When I was young, maybe nine or ten years old, I wore a purple t-shirt that had a muscle-bound guy wearing a “wife-beater” and blue bandana over his head. He had his fist raised to the sky and behind him were two flags: one American, the other Mexican. Underneath the tough-looking guy were the words “Chicano Power.
I remember one kid, Craig Vigil, who really enjoyed that shirt. He mocked me and laughed every single time he so much as had a little thought about it. I was embarrassed to wear that shirt. It made me wonder about why he would laugh at that shirt. At home, my dad told me that we were “Chicanos.” I thought everybody would think I was cool because of my T-shirt. Instead, Craig gathered what seemed like a mob to laugh and tease me because of my shirt.
What was worse was that I was the only kid in the bilingual education class who could actually speak Spanish. In those days, bilingual meant that kids would learn how to speak Spanish at school because, for whatever reason, they didn’t learn to speak it at home. But, the ability to speak Spanish made me different. It was almost like I was a foreigner, someone from another planet. And to have to hear kids teasing me about my Chicano Power t-shirt only made me want to rip it apart and forget that I ever learned to speak Spanish.
Of course, I eventually grew out of my t-shirt and got over all the teasing and taunting. But I never outgrew or got over the desire to learn about where I came from and why my dad implored me to “Habla le en Mejicano,” while my maternal great-grandmother wanted me to speak “En Espanol.”
It wasn’t a big deal to anyone else, but I was obsessed with the difference between the two ways to ask me to speak Spanish. My great-grandmother had blue eyes and very light skin. My dad was dark, almost the color of the deep red caliche that was nearly impossible to break through without a backhoe. It was clear that their thoughts of how they labeled the language of my home reflected the very way that they saw themselves. My Gandma was Spanish, while my father was Mexican-American.
These distinctions didn’t become clear to me until college. Though I read Bless Me Ultima and Heart of Aztlan in high school, the politics they contained didn’t grow on me until college.
I took a class called Chicano Literature that brought everything into focus for me. Everything that we read and studied mirrored the life I had lived. Books by Rudolpho Anaya, Richard Rodriguez, and Jimmy Santiago Baca told stories that I lived through. They were real to me; all the characters were me and I was doing all the things that the characters in the stories did. But by far it was a concept that kept recurring that has forged any success that I’ve had in my life. It was the concept of Aztlan– The Chicano Homeland that has made me who I am and it’s something that has carried me in every thing I’ve ever done. It is truly, the secret of anything I’ve achieved.
There’s not one living, breathing person who doesn’t have something inside themselves similar to what I carry. The trick for all of us is to find that source inside of ourselves.