I'm Mexican & I Don’t Speak Spanish; Will Mexico Ever Be Home?
The line at immigration is, unsurprisingly, long. When it’s my turn to meet with the officer, I’m relieved that he speaks English. He asks the basics — how long I’ll be in Mexico, the purpose of my trip, etc. — before vaguely pointing to the left.
“Gracias,” I respond with a smile, but the officer has already motioned for the woman behind me to step forward. I guess he’s no longer interested in my life story.
I walk past the duty-free shops and the black-haired women saying “Hola, señorita” in unison. I head toward a long, wide corridor where I see roped-off queues, baggage scanners, and a sea of blue uniforms.
This must be customs.
I follow the herd and wind up in a line with an officer who doesn’t speak English. When I hand her my customs form, she says something in Spanish that I don’t understand. Something about my bag? Another bag? On my form, I list that I have three bags, two of which I’m carrying and the other of which I’ll retrieve at baggage claim. I try to cobble the words together to explain.
I stare blankly at my phone, in a total state of disbelief that I don’t know how to say what I need to say.
“Si…tengo otro bolso que voy a obtener en…baggage claim.”
Shit. How do you say “baggage claim”?
She responds in rapid-fire Spanish and I comprehend nothing. For some reason, I think repeating exactly what I just said will make a difference.
“Tengo otro bolso que voy a obtener…allá,” I say, pointing toward the area behind her.
She spews out more Spanish, none of which registers with my lowly American brain.
“No sé,” I respond, wagging my head. “Lo siento.”
She rolls her eyes and lets me through. A pang of shame slams my gut, and I can’t help but think that I should know how to communicate with her.
I walk through the sliding doors and search for my driver, who I spot right away. He’s holding up a sign with my name in big, bold, all-caps letters: MEKITA RIVAS.
“Hola,” I say, extending my hand. I can’t wait to leave and get as far away from that whole customs ordeal as possible.
He takes the two bags and asks if I have any other luggage.
“Yes, I have another bag that I need to get at baggage claim.”
His eyebrows curl. He looks confused.
“You didn’t get your bag back there?” he asks, looking toward the sliding doors I just walked through.
A wave of realization crashes over me: I was supposed to get my bag before going through customs. That’s what the officer was trying to tell me.
My driver immediately jumps into save-the-day action and asks an officer near the sliding doors if I can retrieve my bag. I pick up bits and pieces of this conversation, namely her asking why I hadn’t picked it up in the first place. He explains that it’s my first time in Mexico City — which is true — and that I didn’t know what to do—embarrassing, but also true. She lets out a sigh that may as well have been an eye roll and tells us to talk to security.
At security, the officer also asks why I didn’t grab my bag to begin with. My driver (again) conveys my ineptitude, and I wonder how many times I’ll have to relay this story before I see my bag again. The officer understands, but he needs my boarding pass to let me through.
The catch? The airline I flew doesn't let you keep your boarding passes, though oddly enough, I’d asked the attendant back in Houston if I could keep this particular boarding pass for my travel journal.
“I can only give you this,” she’d said, ripping off a portion of the pass, leaving “Mexico City” barely legible.
I sift through my purse to locate this sorry excuse for a boarding pass and hand it to the officer.
“Es todo que yo tengo,” I say. “They don’t let you keep the tickets.”
I turn to my driver, who speaks some English, hoping he understands. I don’t think he does.
They keep asking for the ticket (in Spanish) and I keep saying that I don’t have it (in English). I’m trying to open Google Translate because I’m desperately in need of an assist here, but this damn Movistar network is getting me nowhere. I stare blankly at my phone, in a total state of disbelief that I don’t know how to say what I need to say.
If I didn’t speak Spanish, could I really claim myself as Mexican? Was I Mexican if I couldn’t communicate with my own father in his native language?
I never learned Spanish. My Mexican father didn’t teach me. He always said that it was more important that I learn English. Bizarrely (and, to me, unfairly), my older half-brother speaks Spanish. He insists that our father didn’t teach him either, but he was definitely more exposed to the language. He routinely visited Mexico and has closer relationships with our family there.
As I got older and observed my father and brother speaking Spanish, I felt markedly excluded from their conversations. It was lonely, and it remains a source of insecurity.
Have I been robbed of an integral part of my identity? I’m Mexican—and Mexicans speak Spanish. If I didn’t speak Spanish, could I really claim myself as Mexican? Was I Mexican if I couldn’t communicate with my own father in his native language?
My latinidad is constantly in question.
And I’ve tried to learn. I did the whole high school and college thing. I even studied abroad in Spain.
But I’m far from fluent, and I have no confidence while speaking the little Spanish I do know. The words are never natural or organic. They are forced, and I feel like a fraud the entire time.
After a few minutes, the security officer lets me through. I need to leave all my belongings with my driver, he says. I thank him, make my way through the metal detector, and look for carousel 14. It’s at the other end of the hallway, nowhere near the customs lines. I try to cut myself some slack — maybe I wasn’t a complete idiot for missing all of this in the first place. I immediately spot my bag and practically lunge toward it.
Bag safely and finally in tow, I figure I can go back through the security office, reunite with my driver, and be on my merry way.
When I peek my head through the door, the officers look alarmed and gesture at me to go back through the customs line.
I return to the same line with the same officer from before. I can feel her judgement penetrating my skin from 50 feet away. When I get to her, I explain that I’d forgotten my bag.
“Me olvidé mi bolsa y…”
She interrupts my story time.
“Eso es lo que estaba tratando de decirle.”
I nod my head yes, say that I understand, that I’m really very sorry for all this confusion, and can she please let me through again?
She points down the hallway. Apparently now I need to go to the E2 lane. Whatever that means. I stop by the security office again.
“Ella me dice que necesito ir a E2,” I say with an inflection that’s more of a question than a statement. Maybe they will take pity and just let me come back through the office?
They nod their heads in agreement and motion at me to go toward E2.
When you factor in my lackluster Spanish skills, is it any wonder that I question the authenticity of my heritage? I want so badly to belong to Mexico — perhaps in a way that I do not belong to the United States, where I stand out for looking different and exotic.
My father was born in Nuevo Laredo, just on the other side of the Rio Grande. I spent a lot of time in that bordertown as a child. Yellowing photos of me with my abuela and tías indicate that I was deeply loved by this family, even though I grew up a thousand miles away in Nebraska — practically a different universe.
When my grandmother died in the fall of 2002, seeing her on that white hospital bed would be both the last time I saw her and the last time I stepped foot in Mexico. The drug violence in Nuevo Laredo began to escalate the following year in 2003, and my visits to Mexico — to my family — stopped. It’s been nearly 14 years since I’ve seen them.
Sometimes I wonder if Mexico is even real. Had it ever really been a part of my life? The memories I have are so few: homemade tortillas, street dogs, buying chicle at the bodega, kids washing windshields near the border checkpoints.
But that’s it. That’s all that I have of Mexico.
When you factor in my lackluster Spanish skills, is it any wonder that I question the authenticity of my heritage? I want so badly to belong to Mexico — perhaps in a way that I do not belong to the United States, where I stand out for looking different and exotic. I’m asked “What are you?” or “Where are you from?” so much that I should be a little green alien beneath a white light in an Area 51 lab. As if my Mexican baggage weren’t burdensome enough, I’m subjected to having to constantly prove my Americanness.
I approach the officer manning E2 and explain this whole situation in my butchered Spanish. He seems to understand, but he needs my boarding pass and passport to let me through. Of course, you already know that my boarding pass is buried in a trash can somewhere in the Houston airport. As for my passport? That’s conveniently located in my purse, which is with my driver, who is on the other side of these godforsaken sliding doors.
I try to convey all these ridiculous nuances, but I’m 99 percent sure that 100 percent of this is being lost in translation.
I’m now on the verge of a nervous breakdown. No wait, I’m definitely having a nervous breakdown. I can’t feel my limbs. I’m lightheaded. My heart is waltzing in my chest. My eyes sink toward the floor. Streams start spilling down my cheeks.
I don’t know how or if I’m ever getting out of this airport. I’m looking around, searching for the sense of comfort that you’re supposed to get when you reconnect with your roots. Shouldn’t there be a sign somewhere? Maybe something that reassuringly says: “You belong here. You’re safe here. It’s okay. Welcome back.”
It is in this moment that I realize I am of this place—not from this place. I have the skin color and the surname, but without the shared language, Mexico will always be just beyond my reach. I can visit but never belong.
I’m sniffling and wiping away trickling tears when my old friend, Customs Officer Number One, walks over. She — I think — tells the other officer what’s going on. I spot my driver through the sliding glass doors and point toward him.
He has my passport, I tell them.
They retrieve it and I can finally go through.
Image: Kent B. Campbell