Erasing the Mexicans

by Guest Contributor Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez, originally published at Write.Live.Repeat

This photo shows my mother on her wedding day. That’s her, in the middle. Her sister “Sis” is on the left, her sister Janis on the right.

Notice how the sisters exchange a strange look across my nervous, uncertain mom (who was 24 at the time). Knowing my aunts, and the family narrative, I have a feeling I know what that smirk was about. It was a smirk of superiority, for my mother had chosen to marry a short Cuban man who spoke little English – while the sisters themselves had both already married conservative white men.

At holiday gatherings, my mother’s family – which self-identified as “anglo” – often made derogatory comments about “Mexicans,” that being the only group they could readily find to lump my father (and his children) into.

When I was in my teens, my mother’s paternal aunt Gladys researched the Conant family tree (my mother’s maiden name is Conant) and discovered, among other things, that my mom’s father’s grandmother’s maiden name was Marquez, and that she hailed from Anton Chico, New Mexico. Her family, Gladys assured us all, could trace its roots directly to Spain in the 1500s, with a land-grant from the King. She was, in other words, royalty. “She was from the Northern part of Spain,” I often heard my grandmother (who married into the Conant family) say, following up with “they’re blonde-headed up that way.”

Well, this week I began researching our family tree myself, for a memoir I’m working on. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that Barbarita Marquez (listed as “Marcus” on her death certificate in California, ha!) was not exactly as Spanish as the Conants have wanted us all to believe.

Thanks to the wonders of the Internet (and the amazing site ancestry.com) I have indeed traced her family to Spain, to a wealthy young man who came to Santa Fe and married a woman from the San Ildefonso (San Yldefonso on the marriage license) pueblo. That means his wife was Native American. From that point forward, the family tree merges many times with families from Mexico City, Chiapas, and Zacatecas, as well as with “Spanish” families from Northern New Mexico. In other words, my mother’s father was Mexican, whether he liked it or not. To my great delight, I’ve learned this week that I am descended from the best-known “Spanish” clans in New Mexico; I am a Baca, a Duran, a Roybal, an Aragon, a Griego and a Gallego.

I always knew that grandpa Conant grew up speaking Spanish, and I watched him many a summer afternoon as he interacted with the patrons of his small trading post, entirely in Spanish. The family always joked that this was so that he could “protect himself against the Mexicans,” and they often griped that back in the old days the public school teachers in Valencia County only spoke Spanish, so any child wishing for an education had to do likewise. The family often joked about grandpa’s brother Ken who, they said, “was so dark he could pass for Mexican,” and who, as an adult, worked as a CIA operative in Mexico because “he spoke Spanish like a Mexican.”

I now know that it was more than that. My grandfather and his brother were Mexican. It’s just that we live in a patriarchal society, and so their grandfather’s English last name (Conant) is the one they got – enabling the entire future Conant family to deny they had ever been Mexican. Sad, but true.

I, for one, am delighted by this news. It means that I can finally say with confidence that I am Mexican-American. I have always felt that I was, given the family traditions I was raised with on my mom’s side (her “anglo” family ate red chile and biscochitos at Christmas and attended “fiestas” at the local Catholic church, where the services were often given in Spanish, and there were many words my fair-skinned, blue-eyed mother only knew in Spanish.)

Whenever I’d give talks or readings around the country, people would ask me about my Hispanic heritage, and I always felt obligated only to mention my Cuban father, because everyone (including the US census) thought of my mother as “white, non-Hispanic,” but now I know the truth. She is every bit as Hispanic as my dad. She physically resembles her Irish mother more than her darker Mexican-Anglo dad, but her sisters are quite dark. I always though my aunts resembled the Hispanic women in New Mexico much more than the “anglos,” but God forbid you tell them so. Now I know the truth.

I believe that the Conants did what many “anglo” families have done in the Southwest, erasing the Mexicans. (Many Hispanic families in New Mexico do this, too, by the way.)

While my original memoir was going to be about my relationship with my troubled mother when I was a teenager, I am shifting focus now. I think I’d rather write about how the Conants erased their Mexican heritage, and link this to a general pattern of families doing this in the Southwest. It is crucial, given the drumbeat of hatred against Mexicans in the US at this time, to remind Americans that most of us with roots in the West are Mexican, whether we admit it or not.

I liken the Conant erasure of our Mexican ancestors to the tendency in white Southern families to erase their African and Native American ancestors.

I’ve submitted a proposal to do an in-depth magazine piece about the Conant’s Mexican line for Albuquerque magazine. I will then submit that as a book proposal for “Erasing the Mexicans.”

How about it, guys? Do any of you have similar stories?

Proudly Chicana (and a whole mess of other things) at last,

Alisa