Thursday, September 27, 2007

Cultural Heritage

For the longest time, people have asked me if I was Hispanic. In high school my Spanish teacher, who happened to be from the Dominican Republic, asked me if I had any Spanish blood in me. Though my genealogy extends to nearly every other country in Europe, I can claim no Spanish ancestry. I am more Italian than anything else with Slovakian coming in at second. I am very proud of my background, though I don't flaunt it. At first, I didn't mind the misconception; it seemed a reasonable guess. I do have relatively dark skin and I suppose my goatee might, in some minds, appear a little Latin. When this trend continued into college and my coworkers would follow up off-color remarks with some variation of “Oh, you're not, are you...” I started to get annoyed.
I spent the last semester abroad in Spain and was eager to test Spanish perceptions about my heritage. I told one of the native students that in the States I had been mistaken as Spanish before and asked him if he saw any resemblance. He replied in the negative and my hopes rose until he said that I might pass as South American or Mexican. Not even close. I shook my head and left it at that, resigning myself to a life of cultural ambiguity. I had grown tired of explaining to people that I was Italian. Mostly Italian, at least. My family is very important to me and their history is a part of who I am. It was very disheartening to learn that so much of my being was not visible on the surface.
While abroad, I spent a few days in Rome, visiting friends. My first night there, they invited me to have dinner with their host mother. We spent the bus ride going over key Italian phrases such as “Hello,” “Nice to meet you,” and “This is delicious”. As we sat around the dinner table, my hostess took a long look at me and said something that I could not follow to my friend. Then she turned back to me and asked, in passable English, “You look Italian. Are you?” Finally. Recognition. And from an actual Italian at that. That was, without a doubt, one of my happiest moments abroad. My heritage had finally been recognized and appreciated.
In Borderland/La Frontera, Gloria Anzaldúa seems to be struggling with her own cultural identity as well. Though she does, admittedly, have much more serious issues to deal with than I ever have. Her identity crisis extends beyond confronting her Mexican heritage to concerns with gender and sexual inclination.
She is part of a culture that has suffered from the destructive influence of European settlers that has destroyed and reconfigured it to better suit their own needs. From the initial division between native Mexicans and Chicanos, the generations of mixed Mexican and Spanish blood, families were later torn apart through the political borders that were soon to follow. Anzaldúa describes the new nation as the spreading of a terrible wound, saying, “And before a scab forms it hemorrhages again, the lifeblood of two worlds merging to form a third country- a border culture”(25). It is incredible to think that those who reside on either side of the Mexican border have become so estranged from both countries that they have formed their own society, one that involves a constant movement from one side to the other.
Within the realm of her background, Anzaldúa is still estranged. Her familial traditions have repressed the role of women for generations. Anzaldúa's natural aversion to doing chores for her male relatives in favor of studying and bettering herself was not appreciated in her family. Beyond this problem, is the fact that she is homosexual and her culture, like many others, seek to trod those tendencies into the dirt. Her confusion and rebellion are reflected perfectly in her writing, incorporating poems into the prose and slipping easily between Spanish and English. Though this form is initially off putting to the reader it emphasizes her own feelings of displacement and is ultimately reasonably understood.
As hard as it is to believe, Borderland/La Frontera follows fairly closely with the Pacific Island texts we have been reading in class. There is an overarching theme of family and loyalty that bridges the gap nicely. Distinct images are even shared between this book and The Whale Rider. For instance, Anzaldúa describes “an ancient Indian tradition of burning the umbilical cord of an infant girl under the house so she will never stray from it and her domestic role”(58). The Whale Rider includes a similar tradition of bonding a baby girl to her family soil by burying the umbilical cord.

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