I promise the next posts will be lighter but in the meantime here’s another very personal essay (a format which is dying because of its narcissistic premise, don’t believe me? Here’s the New Yorker article about it http://www.newyorker.com/culture/jia-tolentino/the-personal-essay-boom-is-over )
I have spent years considering the universal repercussions of my search for identity. I believe that if I lowered the volume of the world, and strained to listen to my personal explosions the screeching noises in the wind would be those of a weeping child.
That’s as best as I can explain identity and its complexities and how frail and tormented we all (must?) feel in our eternal search for something we seem to carry every day embodied beyond flesh and bone, in the spirit, in the soul. My identity is rooted in several things- my environment, my chemistry, my upbringing, the people that surround me, the books I read, and the music I hear. In this country, it is also my language and my ethnicity. Identity is a complicated thing.
I never fully accepted the weight of otherness until much later. I come from a homogeneous area and culture. In my town you can get away with never learning how to speak English. We all know similar phrases and jokes. You can learn a lot about a region simply by learning its sense of humor. Endless jokes have been made about Hispanic mothers and their re-purposing of plastic containers. Yogurt isn’t always yogurt, and butter isn’t always butter. I’m also pretty sure that making a pool in the back of a pick-up truck with a tarp originated in Brownsville’s Southmost area and I would also firmly lobby so that Yuki’s gets at least one Michelin star for its creativity and the abominations they have made with watermelons. If you have no idea what I’m talking about it’s okay because it proves a point. Being hispanic and from the Valley is a very unique experience and our identities are shaped by this experience.
(look at this, what did this watermelon ever do to you YUKI’s? “Clarisse what did you hear at night? Clarisse?….it was the sound of screaming watermelons.”)
Last week I had the chance to meet and watch live one of my current favorite musicians. Her name is Mitski. Before the concert I terrified her by talking about my penchant for NPR and sounding like I knew too about her. (Also because of my excitement, I may or may not have been yelling everything I was saying) In a perfect world, I would have said something like, “hey I personally identify with a lot of your music. I admire the manner in which you are able to express complex and controversial topics through gorgeous phrases that are sensitive and lyrical.” Instead I yelled out something like, “I LOVE YOUR MUSIC, MY FAVORITE SONG IS…..IS….WHAT IS IT? OH YEAH THE ONE ABOUT AMERICAN GIRL…I DATED SOMEONE AND IT DIDN’T GO SO WELL SO YEAH I REMEMBER IT!!! I LOVE YOU AND YOU’RE SO BEAUTIFUL!!”
I never seem to get this human interaction thing right. Anyway, I wasn’t lying. My favorite song by Mitski is called, Your Best American Girl. The video is below, it’s not for everyone but it means a lot to me, because it reminds me of the first time that I was fully confronted with my struggles in identity.
When I first started college, I was running away from everything. I had and still have a lot of issues and at 19, I was incompetent in how to deal with my feelings of inadequacy in a healthy manner. I was enrolling into a city at least 7 hours away from home and I was so preoccupied with escape that I failed to sit down and evaluate the baggage I was carrying. College was going to be my ultimate salvation.
My friendships at home all seemed conditional and superficial. My personality was always awry, ambiguous and troubled. I had managed through what I thought and still think of as an excellent act of charm and some old school book learnin’ to create some loving friendships and good relationships but they were always at odds with my own interests and experiences (I was a nerd with a large vocabulary and a penchant for heavy topics and existentialism also ..issues). Because of this my connections always felt unreal and I was never truly able to reconcile the factors that made me feel so foreign in a place that I considered home. I thought that once I went to college, all of these feelings would be resolved. I thought that either I would meet people who had similar interests or I would continue on my own being awesome and single-handedly conquering the world (who needs people right?).
Sometime in October of my freshman year, I met someone and we started dating. He was all I ever wanted. He was honest, kind, good-looking, righteous, funny, intelligent. I wanted everything about him. I wanted his loving and sane family. They had problems but his parents were what I aspired to be when I grew up (or got older). I wanted his dogs (trained german shepherds used for law enforcement). Sometimes I wonder if I just wanted to BE him but my desire was definitely to consume him and his life. (Maybe it was jealousy? I don’t know) He was an All-American Boy. I wanted to be everything he wanted as well, and I hated dancing but I allowed him to teach me how to two-step. I never cared for football but I watched games with him, and I’d never willingly listened to country but I learned names and songs. I think we all know how this ends since I’m speaking in past tense. The relationship ended as abruptly as it began. It was a short affair of only three months but I was confronted with many inner demons that had remained untouched while I was still adjusting to my college placebo. It was lonely because the dream evaporated. College would not save me, and people with similar interests would still make me feel foreign. I felt broken but mostly I felt defective. It wasn’t all bad, and it did allow me a chance to meet some beautiful people that helped me go through the misery.
I learned some things from that experience. For the first time I realized how long I’d taken my Valley Hispanic culture for granted. In this new place so far away from home without the environment that had been like air to my lungs, it was difficult to adjust to the new elevations. I don’t regret it, but it did help me understand that here or there, I would always feel a certain amount of foreigness and this is an existence I would have to accept and embrace. I’ve always felt so hopeless about this part of me, because for a long time it made me so eager to please and fit in, despite the aching of my heart or the inner voices that just wanted to escape and be manifested. For the first time, this feeling of alienation didn’t seem as a symptom of an illness that had to be eliminated. Neither my Hispanic Culture had to be sacrificed nor my unique life experiences washed and recycled. Alone in a crowd can be fun if you have the right snacks for it.
Finally I learned that sense of worth is important. You should be happy with who you are, and I learned that this state isn’t always just and easy feeling or a choice but an effect of asking the right questions. Sometimes you have to make the mistakes and push the boundaries and feel the loneliness because there may be no simpler way to understand your own identity. Could it have been simpler? Yes. Do my past experiences gain an enormous and often exaggerated amount of meaning? Yes. In fact, I would not disagree in categorizing myself as a ridiculous individual. However, it’s fine. I’m fine. I’m really okay with this.