there and taught, and they appreciated it.
The next day, we went to my family’s property in Mexico. I’ve heard stories about this property for years, as if it was a kind of El Dorado. We left at the break of dawn, with the air crisp and the sky’s purple ebbing. My aunt drove us, but at every corner, there was a relative we needed to talk to, or a dog that needed to be shooed to their owner’s house. Were we ever going to get there, I thought. After about half on hour on paved streets, with hit the dirt roads. On the way there, houses were being built. Not just houses- mansions. Gigantic properties were being turned into mansions to retire in, or as mausoleums; I couldn’t tell from outside. When we arrived, there was a gate with an iron “R 15”. Fifteen Rubalcava siblings currently own this property; actually fourteen, after the passing of one of my uncles. We opened the gates, parked, and started to walk. The land looked like a gigantic green plot with small stones rising out of the ground, like small rodents popping their heads up for air. The grass was not the product of irrigation systems or controlled fertilizing. It was real earth. I wanted to sink my fingers in to let the dirt run through my hand. There was small house constructed near the gate. Its color scheme looked like something out of an Italian fresco- a strong, exuding white, with a red rooftop with Spanish tiles. We kept walking, and all I could think about were the generations that have trodden over this land. How long has the earth I’m walking on remained undisturbed? I couldn’t tell. There was a small wooden
fence that wrapped around the edges of this plot, with a river right next to it. It was strong for most of its wrapping around, but grew thin and peaceful once it got closer to the hill. My dad told me to look out for the remains of a house at the most northern end. It was just barely there, acting as more of a reminder of who was once here. With every step, I grew more and more connected to my family, learning about the experience of each family member, as if I’m finally getting acquainted with them. I closed my eyes, immersing myself with my surroundings, listening to every chirp, crack, billow, breeze, rustle. I took pictures of everything, hoping to chronicle my time here. There was a cactus with initials carved into it, and a small pen made for putting animals on top of trucks. Going a little further, there was a lake with cows grazing. I wanted to pet one so badly, but cows are surprisingly not domesticated enough to be petted. I walked up to the edge of the lake, touching the waters, hoping to feel something. I was able to press my hand into the surface of the ground underwater, looking at the impression, vanishing almost instantly due to the current. It felt like I was touching earth dinosaurs once walked on. A part of me wanted to walk into the water to see how far I would need to go before I need to start swimming back, until I heard the truck starting. Our time on this land was over. At least only for this moment.
We went home and, again, I tried not to speak, processing all of this new life I just witnessed. I think about all of the generations that have witnessed this land, and how much I was missing out, walking around as a stranger. No matter how many stories I heard, I had no connection to this land until its soil passed through my fingers. I’m apart of this now, American or not. Shortly after, we saw more family and loved ones. This included old friends of my mom, my dad’s mom, and an uncle I have never met. I was getting better at meeting people, but this is still someone I don’t know. On our last stop, we met my uncle Mario. When he saw me, he told me, “You look like your dad the most”. No one has ever told me this, and I have never seen the correlation. The relation starts at the top. My oldest sibling, in my opinion, looks my father the most. I’m in the middle, on the cusp between semblance and something new. My mom and uncle traded stories about growing up here, about who’s still here and who’s gone to the States. My Spanish was slowly getting better through osmosis, but even that wasn’t helping me as I heard these stories. They may as well have been speaking in Latin.
All of these old stories were stories from a different generation, back when I didn’t even exist. Learning about history and anthropology is one thing, but in this presence, I’m being forced to explore something I didn’t know was a part of me. I started to recognize names, then places, slowly picking up this material. I was like one of my students on a day when they forgot to do the assigned reading, listening and kinda learning, but petrified when thinking about contributing to the conversation. Then my aunt started speaking in the most universal language possible: food. She made quesadillas with poblano peppers and asadero cheese, fried in vegetable oil, like little street cart empanadas. It was like eating something thousands of years old. I’ve never had anything like it. It’s really difficult to describe, except by saying it made me feel more relaxed. This whole trip has been slowly turning into a way to connect to part of me I never knew existed. Food helps with that.
On the way home, my mom reminded me what day it was: Ash Wednesday. The tower of the community church is easily visible over the roofs of the houses around us. I see that, and I freeze. This whole day has been dedicated to opening a part of me I didn’t
know was there. The next challenge was asking if I should open it in the first place. After years of studying the histories of western civilization and colonialism, and the words of Marx imprinted in my brain (“Religion is the Opiate of The Masses”), I actively let go of my religious upbringing. To me, I no longer wished to perpetuate a belief predicated on dismantling indigenous communities for empowering an institution thousands of miles away. When I came here, the religion I let go of was not what they practiced here. From the elderly women, clasping on to beaded rosaries, to the parents taking their five children to mass because that’s what they do. Was it up to me now to make zines to convince these masses of people to abandon their intellectual oppressors? The one thing I learned at this point was that I had no answers to anything. I’m only here to learn. I walk in, sitting in an empty pew near center left. I look around in the cathedral. Everything is so ornate, down to the details in the Creation of Adam painting on the ceiling. The room is filling up, yet the pew I’m sitting in remains empty. Mass starts, and I’m not sure what to expect, having over fifteen years of never stepping in a church. The goal is to learn something, I keep telling myself. The Padre says his sermon, retelling the story of Josiah, a prominent voice of good works. The Padre says, Que pesa mas? Un plato de arroz, frijoles, y capirotada, o la Oracion?
(If you have rice, beans, and desserts in one hand, and prayer in the other, which one gets filled first?) I thought about this, asking myself, What means more to me, a degree that took years to earn, based on my research on an obscure area of study, or family? I didn’t know how to answer this. Before I knew which meant more, the ushers guided me to receive the black ash, dust, as the dust that I am and shall return to. I kneel. Name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit.
I walk home, leaving the church, and say to myself, I really need a drink. (they didn’t have wine during this mass, and I developed a craving) As I walk through the Plaza, no vendors are selling fried food, red meat, and no pop-up bars. It’s going to be a dry night. This entire time, I thought I was learning about me, but almost literally, it was everything bigger than me. Who was I if I had no family? Where was my center without my religious upbringing? I walked home, sun setting, constantly wondering if coming here was a good idea. I don’t know what I’m taking back, or where I’m going after here. It’s dark by the time I get home. My family is having pozole. I love pozole.
On the last day of the trip, I make one more visit to the my uncle’s school. It’s the end of the season for them. They all bring food and soda for a party. I’m still in a daze from last night, not sure if I want to talk to anyone. Then This Other Person showed up to help me feel more at ease talking to everyone. While he’s talking to everyone about finishing school at this point and what they’ll do during the summer, I’m looking around, wondering about the future for these kids. A lot of them are preparing to continue to study, including some who want to study in America. I think about the lack of funding in education and the peril of going into a country where people see you as a drain on the system once they look at you. What are they getting set up for? They’re playing a game of soccer, having a ton of fun running around the school yard. Do I tell them how much of a challenge that will all be, or let them discover that on their own? A few of them came up to me and asked if I was going to come back and teach again. This Other Person wanted me to say, Of course, I will, and tell them I’m looking forward to all of the lessons I will teach them. But I knew I couldn’t say that. I loved being here, but I have no idea when I’ll ever come back. I tell them I really enjoyed working with them and will keep in touch through my uncle, the principle. They all cheered and went back to playing. On the way home, my uncle tells me that he learned how to use Skype recently. That helps with the trip home. A little.
We go back to Aguascalientes, arriving a little past sundown. The trip is slowly closing, to the point where I have to start thinking about packing, and how much my perspective has changed. I get to hang out with my new favorite nieces for a few more hours. We play Monument Valley on my phone. They love it. I remember the last time I was so enthralled by a video game. My siblings and I would spend hours playing Super Smash Bros. This however didn’t take place when I was their age- this started when most of us were in college. As we got older, we got involved in our own lives, pursuing our own pursuits and going in different directions. This brought us back together. For a few hours, six people were connected via game controllers, playing a game that allows you to reimagine classic video game characters you grew up with to create a whole new memories with. It was awesome. Later, I met up with another cousin of mine- my cousin Iris, Jazmin’s sister. She was swamped with work earlier in the week, so we just now are getting the chance to meet up. We meet up for dinner with more friends, all trading stories about the fun things to do in the area. A bar that just opened is across the street. I tell Iris that I used to bar tend while finishing my Masters. We decide to go there, with her encouraging me to introduce her and her friends about cool drinks, and me wondering if there’s a Mexican version of a Negroni. (there is- you replace Gin for Mezcal. It’s exquisite) I share a few stories about what bartending is like, such as kicking out drunks or slinging twenty drinks at a time. Then she says I definitely have
Rubalcava blood. She tells me stories about my grandfather, who I have never met, but have heard of. I gladly allow This Other Person to take my place. This is because her knowledge of my grandfather and mine are world’s apart. She tells me about how he was one of the toughest people on the planet, and how a lot of people were intimidated by his presence, mostly from the gun duels he won, with This Other Person listening gleefully. I’m sitting there, and all I can think about are the stories I heard about him growing up, how he had a second family, and how he squandered the family fortune. I don’t know if I want to interject or not. Hearing these stories, I grew up holding so much disdain towards this person who for me was a kind of abstract. My cousin grew up knowing him, and this is how she remembers him. I don’t know who’s wrong. This whole trip has been dedicated to forcing me to revisit my family history. I’m starting to see how this includes perspectives I may not agree with. With every new revelation, I think to myself, How do I respond? I only leave with more questions. Maybe that was the point of the trip all along. We meet up with more people, go to more nightclubs, dance the night away. There’s something about the dancefloor that makes transfixes time. For a brief moment, all that matters is the people around you, shaking away all of your anxieties. My only revelation at this moment is that my cousin is the coolest person on the planet. The night winds down, I go home, on this last night in Mexico, and I sleep for about zero hours. All the way until sundown, I think about how to handle all of this information, and what it will turn into when I get back home. I stare at the ceiling the entire night, trying to sleep, trying to search for answers between the patterns of the ceiling.
We return, and it is now the present: a semi-sunny Saturday afternoon in May. I’m back home, teaching, my semester in full-swing, preparing for my last semester as an instructor. I’m thinking about my big move, both geographically and in my career. (I start a doctoral program in the Fall- read about that here) I’m at my parent’s house for Memorial Day weekend, trying to spend more time with my family. This is something I’ve progressively been working on since my trip back from Mexico. My dad just gets home from working, with small bits of concrete on his shirt, and red dust all over his hands. My dad’s specializes in masonry, working with concrete and brick. It only takes a glimpse to remember the years of working beside him. The sun beating down on you all day, putting your muscles to their limits. This is what I did growing up. When he asks me about teaching, I always have a hard time navigating what to say. I honestly don’t know what’s more difficult: laying a forty foot concrete driveway with a brick trim or managing a classroom of thirty college students. There’s very little to bridge that gap. In this awkward moment, which lasts about a minute, thinking about all of the years trying to make him proud or to care about what my passion in writing means to me, I scavenge for something to show him how much I appreciate all of the sacrifices he’s made for me and my family. I tell him, “When I was in Mexico, I got a chance to visit your property. Wanna see?” I scroll through all of the pictures I took, included those with my cousins, my aunts and uncles, all of animals and street crossing, and some monuments. With every picture, he has an hour-long story about where this is and how he knows it. The storytelling component in my history becomes more and more apparent. Then I show him the pictures of his family’s ranch. When he sees it, his face has the glow of a sixteen year-old kid, which is about the time he emigrated to this country. He remembers every stone, the old walls of a small house no longer standing, down to the sounds the lake next to it made when passing over rocks. He loves it. Then I tell him, “When I was there, I also got a chance to visit my Grandma. I took picture of her. Do you want to see?” He says yes, and I show him. His face transports back to the current to who he is now: a 65 year-old man, who had moved from one country to another, sacrificing so much to see his family do better, now witnessing his children as adults, with time being unforgiving, seeking comfort in the well-being of his family. There is no difficult conversation after, only a slight nod. That nod speaks volumes more than any textbook I ever studied. He moves to the couch and watches an old boxing match. This may also explain where my love for boxing movies comes from.
I crash on the bed I grew up in. In the next few months, I will no longer have this opportunity, nor will physically be in the same house, neighborhood, or state as my family. This new endeavor now has a whole new meaning: I am my family’s ambassador. I’m entering a space in academia no Rubalcava has reached. My goal is to do so making them proud, being conscious of the history and narratives that allowed me to attend this new field. I’m taking with me most of my books, some clothes, and all of the memories from my trip. I owe it to them to put my heart into this, delivering my very best, down until my fingerprints wear to the bones. I have no idea what to expect. All I know is that I have the support of some really great people, and a spot in Mexico that will always be home.
This Blog Post is dedicated to my Grandmother, Juana Pedroza Ibarra. I had a chance to meet her while I was in Mechoacanejo. She passed away the day after we came back from Mexico at the age of 84. She raised my dad, along with another fourteen siblings. Getting to know her back story was almost Faulknerian, learning about the history of my family’s matriarchy. Unfortunately, the dementia made it impossible to know who I was. Seeing her, regardless of her knowing who I was, made me make sure I never forget my time here. A bit over a month later, I got a tattoo inspired by a phrase my dad told me years ago when I got my first job: No matter how tall a tree grows, it
never forgets its roots. This tree is still growing, with its roots etched on my arm. I’ll never forget where I came from. This tree will make sure of it.