Reading the title of my article, many will assume I’m one of those people who don’t care about their roots, trying to hide their Mexican descent or pretend that they don’t belong to a country. I’m not. I am and have always been proud to be Mexican. I was born and raised in Mexico and have had the opportunity to come back to my country. But it’s my return to my own country that has been one of the hardest experiences I’ve ever had as I’ve tried to deal with feeling neither here nor there.
My story began when I decided to move to Germany after returning from visiting several countries in Europe and being fascinated by European culture, the history of the Second World War and, I can’t deny, European men.
Contrary to what many might think, I did have some culture shock at first. There were so many things I had to learn, so many rules and laws to be followed: The right way to push a child in a stroller! How to separate my empty pack of cigarettes and throw it into 4 different types of trash cans! There were a lot of things that scared me rather than making me laugh at how different they were to me and with time I started to reflect on it.
What I missed most at that time was the spontaneity between family and friends, that spontaneity that is so identifiably Mexican, like dropping by at someone’s house without calling ahead or being invited. And another thing I couldn’t stop missing was food. Stopping for tacos pastor after dancing at a club or going to a Mexican Sunday barbeque, I missed the flavors of home every day.
Long story short, I ended up in Switzerland, one of the most developed countries in the world with even more rules. My previously admitted fascination with European men and a great job led me to stay in Switzerland for almost 15 years. My first few months there were difficult for me because I felt like I had to show everyone that they had the wrong idea about Mexicans. I had to listen to comments like “Here we do things now, not later”, “The laws are really respected here”, “Here we do things right the first time”, etc... I won’t lie, those comments were hurtful and they made me question what being Mexican really means.
I think that I was trying to shut them up, to make them forget about all those clichés about Mexicans, and to integrate that made me start to change. But I never denied my faith, I was the loudest to cheer for the Mexican national team and proudly wear the team jersey (even though I actually hate soccer), I got annoyed when I was served “Mexican” food and was given one of those hard taco shells, and I felt proud when people told be they’d been to Mexico and loved it.
But yes, I admit it, I changed. But I didn’t change who I am or my roots, I changed my way of doing things and became successful at work, and those around me respected that I was responsible and it helped me to be accepted in society. One of the European attitudes that bothered me most at first was their indifference to others, sometimes felt that if I dropped dead on the subway people would just ignore it and step over me, but I learned that (and I'm exaggerating a little about the dropping dead) far from being indifferent, they are respectful of others and of the ideas of every person, but I never really realized this until I returned to my country.
This change in my behavior, respecting rules and respecting the opinions and ideas of others, I believe is the reason why it’s been hard for me to feel Mexican back in my own country again.
I struggled when I came back to Mexico in a way I never struggled when I was abroad. I had a reverse culture shock. Why? Well, being back in Puerto Vallarta, a tourist destination, the fact that I’m fair-skinned made me feel more foreign than ever. Everyone spoke in English to me, trying to sell me a tour or a timeshare and people were amazed when I answered in Spanish "I'm Mexican." People didn’t believe me because they thought I was a "gringa". I got laughed at when I would return my shopping cart instead of just abandoning it in the parking lot. I can’t even count the number of times I had to hear “You’re not Mexican” listing off my responsible behavior as proof. Had I lost my Mexican identity by being respectful and responsible? Had I ceased to be Mexican because I was obeying traffic laws and not littering on the streets?
Another reason I found it so difficult to come back to my own country is because we suffer from jealousy and envy that prevent us from learning from other people and other countries. So many times I’ve been told how I had it so “easy” because I lived overseas, and I can assure you, nothing is easy. I can count the number of people who’ve asked about my experiences abroad on one hand and I find that very sad. I think the day that we can be happy for the success of others is the day that we’ll finally start to grow as a nation.
I was surprised too, to come back as see that we hadn’t changed. Maybe we’ve advanced as a country and economy, but we’re still the same. That attitude of “I’m going to get you before you get me”, being dishonest in our businesses, not accepting other’s ideology, disregarding the traffic rules, parking in the handicapped parking spaces….
But not everything is negative, Mexico’s younger generation fills me with hope and inspires me to trust that change can happen because they are fighting against corruption and those old attitudes... I hope we can see this generation as an example and once and for all accept that a country does not change because of its government, it changes because of its people, it changes with respect and responsibility.
I’m trying to feel Mexican again, I have eaten everything I missed for 15 years (and gained 10 kilos doing it), I reread books by Mexican authors, I am staying current and involved in Mexican news, etc... But I want to hold on to those values that I learned abroad and find a way to fit them into feeling “here”.
Written by Gabriela Escandon for Caras de Mexico. Click here to read more articles examining Mexican identity.