by Isabella Rodriguez
My memories of Mexico are more like flashes of light than they are memories. Flashes of color. Bits of sound. The smell of sweets and spices in the air. I remember the feelings. I remember huddling on an air mattress next to my parent’s bed with all of my brothers. I remember waking up underneath the bed in the middle of the night because I’d rolled off in my sleep. I can still remember the feel of the cool tile against my feet as I walked upstairs to get a glass of water.
The last time I’ve seen half of my family was when I was eight years old. Barely old enough to remember actions, or faces. But I remember the feelings. I didn’t know back then that that would be the last time I’d see some of them.
My Tia Lola, as we called her, was actually my great-aunt Dolores. She is the reason I have the middle name I do. Growing up I hated my middle name. It was different from all of the middle names my friends had: Brooke, Anne, Grace. They had simple names, they were pretty. The kind of middle name that you weren’t afraid to share with someone else. I didn’t understand what I’d done to be given a middle name that felt so much heavier than the ones they had.
I don’t remember when I started hating it. I can’t imagine that I always felt that way. Maybe it was a look I got, a confused face, a questioning tone. I do remember feeling ashamed to answer the question of my full name when asked. Which would make me feel even more ashamed, because I knew the woman I earned it from was someone great. Something about the way people reacted made it too hard for me to realize how lucky I was to have it.
My sophomore year of high school my Tia Lola passed away. I hadn’t seen her since I was 8, at oldest. But I have a memory that flashes in my mind like light through the slats in my window. I remember us all piling in a van, a bunch of people with faces I only remember in dreams, but whose voices I swear I can still hear if I try hard enough. I remember sitting in my Tia Lola’s lap and soaking in every ounce of conversation I could. I remember her face, her hair, and her laugh.
Or at least I think I do.
It’s already hard to travel when you have a big family. It’s already hard to travel out of the country. And during that year, 2016, it was even more difficult to travel across the border to Mexico. The land of “Illegals and criminals.”
But my Tia Lola was not a criminal, she was not an animal. She was someone who loved me more than I could understand at the time.
Funerals happen a lot quicker there, so even if things weren’t so tense here it would have been difficult getting back to her. The political climate in the United States did make it harder for me to know how I was supposed to feel, and it made it harder to find a way to get over there. We weren’t able to.
I haven’t been able to see her since I was eight years old—just old enough to learn long division, but way too young to understand the finality of that goodbye.
Even after she passed I couldn’t help but be ashamed of my middle name. It was a weird feeling, because I felt even worse for feeling upset, but it wasn’t enough for me to realize the real reason I didn’t like it. I didn’t realize that some of the things I’d heard or had been told weren’t okay, because I always figured that since I was half white the things they were saying weren’t actually bad. I didn’t understand that questions of “what are you” were not typical. Because I didn’t realize that to them I was too much of one thing and not enough of something else. I couldn’t fit in the box they wanted. I didn’t understand why I was upset when my “friends” mocked my dad’s accent. They were making my family into a cartoon, into a story they could understand, and I didn’t realize until later that there was something wrong with that.
Once I began learning more about the way microaggressions form and change perceptions, it helped me to understand a little more why I felt some of the ways I did. It took me such a long time to realize that when I shared my middle name with someone, I said it in an apologetic tone. Like, “I’m sorry it’s not what you’re used to saying, feel free to forget it,” was written in the undertone of every “Isabella Dolores Rodriguez” that spilled out of my mouth. It was hard for me to come to terms with the fact that I shouldn’t dislike my middle name just because there were other people who didn’t understand what it meant to me.
My Tia Lola was a strong woman, and I should be proud to share a name with her. Even though I know this now it’s still hard to bite back the quick punch of fear in my chest I get whenever someone asks me what my full name is. I try to stand up a little bit straighter when I tell them, because if I’m proud of her then I should be proud of myself as well.
Dia De Los Muertos
I never got to experience Dia De Los Muertos with my family in Mexico, but I always dreamed of the celebration. Commemorating my lost family in a beautiful and art-filled way seemed like the most meaningful opportunity I could have. We celebrated in our own way at home in America. There were no festivals, parades, or huge celebrations in my neighborhood, but as a family we did our own things to make it special.
I remember every year, my dad and I would go to the little graveyard where we had buried our pets. We would bring their favorite treats, and sometimes a toy or two, and place them on the graves. I always felt filled with some wonder when I’d look back the next few days, and find the food gone. Maybe some things have rational explanations to them, but I didn’t care about those. I knew in my heart what really happened, and who had really stopped by.
I think it’s no coincidence that Monarch butterflies begin arriving in Mexico during November. To me, monarch butterflies symbolize my home in Mexico. I remember being young, in a field where they covered every surface. I remember raising my hands to the sky, and laughing as their wings brushed against me and feet tickled my fingers in landing. I think they serve as a reminder to me that everything and everyone goes home someday, but that doesn’t mean you will never see them again. I find it special when I see them during times of celebration, when I am remembering my lost loved ones. I know deep down that they are sending little messages to me. Reminding me that there is always a place for me back home, and that the people I miss dearly are not too far gone.
In 2020, there was an attempt made to taint the day. Donald Trump released an official proclamation. In which he stated that November 2, Dia De Los Muertos, would now be known as a National Day of Remembrance for Americans Killed by Illegal Aliens. The timing of this was not accidental by any means. I can’t describe the swell of emotions I felt when I read this for the first time. A day that was so special to me, that connected me to my family, was being used to further propagate the agenda that the people I related to so closely were all criminals. This day that was meant to be a celebration of life, was being used as a basis to mourn unrelated deaths and pin them on the people they most opposed.
I felt alone when I read this. I was in college, away from home, and surrounded by people who had vastly different experiences from me. I could not explain why this was such an important day, and why this act was such a disgusting one. The one thing I had that tied me back to the family I had been unable to see for years, was being tainted.
I felt I had nowhere to turn, so I didn’t. I stood head on and faced the situation. I noted the inconsistencies in their arguments. The hyperbolic statements of hate that they had no problem writing and reading. I realized that they had no reasoning behind their decisions other than hate. This understanding made me realize how different I was from them, and not in the ways they thought we were different. I had empathy for people, where they showed none. My brothers and cousins cared deeply for me, and I for them. The people who spoke with hatred seemed to not have any room for compassion for others.
Even though the things they attempted to do hurt me, I realized over time that their thoughts only defined me if I let them. And so I didn’t. There was nothing any of them could choose to say that would have changed the way I viewed that day, no matter how hard they tried.
Still today, every year, we celebrate this day in our own special way. Even if I’m not home, even if I’m away from the people I care about most, I am able to experience love and culture fully from my family, and from within myself. That is something they will never be able to change.
What are you?
What are you is a weird question. One many people have not received the opportunity to answer. Being half Mexican was always ingrained in my identity because of my love for the culture and people associated with it. I never realized until I was older how much that identity, my identity, also mattered to the people around me.
What are you is a question that I became used to all too quickly, especially once I hit middle school. No matter how much you might blend in with others, they always have a skill for finding the people that do not quite fit in with them. I never felt ashamed of my answers, until I began to be questioned further.
I felt that I was torn between two different versions of myself, two paths I could follow, but neither felt like me if I didn’t have the other. I learned quickly that people don’t believe you get to choose more than one, or that you chose at all really. The preconceived notions they have of you are going to follow with them as long as they so desire, and there is not much you can do or say to change them. I wanted desperately to mean it when I said I didn’t care what others thought, but it wasn’t true. I did.
I never felt like I was enough for one group or the other. I was always lumped in this weird in between state of being, not quite fitting into whatever molds they desired me to be in. This meant I became neither, a sort of other category I didn’t realize was on the table. I was lost in this otherness for much of my life. I was afraid to try new things that seemed too much one side or the other, for fear I would lose my other half if I strayed too far. Maybe it would have been easier, choosing just one identity. But the thought of losing such a big chunk of myself and my being, filled me with dread that I could not truly shake off.
As I grow older, and as the world begins to become more interconnected through fast paced messaging and information at our fingertips, my perceptions have started to change as well. I love the parts of my background that are different. I love that they make me who I am, that they have shaped the way I see the world around me. The thing I do not love is the fact that it took me so long to begin to feel comfortable with those parts. I feel like I could have learned so much more if I was not afraid to express myself and try new things. If I wasn’t afraid of the looks I received, the things people would say, the judgment for those who claimed to have my best interests at heart.
What are you is a weird question. One I may never know how to answer fully, at least not in the way I think they desire. I am exactly who I am. I am Isabella Dolores Rodriguez. I am a young Mexican American woman. I have four brothers, a family who I care for deeply. I have dreams, aspirations, and plans for the future that I wish with my whole heart to achieve. But most of all, I am me. If that is not an answer they are okay with, that’s okay. Because it’s an answer that is okay with me.
My memories of Mexico are more like flashes of light than they are memories. Flashes of color. Bits of sound. The fluttering of butterfly wings. Bringing pieces of home back to me.
One day I know that is where I will be.
Isabella Rodriguez is a 22-year-old Mexican American. She is a senior at Baylor University double majoring in Professional Writing and Rhetoric & Film and Digital Media, and minoring in Forensic Science. Isabella is grateful for the opportunity to share her work, and thanks her family and friends for motivating her.
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