Maribel Quezada Smith: Hola Pulso fam, this is Maribel. What does it mean to “be” something, to have an identity? And what is it that gets to decide that identity? Is it our parents, our language, our blood, or the world around us? This can be a complex question for many Latinos. For me, when I was growing up, I was an immigrant to the United States, and I landed in the middle of a very white area where the only two real identities were white or Black. And so I had to assimilate and shed my layer to fit in. When I did that, it made me lose who I really was and it almost cast this shame on my identity because I felt like I couldn’t really be my true self. I had to become somewhat of a chameleon to actually fit in with my peers. And that can have a really devastating effect as you grow older. Today on the podcast, producer Charlie Garcia has a story about one Latina’s journey to find her own authentic identity. This is The Pulso Podcast. Stay with us.

Charlie Garcia: The story starts with Melina Garza in the car on her way to middle school with her uncle and her dad, so excited for the first day of class in the new town her family just moved to. She looks out the window of the car to see giant pine & oak trees for the first time in her life, a completely different landscape from the desert shrubs she grew up with living along the border. They drive right up to the front of the school, walk in through the big glass doors and through the clean beautiful hallways to the office where she is about to get her new class schedule. Melina is so excited to get going, to meet new friends, to start a new life. But as the receptionist walks off to get her papers, her uncle kneels down and looks at her.

Melina Garza: He pulled me to the side and he told me, “Mija, I want you to not forget who you are and where you came from. You’re Mexican and you should be proud of it.”

Charlie Garcia: 11 year old Melina looks back, confused & unsure of what to say. Then her Dad chimes in.

Melina Garza: Yes, but she needs to like hide it. They don’t need to know you’re Mexican. You don’t have to say anything. And I was like, why do I have to hide it? Well, dad knew best. I mean…

Charlie Garcia: Melina doesn’t know it yet, but she’s about to walk into a chapter of her life that will challenge everything she thought she knew about herself and what it means to be Hispanic. 

A chapter where she will have to fight for the right to claim her own Latinidad, and own her identity.

Melina Garza: I grew up in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, affectionately called The Valley. 

Charlie Garcia: Or as her dad describes it,

Melina Garza: So far down south that white people think it’s Mexico.

Charlie Garcia: And she was loving life there.

Melina Garza: I always tell people I have two homes. The one I’m currently in and then, where I was born and raised, grew up with lots of cousins, lots of tias and tios.

Charlie Garcia: And she had a weekly tradition with her Grandparents

Melina Garza: Every Sunday, eat at Diaz Diner. 

Charlie Garcia: What would you eat there?

Melina Garza: Pancakes.

Charlie Garcia: Every time?

Melina Garza: Every now and then I’d switch it up and get some tacos, potatoes.

Charlie Garcia: But mostly pancakes.

Melina Garza: Mostly pancakes, yeah.

Charlie Garcia: Then they would go back to her grandparents house, and while the adults talked, Melina would go on adventures through the attic.

Melina Garza: Finding old, old things like antique stuff from the forties, like an old sewing machine. Bringing something to her and her telling me about it. It was always an adventure. I was always finding new things at grandma’s house. 

Charlie Garcia: Melina and her grandma had a special connection.

Melina Garza: I was always her favorite because I look like her. She’s a badass. She was a poor woman, worked on a ranch, she killed snakes with her bare hands. Like that woman, no one could compare to her. She was always showing me things and teaching me things.

Charlie Garcia: But even though she loved visiting Grandma, sometimes it was hard to understand everything, because Melina couldn’t speak Spanish. So they all had to speak together in Spanglish. And she didn’t speak Spanish because her parents, both from Mexican descent, had made a point to always speak English in the house.

Melina Garza: They wanted to make sure their kids were fluent in English first. They grew up in the generation where if you speak Spanish, you get punished.

Charlie Garcia: Growing up in The Valley wasn’t like being from the US or Mexico, it had its own culture, its own flavor of life, and in some ways, its own language.

Melina Garza: A lot of words I didn’t know in English, cuz you know, we would just switch.

Charlie Garcia: So it’s almost like Spanglish was your native language?

Melina Garza: Yeah, I, I’d say it was

Charlie Garcia: 11 year old Melina was loving life, playing with friends, spending time with her grandparents, and eating lots of pancakes. She had no idea that her life was about to change in a huge way, because all wasn’t well in that little paradise of The Valley.

Melina Garza: Cartel people were moving in and my dad decided it was time for us to move up north and away from the valley because he was terrified. He actually worked as a border patrol agent, so he saw a lot of bad things that the cartel did to people, especially women, young women. So he did not want me there for my safety. This was like the biggest change of my little 10 year old life. I was just kind of excited for the journey. Like I’d never left the valley. But then the reality kind of set in for me, like I’m leaving my friends and I’m not gonna have any family over there and I’m not going to see my grandparents, too.

Charlie Garcia: But there wasn’t much she could do about it, it was happening whether Melina liked it or not. And so, the family moved 10 hours north to Keller, Texas, a suburb in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. They went from a house in The Valley to a little one bedroom apartment, with beige walls and musty carpets. Her parents stayed in the bedroom while Melina slept on a couch in the living room. There were no more hangouts with friends, no more Sunday pancakes with grandma. In just a few weeks, her whole life had changed. And this is how we arrive at Melina walking through the big white halls of her new school on her way to class, after receiving those words of warning from her uncle and her dad. Other than trips across the border, Melina had never been outside of The Valley. She had never been outside of her community before, and now it feels like she’s entering a whole new world.

Melina Garza: The first thing I noticed was how nice all the buildings were. They had fancy projectors and promethean boards. That was my first introduction to being like, oh wow, is this what it’s like to be around people who have money?

Charlie Garcia: And the fancy projectors aren’t the only difference from her school back in The Valley. There’s another big change.

Melina Garza: My class was all white. Like not even any African Americans, no Asians, no Indians. Like it was all white. I was the only one there.

Charlie Garcia: For the first time in her life, she’s all alone. After growing up with children just like here in the valley, she’s all of a sudden “different”. The only minority in a school full of rich, white kids.

Melina Garza: I became a target on the second or third day of class. I felt very singled out. I would cry at night because I felt like no one wanted to be my friend. People were just making fun of me and my accent and like not being able to say certain words.

Charlie Garcia: To say that Melina is having a hard time fitting in would be putting it lightly. It feels like she’s been dropped into a new country where everything’s different, even the language.

Melina Garza: The hardest one was asking some girls for a chongo during PE class. And they were like, what is that? I don’t know. I’m like, it’s a chongo. It’s like, you use it to put your hair up? And they’re like, did you mean a hair tie? I was like, what the hell is a hair tie? I’d never heard that before. So it was kind of like both of us being really confused and like, no, you’re wrong. It’s like, no, you’re wrong. Like what is that?

Charlie Garcia: But the strange thing is, the kids in her class know that she was different, that she looks and speaks differently than them. But since Melina comes from an Indigenous background, people often mistake her for Asian, and her classmates don’t actually know that she’s Mexican. And though she isn’t really hiding it, she still remembers her dad’s warning from the first day of school, and never advertises the fact that she’s Mexican, until one day.

Melina Garza: This one kid in my class was being super racist and I’m like, do you not realize you’re talking to like a Mexican person like right now? And he’s like, you’re not Mexican. You’re Asian, you’re Japanese, or you’re Korean. And I was like what do you mean I’m not Mexican? I know what I am. I’ve always been this. Everyone in my hometown and in my family considered me this.

Charlie Garcia: For the first time in her life, her own identity is being challenged. Imagine how you would feel if you introduced yourself and then someone insisted that you were wrong, that it actually isn’t your name. At first you might fight it, and tell them they’re wrong. But what if others insisted the same? So much of identity, the way we see ourselves is actually gathered by how others see us, what we are in the eyes of the world. And for Melina, something that felt unshakable, her Latinidad, started to tremble. And this only makes her problems worse at school.

Melina Garza: Word started going around since I was like the target. So I was called, uh, beaner, wetback, a lot of Mexican jokes, like, uh, bad ones, racist ones. It was hard.

Charlie Garcia: Did you feel an urge to try and assimilate in some way?

Melina Garza: No, I actually got angry and I kind of wanted to stand out even more. If they’re gonna like, isolate me, then I’m gonna be like, like worth isolating for, I guess .

Charlie Garcia: So she sticks it out, and for the next few years she stands her ground in this new world that’s so different than her. Where, on one hand her heritage is denied, and on the other it’s against her. I can’t help but think of my own highschool experience here growing up in Georgia. I’m half Colombian & half white, I didn’t grow up speaking Spanish or around many other Latinos. So I wasn’t hanging out with the Latino kids at school, but one look at my face and you can tell I’m not white. I remember being called racist names by my friends and trying to play it off like I didn’t care. I remember how I eventually gave up telling them that “I’m not Mexican, I’m Colombian”. I remember the rage I felt the one time someone referred to me as “spic”. I still feel it. One day, sitting in class, Melina has a stroke of luck. The teacher calls a new student up to the front of the room, a student that looks a lot like her. She’s introduced as Ingrid, a new Mexican exchange student. Melina lights up, Finally after years of not fitting in, of being alone and not feeling seen or understood, she’ll have someone like her around, someone will finally get her.

Melina Garza: I was so happy cuz she was in like a good chunk of my classes. So I kind of like warmed up to her. I was like, oh hi, I’m Mexican too.

Charlie Garcia: But Ingrid’s response isn’t what she expects,

Melina Garza: She was like, you’re not Mexican. And I was like, what?

Charlie Garcia: Melina’s shocked, and not sure of how to respond.

Melina Garza: Here’s like the only person that I thought would like understand me and I’d have some kind of common ground with. And she was like, no, you’re not. That made me question really hard. Everything that I was, and it got to a point where I got, you know, embarrassed, I guess. I did the one thing that my tia didn’t want me to do. I was embarrassed that I was Mexican. I mean, was I really Mexican? Like the white people didn’t see me as Mexican. And now, like even this Mexican classmate of mine didn’t see me as Mexican, so I felt like I didn’t belong anywhere.

Charlie Garcia: This leaves Melina even more confused than before.

Melina Garza: I kind of like rejected any Mexican thing. Let’s say I go visit family, I’d exclude myself. Am I even like worthy of being here? Everyone’s telling me that I’m not something I thought I was my whole life.

Charlie Garcia: Time passes, and middle school comes and goes. High School in Keller is more or less the same, but by then Melina’s become a little quieter and learned to attract less attention. To immense relief, she graduates high school and is able to leave that chapter behind. She decides to go to a local university to study but she really isn’t sure what she wants to do with her life. She tries medicine.

Melina Garza: Medical terminology, it was too much for me. So I told my parents that, sorry, you will not have a healthcare daughter. 

Charlie Garcia: She takes a stab at learning to become a teacher.

Melina Garza: I forgot I had such a big problem with authority in high school and I’m like, wait, I’m gonna be the one who’s enforcing those stupid rules. I can’t do that.

Charlie Garcia: So that doesn’t work either. But then something happens that makes her forget about college all together.

Melina Garza: My grandpa died. They had been married for like 65 years and she didn’t know what to do without him. And I went to go live with my grandma.

Charlie Garcia: She decides to take a year off school to take care of her grandma, her favorite person in the world. And for the first time since she was a little girl, Melina is living in The Valley again.

Melina Garza: Thrust back into The Valley, but like without a lot of Spanish. It was like charades cuz I understood what she was saying most of the time, but it was just responding. That was the hard part. So I had to like pull up Google Translate and stuff. And I was just like, I shouldn’t have to do this. I should know Spanish. It’s both of my parent’s first language. It’s my grandma. Like, it’s what she feels comfortable talking in.

Charlie Garcia: Melina makes a decision then and there, that when she goes back to college next semester, she’ll have a new major.

Melina Garza: Spanish translating and interpreting.

Charlie Garcia: Because, she still remembers the words her tio spoke to here on that first day of class.

Melina Garza: Don’t forget who you are and where you came from. Mexico, that’s, that’s where my family is and that’s where they came from. It’s honoring them and my ancestors before them. I want to do good things. I wanna make them proud.

Charlie Garcia: So she dives into learning Spanish head first, and figures out very quickly, that learning a new language is not going to be easy.

Melina Garza: It was pretty hard. The first semester I had one class that was all in Spanish. I was like, what the hell is going on? What are we talking about? My anxiety was like through the roof, cuz like I didn’t understand everything. I was really struggling.

Charlie Garcia: But when it gets hard she always reminds herself of one thing.

Melina Garza: I kept thinking about my grandparents and I’m not a quitter. I don’t just give up. I persevered through so many hardships and so many things. I don’t wanna just bow out just because things are getting a little uncomfortable.

Charlie Garcia: And things do get uncomfortable, not just the studying, but again Melina has to defend her own Latinidad to other students.

Melina Garza: The professor was doing hot button questions. What is someone of Hispanic descent but doesn’t speak Spanish? What is that to you?

Charlie Garcia: One of her classmates responds that a Mexican who doesn’t speak Spanish, isn’t a real Mexican.

Melina Garza: I was like, what? What do you mean? You’re not about to diminish my family and my existence and my identity just because I’m not fluent in Spanish. Like that’s not okay. I was like shouting across the classroom basically. Do you know why they didn’t teach me Spanish? Because they were punished for it, because they struggled and they still struggle. My mom still struggles with English to this day and I’m like, that’s not okay. I shouldn’t have to defend my identity in existence just for you to see me as Hispanic.

Charlie Garcia: Just like she did as a child, Melina refuses to let others tell her who she is. Every day she’s getting more and more fluent. She’s still in School, but already helping Spanish speakers. In the mornings before class she works at Starbucks.

Melina Garza: I’ll ask them, “hablas Español?” and they’re like, “ay gracias” and they’re so thankful and they’re happy. And one of my regulars, he’s Puerto Rica. I told him that I’m Spanish translating interpreting and that I wanna go overseas and I wanna help people. And he told me, you are such a good person, you’re gonna succeed no matter where you go. And I told him, I’m like, oh my god, you’re gonna make me cry. And I did cry because like that was the most validating. He was always so grateful that I helped him out cuz he was struggling with English. I think like we’re family. We are all Latino and we should be helping each other out.

Charlie Garcia: Do you think you would feel the same if you didn’t go through what you went through?

Melina Garza: It’s hard to say. I mean, I don’t think I would’ve understood what other Latinos go through if I had stayed in The Valley. it was a bubble. it did open my eyes as much as it hurt me, I think. I needed it to hurt me to understand more and to appreciate more and try to unite all of us together.

Charlie Garcia: But she never got to speak Spanish with her Grandma.

Melina Garza: Soon after, like I came back home, we found out she had cancer and, she died the summer of the following year. Sometimes it’s like, was it too late? Like my grandpa for example, he spoke no English at all. I wish I could talk to him more than just, you know, the “hola” and “bye grandpa”. I mean, they have stories to tell. So many stories.

Charlie Garcia: But, she does find a way to speak with them still.

Melina Garza: When we go to her grave, on the Dia des muertos I light my candle and I put all of their things out. And I speak Spanish. And I was like my Spanish has gotten so much better since the last time I talked to you. And that’s what I say. And I hope they’re happy and they’re proud of me and I feel like them with me, and I feel the blessings and all the stuff they believed I could do. Like all their aspirations for me.

Charlie Garcia: And sometimes, her Grandma speaks back.

Melina Garza: The first Dia des Muertos after my grandma died, I actually got a sign. I have fairy lights on my curtain. The only way to turn them on is to press a button on the battery pack and it’s behind my TV. After I had prayed to them and offered them empanada de calabaza, their favorite, I came back and the fairy lights were on. They never turn on at all. So I knew that that was a sign from them telling me that they’re proud of me for remembering and honoring them.

Charlie Garcia: Ever since Melina left The Valley as a child, she’d been trying to find herself again, to remember who she was. She learned a new language to connect with her heritage and her family, only to find out that the connection she shares with them was never breakable, because it goes beyond words altogether. And as she continues to study, Melina writes poetry to honor her ancestors. Not in English, or Spanish, but in her native language, Spanglish from The Valley.

Melina Garza: I’m descended from women tougher than steel, hecho en Mexico, built to endure.