I watched my grandfather lie peacefully in a mahogany casket as they lowered him slowly into a burial plot. His casket was filled with objects that mattered the most to him: his cowboy boots, hat, a Mexican flag and photos of his grandchildren. He was a man who loved his culture more that anyone I have ever known.

My Wayfarer sunglasses blocked my eyes from the sun but they couldn’t block the stream of tears that flowed down my face. In that moment, I knew I had lost the most prideful man I had ever know and I wished I could be like him some day.

Sergio Portela poses for a portrait at Balmy Alley in the Mission District on Tuesday April 14. (Marlene Sanchez / Xpress)
Sergio Portela poses for a portrait at Balmy Alley in the Mission District on Tuesday April 14. (Marlene Sanchez / Xpress)

I feel like I have never possessed the same pride my grandfather held for his culture. Instead, I have been running away from my Mexican heritage for as long as I can remember, mostly because of the stigmas surrounding it. In my experience, Mexican-Americans are either stereotyped as gang members or undocumented immigrants. At least, that is how I have seen it portrayed in the media. My entire life, I have been trying to stay away from conforming to these stereotypes, but now I am not sure I have much of a culture to pass on to my future children as a result.

Growing up, my parents did not teach me much about my heritage. They even avoided teaching me Spanish, something that I believe could have given me some pride in my ancestry. Spanish is so important to the Mexican culture, it is how we are supposed to communicate. When my inability to speak Spanish surfaces in conversations, some people call me a “Mexican’t” or “Non-Mexican.”

But at the end of the day, the thing that bothers me the most is knowing I will never be able to have a conversation with my grandmother and tell her how much she means to me without having a translator.

I do not blame my parents for my inability to speak Spanish. They have assimilated into an American culture, especially my mother. Growing up she lived in a rural area in Sacramento where she was always picked on for being different, so she changed to fit in with her peers. My mother’ sense of heritage is like the Mission District, an area once proud and full of culture that has been slowly stripped of the culture that once made it special.

I am not as prideful about my heritage as my grandfather was but I want to be. I would love to be able to say to my child,”Mijo or Mija, this is what being an Mexican-American is all about,” and truly know the meaning of my words. To do that, I need to learn Spanish and sit down with my grandmother to absorb all that I can of the knowledge of my culture. Then I would have something worth sharing with my future children. I do not want to leave my culture by the wayside anymore, I want to be proud of it.

2 thoughts on “Cultural stigmas should not steer you away from heritage”

  1. Mijo, you want to learn Spanish, go learn it! I didn’t know a word of Spanish before my 40s. It’s a myth unique to America that it’s impossible to learn multiple languages and be able to actually use them. Learning languages is a normal human activity that people in every culture have achieved throughout human history.

    What you have to do is go to a class, but then study 3 times harder than everyone else. Everyone else studies well enough to get a B on a test. You have to drill and memorize every word and every grammar construction so well that you can actually use it without thinking. Tape index cards to household objects and repeat the words over and over. Get a picture dictionary and learn a page a day. Google Spanish verbs and you’ll find sites where you can drill yourself on verbs until you can say the different forms automatically. Also, make friends and talk to native speakers, especially your abuelita!

    There will always be haters, but you should never allow their negative attitude to define you or deflect you from your purpose. The next time some tipo tries to call you a “Mexican’t,” ask them what they’re trying to do to improve themselves. Probably nothing, because people who get their rocks off on hating are already satisfied with their lazy self.

    So, embrace a little short and medium-term discomfort, and ¡ponte a estudiar!

  2. Wow. Some story for me brother. Excellent article. This article was cathartic for me and motivated me to pick up where I left off with Spanish. Excellently worded

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