Unexpected Destinations for Hispanic History
I’m a Detroiter.
My Abuelo did seasonal construction work, helping build important freeways in the Metro Detroit area, while sending the money he earned back to Mexico for my Abuela and her children. When enough money had been saved, my father, who was 11 at the time, and his four sisters, joined my Abuelo in Detroit; they were intent on giving their children all they could never have for themselves. It is in this city that I was born. I walked the streets of Mexican Town with my guela as a toddler and still think of those days often, especially when I look into my own daughter’s eyes.
I live in northern Maine; my home is now in a nondescript little town made up of potato farms and cultural histories that, while beautiful, have nothing to do with my own or that of my little girl. She’s six now and more aware of the world and all the differences that connect and divide. We don’t speak Spanish at home because I am self-conscious about passing on my poor grasp of the language. Her “bilingual” skills are limited to basic words like “agua” and “belly-panza” and she enjoyed her first taco at a friend’s house just last month. Living so far from family and the ready-made cultural immersion that comes with geographical closeness, makes it all more difficult. It’s time, I believe, to start thinking about an appreciation of Latino history.
I often see headlines listing the top ten places to see in Latin America or listing the best family vacation spots around the globe. If I were to write my own story, I think I would focus on reflecting our hyphenated upbringing. I would want to highlight the many places in the United States rich with Latino history and bring my daughter along for the ride so that together, we could explore.
Where would we go?
Detroit’s Mexican Town
The community began to take shape during the 1940’s on Vernor Street (which I know very well) and was originally known as “La Bagley.” This is the street I walked with my Madrina and my Abuela on our way to the local shops. Masses began to be offered in Spanish at the Holy Redeemer Church in 1969, and my childhood is full of memories and images of baptimals and weddings and yearly remembrance services for my grandmother, as family made the drive into Detroit from surrounding suburbs, to be part of our continuing history. My father passed away unexpectedly a few years ago and now a yearly service is held in his honor on the day of his death. I no longer live close enough to attend, but that church is as much a part of my spirit as my father always will be, so I close my eyes and imagine myself hugging tias and kissing cousins and laughing like my father would want us to while eating together at the Mexican Village restaurant after the service.
My parents both worked at The Mexican Village, which has a 50-year-history, while they were still in high school. My maternal grandmother worked as a manager, my mother was a waitress, and my father started in the kitchen before moving to the front of the house. Years later, when I was a teenager, my father brought me into the Mexican Village family as a busser.
La Colmena (The Honeybee) is a long-standing tradition in Mexicantown, and our go-to for traditional sweets and cabra — goat — for big family dinners. There’s La Tamaleria where we all drove out to on early Sunday mornings for fresh tamales, and La Tapatia, a hole-in-the-wall restaurant with the world’s best street-style tacos and horchata, where I used to meet my Guelo for meals when I used to visit before he passed away. I am saddened to see La Tapatia may now be closed, but I’ll always think fondly of my times there. My daughter does not know these stories and has not grown up living the new moments that will become tomorrow’s memories. She does not know the significance of these locations or their deep meaning to me. One day, I will share this part of myself with her.
The funny thing, though, is that I always thought that I was missing out on being Mexican simply because I lived in a place where winter meant snow and cacti were no where to be seen. I didn’t realize how wrong I was until I found myself in the desert, missing the snow, the cold, and our family.
My husband, daughter, and I found ourselves in the Arizona heat in the summer of 2008. When my husband told me about an opportunity for a job transfer, I grew very excited at the prospect of full-time cultural immersion. Maybe it wasn’t Mexico, but it was close enough that, after arriving, it was not uncommon for strangers to start conversations in Spanish. That, coupled with the many Spanish missions to explore and Spanish-language children’s shows available as part of the “regular” cable package, were changes I welcomed.
But being close to a border doesn’t matter when it comes to who we are or the culture with which we identify. Instead of basking in the seemingly changeless season in Tucson, we found ourselves missing out on family and the Spanglish craziness too far away to truly feel a part of it.
When we learned of my severe allergy to the mesquite tree — which could only be avoided by moving as far away as possible — we opted for the first job transfer opportunity north. Maine was our next stop.
A recent report called The Growing Latin American Influence delves deep into the history of Latin Americans in Maine (25 Hispanics from Mexico, Cuba, and South America reported Maine as their home in 1860). More recently, the 2007 census recorded some 15,656 Latin Americans residing in the state. Unlike Detroit’s Mexicantown, Latin Americans in Maine are geographically spread out, with no single community or a shared name.
Maybe we will get in the car one day with a weekend bag in search of the Latinos profiled in the report. We can talk and we can listen and, more importantly, reinforce the idea that even in one of the least diverse states, Latinos are present.
I never would have imagined moving to Maine would bring us closer to our culture, but it has. Only 17 hours separate us from family and friends now, providing ample opportunity for visits, and a chance for our daughter to grow up knowing her cousins, tias, tios, and grandparents. And more importantly, we’ve learned to appreciate the cultural history that is part of us and our story no matter where we live. We are a resourceful and hard-working people, even in small numbers. We will continue to thrive, always moving forward and always honoring our rich history.
And now we sit, full circle, with the realization that we can go anywhere in search of ourselves, and yet, the best place to look seems to be right where we stand.
No matter where your journey to Hispanic heritage takes you, Amtrak can get you there — with over 500 destinations!