I was four years old in 1992, walking the few blocks from my house to my nearby preschool on the edges of Chicago, hand in hand with my older sister. My abuela usually walked us to school, but some mornings, my 16-year-old sister would be given the task on her own. On those days, I’d catch a glimpse of my sister’s beauty routine, a scramble which would often include using a can of green spray paint she’d nicked from her job as a flower shop girl to dye chunks of her waist-length black mane an eerie shade of emerald. Using a mixture of black eyeliner and dark shade of Revlon red, she used her fingers to create a close approximation of pure-black lips. An oversized plaid shirt from Goodwill and a pair of ancient Doc Martens would complete the look, as would the ritual yelling match between her and my mother about what was appropriate for a young lady to wear to school.
I remember these mornings with piercing clarity. Taking a cue from my sister's musical preferences I’d sing at the top of my lungs. When I’m walkin’ I strut my stuff and I’m so strung out, I'd screech, straining my tiny vocal chords to mimic Violent Femmes’ lead singer Gordon Gano’s haunting wail. I neither knew what the rest of the song’s lyrics meant nor the fact that at four years old it was probably not a great idea to sing down the block, at full volume, a song about a boy high on heroin, desperate for girls. But even then, I knew that sometimes it just felt good to scream.
My sister and other siblings had paved the way, and by the time it was my turn to push up against my tightly wound, very Mexican, very Catholic upbringing, my parents probably felt like they'd seen it all. But then, something major changed. Sometime between my middle school and high school years, my parents decided that our neighborhood was becoming increasingly plagued by gun violence — one of the reasons that they'd left Mexico in the '70s. So, like many parents in their situation, they decided to move us to the suburbs.
Once we left the city, I got my first taste of the isolation of being a person of color in predominantly white spaces. Until that point, I’d lived in a universe that, despite being in Chicago, was largely Latinx. In the suburbs, surrounded by white people, my own race felt stark: Almost every aspect of my appearance was outside of the norm.
As I was figuring out how to navigate this new environment, I was also coping with the maddening push and pull of being a first-generation American with parents whose relationship with American culture was tenuous at best. All of that came to a glaring head in the suburbs. At school, I was a “city kid,” tainted with whatever real or imagined violence I experienced and that they assumed I’d bring to their lily white town. At home, I was expected to be grateful for the largely suburban oasis we’d escaped to and the access to opportunity it would provide. It was a tightrope act of Cirque du Soleil proportions and my center of gravity left something to be desired.
So, I did what any 15-year-old with a healthy chip on her shoulder who was being pulled apart by expectations would do. Just like I'd done all those years ago with my sister, I found my inner punk and screamed.
At home, my performance was one of the perfect Mexican daughter: studious, responsible, meek. Still, no matter how hard I tried, my quickly-browning indigenous skin and ever-growing bust strained against a culture that said I needed to be tall and lithe and fair in order to be beautiful. Como las de las telenovelas.
Outside of my parents purview, though, I wanted to be Kathleen Hannah. I wanted to be Patti Smith. Hell, I wanted to be Karen O. I wanted to be sickly pale, rail thin with slick black hair and kohl-rimmed eyes and I wanted the world to see how pissed off I was. More than anything though, I wanted to fit in with the misfits. Along the way, in some ironic, thoroughly un-punk plot twist, I sold out. I straightened the curls from my thick hair, avoided the sun at all costs, ate little to nothing, and adopted a rotating selection of black band tees and jeans to go with my Chuck Taylors.
Perfect Mexican daughter or perfectly pissed off punk, it took me years to realize what was really going on in my head. What I really wanted, in one way or another, was to blend into this alien, white culture. Some role, any role, that would make sense in this Midwestern suburban expanse, even on its outskirts. Ultimately, in trying to be both, I got neither version of myself quite "right."
Somewhere between being the girl who snuck out of her parents house to take a train and bus to the Arlington Heights Knights of Columbus, where some kids collectively called Fall Out Boy were playing a sweaty basement show, and my current life as a slightly-more-responsible writer, I’ve realized that all of it, the masks we wear, the identities we try on and leave behind when they don’t suit us, inextricably become part of us anyway.
Over the years I learned about colonialism, the forces at play in Mexico and in America that made my indigenous features less than desirable to some. I learned about punk culture, its winding and shapeshifting forms, its in-flux relationship with race and gender. I've found that there's beauty in both aspects of my life, my interests, my style, and my aesthetics in a world that so desperately tries to force Latinx people into rigid boxes. This blending of cultures is as much who I was, as who I’d inevitably become. At the cusp of my 30th year, with a pierced nose and tattoos that my mother still hates, there’s a four-year-old and a 15-year-old inside telling me that I’ll only stop wearing black when they make a darker color.