A piece I wrote for the October issue Brooklyn & Boyle, a local Boyle Heights arts monthly.
“You don’t look like you’re Salvadoran” and “You don’t sound like you’re Salvadoran” were two things I heard all the time while growing up. In fact, I still hear them as an adult. Usually this is followed by, “Mmmmm! I love pupusas!” As if all Salvadorans enjoy the delicious pancake-like-meat-and-cheese-stuffed dish – we do. But really, what does a Salvadoran look like? And what does a Salvadoran sound like?
For what seems to have been most of my life, I have been the only Salvadoran on my block in East Los Angeles. I was the only Salvadoran in my elementary school class, and later met the other Salvadoran kid in Boyle Heights while doing time at Roosevelt High School. We formed the “Yes, We Are Salvadoran, Live In East L.A And Not Pico Union Club.”
My childhood was complicated. While attending Harrison Elementary, I was forced to learn the Jarabe Tapatio for Cinco de Mayo celebrations, my mother rushed to El Mercadito and bought me a fabulous red, white and green dress (which by the way, is also the typical dress for Dia de la Virgen celebrations in El Salvador). I liked it so much, I joined Folklorico under the direction of Mr. Palafox. I was so incredibly amazing, and tall, they dressed me as a boy. Since I had picked up on the violin in the 3rd grade, by the time I reached El Sereno Middle School, I joined Mr. Martinez’ Mariachi class. To my astonishment, most of the violin players were Asian. So, our mind-blowing and spectacularly talented Mariachi group was made up of 3 Mexicans, 4 Asians and a Salvadoran. We SO would have won “America’s Got Talent.” In high school, I tried to join MEChA. The club president, who was sporting the latest in Ché couture, asked me where I was from – a question that growing up in East L.A – I had tried to avoid all my life. I quickly realized she was asking what state of Mexico I, or my parents were from. I told her I was born in El Salvador, which unbeknown to me, meant I was not allowed to be part of MEChA. Aztlan apparently imposed borders on Central America. We didn’t cross the border! The border – oh you know the rest.
As mentioned, life was complicated. I unconsciously avoided the realities of growing up Salvadoran in East L.A. My parents, are both Salvadoran, but sadly, I lost my father to the Salvadoran Civil War in the 80’s. My mother came to the states, remarried, and I grew up with a very loving step-dad, whom I have known all my life, as my father. He’s from the great state of Zacatecas, Mexico. Naturally, I grew up culturally Mexican. Holidays consisted of Perez Prado, Celia Cruz, La Sonora Dinamita, tamales wrapped in banana leaf and my dad’s Mexican and delicious arroz con leche mixed in with some banda music and my Tio’s Roger & Zapp. But this was my private world – the secrets of my heart, that as a child, I didn’t know meant that I was different.
Confused and full of rage, I bemoaned all things Chicanismo while at ELAC. More Ché-loving-chancla-wearers? Are you kidding? Hells nah! Then, the most incredible and amazing thing happened. I transferred to CSULA and met la profesora Dionne Espinoza. Caught up in the magical world of “This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color,” I felt my life lift into a sphere of consciousness I had never known. Who was this Gloria Anzaldua woman? Cherrie Moraga? Ana Castillo? What was this about Gender studies? And what was that about Women’s Lib? Liberal, Socialist, Marxist, Radical, first, second, third wave feminism?! What?! ¡Qué?! Lowered cased bell hooks?! La Raza Cosmica what?! And wait for it… yes, I was…[dramatic pause]… the new mestiza! Undefined by man made imposed borders and divisions, calling for a deeper understanding of the complexities of culture, identity and experiences – ladies and gentlemen, sound the alarms, I had arrived! Take THAT 1995 RHS MEChA club president! Say hello to my little friend know as ¡Concientización! The building of a Chican@/Latin@ transnational diaspora! We have the technology – better, stronger, faster, more radical! In fact, so much more, it will be Xicana with an “X”!
So – to answer the questions, what exactly does a Salvadoran sound like or look like? Well, let’s just say that we put Tapatio on one taco at a time, just like you, and we may add a “voz” and a “puchica” here and there. We may even purposely confuse you by calling a jacket a “chumpa” instead of a “chaqueta” – which by the way, is not ever real Spanish, you Pochos. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter, because if we took a trip to Arizona to see the giant hole in the ground other wise known as the Grand Canyon, we’re all Mexican anyways.