Preface: “My Spine”
From Power Lines.
Aimee Carrillo Rowe
July 26, 2004
I hate that question. Squirm when people ask me. Even when I ask myself. The question I must ask because if I turn from it, it tracks me down in the fading light of dusk. Brown, white. Who am I between all these worlds?
Who am I and why am I writing this book?
Who are you when your ancestors have convinced the world of their whiteness?
I come from such a long line of vendidas that somewhere along the way someone forgot what, or whom, was being bought and sold. Not the kind of forgetting where something is just not important enough to remember, so it slips your mind. This kind of forgetting is more active, even strategic. It is the kind of forgetting that comes from knowing more about what you are trying to become than who you are leaving behind. Its power is that it comes with a wage, a wage that compels you to devalue what’s lost. Because you believe that you need to belong to a certain kind of future. The wages of whiteness: economic, cultural, and psychological well-being.
The privilege of belonging to this future comes at the price of betrayal to that past. It is the kind of forgetting you do to recover from trauma, memories too painful or shameful to be of value, so you push them away. It’s the kind of forgetting not remedied by little interventions—string on your finger, post-it on the refrigerator, note pinned to your chest.
To remedy this kind of forgetting, you have to drop into the worst of the wound. In among the blood and tissue and debris, reckoning with a body misshapen and contorted by the messy work of forgetting. You drop into the worst of the wound and you listen.
What can be bought can also be returned, rejected. Found by the buyer to be inadequate to the task for which it was purchased. There, in the worst of the wound, la vendida becomes la devuelta.
* * *
The only light we need is the midmorning sun coming through the glass doors, hitting golden walls. Andrea’s is the kind of place where the more you look, the more you see: small Aztec figurine pipes arranged in a semi-circle, photos of her with her husband and their child, driftwood piled up in the corner, a poster of a brown woman sitting up high in a tree looking at the crescent moon. It smells like cornmeal, cheese, and chile, hot and smoky and brick red.
Her nieces and nephew and daughter are doing their own thing, occasionally popping up among the adults. On the CD Lila Downs is singing that refrain, “Y la justicia, sale sabrando.” Andrea’s mom, Toni, is showing my mom how to spread the masa over the soft corn husk with the back of a spoon. This is the kind of thing Toni knows from growing up in a Mexican community in “East-Los.” So different from my mom’s childhood, most of it spent in Catholic boarding school since her parents were so busy. They made lots of money in the vegetable business. As I see it, Toni’s teaching my mom what is her birthright, but that has been lost to her. Such small joys. Women joining to make a meal. Andrea and I are already smearing masa. We like to do it with our hands.
When I come home, Andrea plans these tamale parties. We’ve been best friends for 27 years now, since she was 11 and moved in up the street. It was summer then and I tried to convince her I was an alien. “See my blue skin?” I twisted toward her, lifting my shirt to show my bathing suit stomach. When she tells this story she says she thought I was weird, but she liked it.
I learn to be Mexican from Toni, Andrea’s mom. And others, too. Aunt Mati, from Mexico City, and Uncle Eddie, who went there to find her. Annetta, who became a world-class baton twirler. And my mom, too, but I don’t think she knows it. But with Toni it’s different. Maybe it’s because of her awareness of ancestry. Maybe it’s because I spent so much time in her house when I was 13 and 17 and 33 and all the years in between. Slumber parties with MTV all night, mornings with coffee and danishes, scrambled eggs and bacon. Toni sits in her Mexican identity like she is resting into a well-worn sofa. I see it in her daily visits to her aging mother, the ease with which she slips into Spanish, how she knows all the Mexican films, music, and plays, how she laughs every time the grandchildren put the whoopee cushion under her butt. Maybe it’s because with Toni it’s assumed that being Mexican is a good thing, a source of pride.
It’s not so much that she and I talk about all of this. It’s more the way I can call her if I need a recipe. It’s more the gifts that she gives me every Christmas: one year it’s the twisting ancestry of a Mexican family tree in Rain of Gold; then it’s the hand-carved wooden serving spoons. This year a ceramic tile of the indigenous symbol for the rain-cross, an image local to the desert region of our hometown. Here we know the importance of praying for rain. I see in Toni what would be lost to me otherwise. I don’t know if she knows it, but she helps me hear the rhythm of what my people have learned to forget.
Here at the tamale party we’re all gathered together. I like when my mom and I hang out with Andrea and Toni. My secret hope is that my mom will hear this rhythm, too, and remember.
This is the first Christmas since my dad’s passing. My girlfriend and I are home to keep my mom moving through the holidays. She likes to keep her life so full of love and distraction that she doesn’t have time to mourn—her friends stop by, she delivers communion to people who can’t get to mass, she has band rehearsal. We’ve brought her here because of the particular warmth of this dining room. Because as soon as you step into this house, your rhythm slows down. No one has deadlines. No one is afraid they won't get enough. No one is worried about what the neighbors might think. Andrea yells at anyone passing too fast in a car, “SLOW DOWN!” Usually they don’t, but I do. And my mom is slowing, too. I think she’s slowing, or is that just what I want to think?
She’s telling this story:
“We were flying standby on military flights for our honeymoon.” Her soft golden hands are pulling masa across a husk as she speaks. “And we kept not getting on. So we ended up staying in Alabama long enough that we had to do laundry.”
I love these stories. They help me to re-member myself, as if I am weaving a tapestry of memory from these bits and pieces that are her words. I lean toward her as I reach for another corn husk. I’ve never heard this one, but there’s a familiar rhythm to my mom’s stories.
“There’s a sign on the door to the Laundromat that says, ‘whites only.’ I say, ‘Frank, I can’t go in there!’” She’s performing herself, looking at us with wide eyes.
My stomach is tight. She is telling a story about race, that’s what’s different. Is she signifying her color here and now? My breath gets shallow and I am looking, listening.
“And Frank says, ‘Why not?’” she’s working toward the punch line. “And I say, ‘because I have colored things in here!’”
She sits back from the table. She knows how to get people to laugh. But she’s missed this time. The air is too still. The punch line lies flat in the middle of the table and no one is moving to pick it up. She has spent all these years making white people laugh.
Dream: I’m walking down a road past homes, large, but not ostentacious. I am looking at the beach, which I can see through an empty lot, when I notice two white men sitting there on beach chairs, chatting and sharing a drink as if they were on their own patio, not in the middle of an empty lot.
I think it is a beautiful piece of land. I imagine it would be perfect for the “commune” my friends and I are always hoping to build one day. There is a river on one side, the Pacific on the other.
Jumping the river, I greet the men with a smile, fully aware that I am stepping into their space. “Nice piece of property! Are you gonna build a house here?” They are doing it as they can afford to, they tell me. A little at a time. I wonder how much the land cost and if there is more.
I walk toward the water, toward a woman silhouetted by its reflection. I notice her hair, how it touches the small of her brown back, how it is black until her shoulder blades, then it fades to burnt orange. I am greeting her in Spanish. The beach is quiet, except for the waves crashing close to the ocean’s edge, pounding the line between water and earth. The setting sun turns the water gold. Buenas tardes, I say to her.
“Don’t speak to me in Spanish,” she replies over her shoulder, turning her head enough that I can see her profile. But I do: disculpame... I am caught off guard by her refusal to be Mexican together, so I don’t have the presence of mind to correct myself. She says it again, sharply, “Do not speak to me in Spanish!”
Something on the water’s edge pulls my attention from her. I bend to pick it up. I look at what I am holding: a money clip stuffed with US dollars and a passport. It’s my passport.
Waking from the dream, I feel humbled. Making coffee, I replay these images over in my mind. The black roots of her hair, the white men on their plot of land, my passport. In her bleached hair, I see my mom’s vigilance about staying white, covering her neck with hats and scarves to keep the sun off. How they both turn away from the language that would mark them. I feel the same frustration with both of them for resisting these marks, for rejecting the overtures I think should unite us.
But who am I to insist on marking them when they want to be free? Who am I to judge what they have done for their own survival? Why is my waking filled with such arrogance?
And even now I’m wondering, who am I to signify my mom in this way? Why do I tell you these stories, and not the other ones? How we drove cross-country together talking about all these hard things: sexuality, race, our family, how my choices to be different scare her? How the two of us ride waves together in the ocean when I come home? How her she wears that funny bathing cap, how I can’t stop laughing when I see it bobbing in white wash?
How I would do anything for her?
Who am I and why am I writing this book?
I am Aimee Carrillo Rowe. A queer woman of Mexican, Anglo, and Franco decent, raised in a middle-class military family in Southern California. That land, my mom’s people love to tell me, was once ours. “Now I have to pay to park on this land,” Papa would say of Malibu, Santa Mónica. The Marquez ancestors from Jalisco are the ones on the Mexican land grant (though for years our family said, “Spanish land grant” with the pride of kings). Eusebio Carrillo, probably from Guadalajara. Three Eusebio Carrillos came north to what is now California at that time.
I know lots of Mexicans who will say, “We’re Spanish.” Refer to the red-headed grandmother, cherish the light-skinned baby. Anything to move us further from the face of our own conquered truth. You don’t really believe them, but you say it to save a certain kind of face: “Yeah, you're Spanish. Yeah, look at that beautiful güera baby!” You know the story and the shame that drives it.
What does it mean to cross color line? To try to lose that accent, color, name. To work with diligence to perform the unaccent, the uncolor, the unmarked self, the unself. Some days, these performances are enough—for an hour, a day, a lifetime. Sometimes it’s enough for generations to come. In the visual landscape of mainstream culture it appears that many ethnic whites have crossed. Many Irish have done it. And Russians, Italians, even Jews—for the most part. Or perhaps for as long as they let you.
But the Mexican case is more conflicted, complicated by how color changes across our mestiza bodies, by how we were here first, by the Chicano movement, which offered us an alternative: brown pride.
Pride was something that came after my mom. Brown pride was something that came after my mom married my dad, Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Frank A. Rowe. The night they met, he led her to the window for a look at his red ragtop Porsche. “What a turn off!” she always says when she tells the story. He pursued her for five years, even ate olives from between her toes in a fancy bar. She married him anyway. She married him and was transformed. She would never have to worry about racism again. She tells me how freed she felt when she got rid of that name: Alicia Carrillo. So not white.
Now she is, to most of her friends, “Lee Rowe.” I didn’t used to growing up, but now I cringe when I hear it. I didn’t used to growing up because then I didn’t think about race. And now that I do, her friends all seem so white to me, these white women who love me. For all my life, they have taken me in like a daughter. And I go there and soften in their arms, but they all seem so white to me. I see their hands more than I should, how they curl around each other’s shoulders, darkening spots on soft cream skin. My mom doesn’t have those spots. Toni doesn’t. But the white women do. And I’m checking my own hands to see if do. Or if mine will be dark enough to withstand the harsh Califas sun like those who were here first.
I’m always looking at my own hands to see if I’m becoming them, to see if I see in myself what I see in them.
We meet at dawn to hike up Mount Rubidoux, near my house. I hear them calling her, “Hi, Leeee!” They’re already at the base of the trail; we are still piling out of the car. “Aimee!” they are circling me with soft arms and breasts and bellies. “How have you been?”
This question always leaves me with a chip of bone in my throat. If they really want to know the truth of it, how I am has to do with color and language and things I fear we can’t talk about in that moment. Do they see the color of my mother? Do they see her as white? Do they even wonder? Are they curious why I took my mother’s name?
They don’t ask. And I haven’t told. It is this not seeing--this not asking, and my own not telling—that feels so white to me. It’s this fractured seeing, selectively recognizing the fragments of me that make sense to them that feels so white to me. It’s that who I am here is too tiny a sliver of who I want to be. And even though I want there to be more between us, I can’t seem to find the common language to correct this fractured seeing. I love them, and they all seem so white to me.
And when I’m with them, I worry that the whiteness I see in them is just a reflection of my own.
Last summer, as it turned out, would be my last opportunity to work things out with my pop before he passed al otro lado. After 36 years of fighting about sexuality, race, politics, the pill, parties, musician boyfriends, then girlfriends, whether “corporate elite” is an appropriate term when speaking of global politics—suddenly the conversation ends. It ends under fluorescent lights, him sinking into a hospital bed with white starched sheets, me watching his swollen face for a final reply.
But when the conversation was still alive, he loved to tell the story of our beginning, his and mine. He told this story when he had friends over for dinner. He told it to my friends at my graduation. He told it when he was feeling especially connected to me. How while he was over in Viet Nam, I had learned to use the baby walker. How when he came home he thought it a good idea to take his daughter out for a little walk. How I wobbled off the sidewalk, placed my walker in the street. How I began to move away from him, my legs swinging in strides too bold for my size. How he picked me up, placing me back on the sidewalk with a firm warning, “No!” Then me looking up at him, setting my jaw, placing my walker back in the street. Moving away from him again.
“I knew I was beat!” He’d always finish the story this way. Sometimes there were tears in his eyes.
What, exactly, brought those tears to his eyes?
Last summer. I am with him in the late afternoon, the Califas sun sinking. He’s sitting up in bed doing a crossword puzzle in his t-shirt and underwear, his long legs crossed at the ankle. We both like to work in our beds.
“Do you think of yourself as someone in an interracial relationship?” I know I’m asking him a bold question. His eyes are meeting mine over the top of those cheap half-glasses he gets at the Thrifty, his gray hair sticking up like an old stuffed animal, or Albert Einstein.
Does he really not understand what I’m asking him? I repeat the question, except maybe “race” is one of those inappropriate terms. “Do you ever think of yourself as in an intercultural relationship?”
“No!” The word comes out with too much force as he sits up, the newspaper falling over his legs. In that minute, he’s looking right through me and I’m still meeting his gaze. Then he looks away. Straightens his papers. When we get locked in that gaze, I’m scared and I’m fierce and I know it. Know it in my stomach and my breathing, in the solid way my feet are meeting the floor of his room. And I know I am hearing the rhythm of his forgetting, of our collective forgetting.
Who are you when your ancestors have convinced the world of their whiteness? And who do you become when you act against this fiction?
Who am I and why am I writing this book?
I am a woman who is split by categories, by worlds and words. The color line is my spine. On one side golden hands are moving masa across corn husks; on the other side soft cream hands are moving to hold me. On one side is la Virgen de Guadalupe, La Llorona, La Malinche; on the other is Mother Mary and Eve. On one side are brown women, black women, women who know the taste of their color, sometimes salty, sometimes sweet, sometimes bitter like poison. On the other side are white women. Some know the taste of color from the tongues of their lovers, or from the mouths of their friends. But more are numbed to the taste, to the metallic tang of privilege. To the need to not just recognize it, but reckon with it.
The color line is my spine. Sometimes this spine aches when the brown and white won't integrate—when my dad’s assessment doesn’t match what I see in my mom’s skin, when it’s the güera baby they boast about, when love between women fails because the color line splits them.
Sometimes—with practice—this spine is a string of bony pearls, a synchronized rhythm of blood and bone. Sometimes I can breathe in the face of these fears, create a sense of belonging that allows me to stand with pride, shoulder to shoulder with my sisters.
It takes years of daily practice to hold this body together.
And I know there are others like me. Las mestizas, las vendidas, the race traitors, the mixed-race, we who tremble at claims to authenticity. People who are brown and black and Native by blood or by belonging, but who look white. Whose hues are read in ways we cannot predict, cannot control—by white people as the color of “one of us,” by people of color as the color of dominance.
But there’s a limit to skin color politics. There’s the color of the body, and then there’s the color of the heart. There’s the commitment that burns like hot blue flame in our hearts. How will we, the ones you can’t tell about, make ourselves known? Even as the white world assumes our sameness, the dark color of our politics burns inside of us.
Our work, then, is to turn ourselves inside out. To locate ourselves through our loyalty and our bravery and our willingness to fight for radical visions. Our work is to stain the color of our skin with the fluids of our hearts, to squeeze our hearts and leave the handprints on our bodies.