This article is from the November 1999 The Mexico File newsletter.
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Growing Up Between Two Cultures

by Sirena J. Scales

Sirena Scales, who in many ways is a Mexicophile beyond what most of us will ever experience, grew up in Zihuatanejo, Guerrero, Mexico, and now lives in New York City. Her biculturalism provides some interesting insights into the land where she grew up.

I grew up in the town of Zihuatanejo in the verdant and poor state of Guerrero, Mexico, during the 1980s. I was born in "Z" in 1976, and my two younger sisters, Maya and Ana Isabel, and I have always been so proud and happy to be able to consider ourselves Mexican. Our parents raised us as American children, but they both shared a great love for Mexico and refused to raise us as strangers in a strange land. There were plenty of foreign children in our town who retained their foreign identities throughout their childhoods, but our parents could not keep us segregated from the culture they had chosen to raise their family in. We grew up speaking Spanish and English equally – English with our parents, and a crazy mix of Spanglish between ourselves. Even today, our personal conversations switch easily between the two languages, and I often find difficulty expressing myself in English when I know the perfect expression exists in Spanish.

In today’s multicultural and increasingly multilingual America, our story has become common, and it brings me great pleasure to know that there are so many out there who share allegiance to different countries, different ideologies and cultures. But that said, I still know I have something deep within my memories that kept me warm on the cold nights during my university years in Washington, D.C., and now during my new post‑grad life in Manhattan. There’s a place in my heart that holds the secret of the perfect childhood –  in the perfect place...at the ideal time. In my dreams, and every time I go home, I am a child again, in a place that no longer exists the way it once did. Every time the word Mexico crosses my lips I revisit those memories – and never far from my mind is the feeling that, at any moment, I am going home.

Feeling Different       

While I was growing up, it was difficult for me not to be aware of the fact that I was different. If at first I did not notice the fact – children always feel that they are normal until they are told otherwise – other children, and especially other adults, were quick to point it out. I knew I looked different: my skin was lighter, my hair was blonder, and I could never remember a time when I had not spoken English. We spent almost every vacation in the US, in our home in San Francisco or with my father’s family in Texas. But we felt like Mexican children, and I remember very clearly feeling terribly offended to be classified as “one of them,” the many Americans who vacationed in our town, whom my father referred to as “the snowbirds.” Too many of the Americans who peppered our beaches and restaurants treated waiters poorly, talked down to the local vendors, and muttered under their breath about the inefficiency and laziness of the locals. To be included with them was embarrassing, because I could never imagine living in Mexico as an ‘other’ or alien. If I spoke down to an Indian vendor, or complained about “them” to my sisters and friends, I would also be speaking down to and complaining about myself.

The City of Zihuatanejo       

Zihuatanejo/Ixtapa is four hours north of Acapulco on the Pacific Coast, the second point of Guerrero’s Triangle of Sun (the first being Acapulco, the third being the silver‑producing city of Taxco). The government developed Ixtapa to lure tourists, and all the internationally known hotels are there – the Westin, the Sheraton and the Inter‑Continental, the Omni and Melia, and the Club Med, as well as all the chain stores and restaurants like Carlos and Charlie’s, Senor Frog’s, and Aca Joe. All the wealthiest families lived out on the golf course in Ixtapa, in one of the four residential areas that boasted swimming pools and green lawns. Many foreigners and wealthy chilangos made their homes in Ixtapa, where the government allots more water and electricity than for the residents of Zihuatanejo.

Zihuatanejo is situated around a breathtaking natural bay of five beaches that scallop the blue water and are surrounded by green hills. Our home was at the end of La Ropa beach, at the end of a poor, run‑down road and at the top of a rocky hill. Our end of the beach had a lot of Americans living there, barflies and ex‑pats who spent the day in arts and crafts and sunbathing, living out the last days of hippie bliss during the eighties.

Home        

Instead of growing up in modern comfort, with a driveway, a real front door and glassed‑in windows for air conditioning, like the showplace homes in Ixtapa, our house was a communal-style home on the waterfront edge of the hill. Our house had two large rooms, and running along the outside of the house were the kitchen, the dining area, the play area and the closets. Our land was wild gardens with mango and lime trees and frothy fuchsia bougainvilleas. A wide terrace overlooked the bay. Our view was the best in town. Down the steps from the terrace was a gate with a large bell that people would ring before coming up. Our three dogs – Noche, Nelson, and Fatso – ran all over the property and met at the gate in a cacaphony of barks to scare off anyone who wasn’t really intent on visiting the Scales family. At any given moment, a dozen different cats made their home with us as well, and around the outside part of our house, near the dining table and closets, four caged parrots depended entirely on my mother’s good nature for their well being. The birds also served as an alarm clock, and across the bay in town the national anthem of the Republic of Mexico blared across the water for a south-of-the-border reveille.

I remember very clearly having no real sense of privacy growing up. Even when I was in the house alone I could not escape the sound of the frogs and cicadas, the dogs fighting and the cats in heat meowing desperately. I yearned for a small bedroom on the second floor of a Brady‑style split‑level where I could shut the door and lock it from the invasion of my version of Jan and Cindy. We had no television – and no phone – until I was twelve, and I thought we lived as far back in the dark ages as was humanly possible. But I also remember sitting on the terrace with my family while a friend of my parents played guitar, and we all sang along to “Pencil Thin Mustache.”  I remember listening to news from America on my father’s little silver short‑wave radio, all of us clustered around it as if it were the greatest marvel the electronic age had ever seen. Looking back, I can see that it was, but we got a television and a phone soon after that, and newer memories of watching Saturday Night Live on the dish with my dad are just as fond as that little radio.

While many American children have grown up learning to be careful of the streets at night and in a constant shuttle between home and school, my sisters and I grew up with a sense of unlimited freedom amidst the free spirits of our beach. We were barefoot children with tangled hair and salty skin who often wore bathing suits beneath our uniforms. We’d run down to the beach after school, whenever our father didn’t take us straight to the beach first, where we’d do our homework on tables set on the sand. I remember very clearly that we would always stay past sunset, except near my father’s birthday in late February when the view from our terrace had the sun setting exactly in the center of the bay.

The gardens of our home were wild and terrifying in the right light. Bugs crawled everywhere, on every available surface – mosquitoes bearing the promise of dengue or malaria (not unlike the current East Coast epidemic of encephalitis), scorpions hidden in sock drawers and shoes that promised electric shock‑like stings and even worse. Neon coral snakes, deadly within five seconds of contact (or so we were always told) were spotted with distinctive black‑and‑white rings and bore the fear of death, and in every tree, on every branch, was a well‑camouflaged bug waiting to twine itself in your hair or drop surreptitiously into your clothing. Childhood in Mexico teaches one a solid lesson – look where you’re walking and always shake out your shoes.

Summers in San Francisco, however, were the opposite. I loved our tall, narrow Victorian house and its distinctively American flavor, from the modern kitchen to the diminutive garden in the back. The sounds of the doorbell ringing and the piano tinkling reminded me I was a world away from the chaos of home. But at the same time, the chaos of home had made me who I was. We were a chaotic family, prone to be loud and messy, shouting in a mixture of languages only we understood. We loved the convenience of shopping and living in America, but only because we always knew we would be going home. Bringing our new clothes and toys home was the best part about buying them, even though I knew something shiny and pristine would soon be tossed aside once we went back to our life on the beach.

School

Although some foreigners raising children in our town preferred home schooling while the children were young in order to preserve language and cultural differences, my parents chose to abolish those divisions. Our town had two options for children ready for school: public or private. Guerrero, situated above Oaxaca and Chiapas, is among the poorest states in the republic, and our public schools were among the worst. At the time, Zihuatanejo had one private school, the francophone Madame de Sevigne, which my sisters and I attended for five years. We then switched to a new, more Mexican school, the CZIE, Everything I knew about school in America was different from the sort of school we went to. We wore uniforms, red pleated skirts with white blouses, and the children of our schools came from the middle to upper classes in our town. Private schools were the only avenue for most well‑to‑do families, with the government doing little or nothing to ameliorate the public schools.

Food       

The private school in my town was a sort of experiment in schooling with a potpourri of teachers – French, Mexican, American and British – and a great mix of kids from my town. When we were very young, our father would pack little sandwiches in our loud plastic lunchboxes, each containing a red box of SunMaid raisins and a thermos of lemonade. As I grew older, my dad’s silly little lunches began to seem hopelessly uncool, and he would allow my sisters and me money to buy lunch at the school’s tiendita, or little store. The tiendita was run by a señora who was assisted by a random assortment of family members (some of them younger than the schoolchildren buying lunch) in a rinky-dink shack equipped with a hotplate and cramped counter space.

Variations on the theme of lunch consisted of a torta, a big sandwich on a roll with ham and cheese, or chicken in a chocolate mole sauce, or hot ground sausage called chorizo. Sometimes there were tacos of tightly‑rolled tortillas stuffed with chicken, fish or cheese, or thin fried patties of corn dough covered with beans, meat, cheese and lettuce. Mexican food, as opposed to the sour cream and cheddar cheese fare we know in America as Tex‑Mex, is best exemplified in market stands and school tienditas. Cream drizzled on tacos is light, not unctuous. The cheese is salty and crumbly, sometimes fresh and damp, and at other times dry, with a bite. Lettuce is shredded thin – and used more commonly is col, lettuce’s unpopular cousin: cabbage. The cornerstone of everything is the tortilla. The senora prepared the same food for the schoolchildren that she prepared for her own children at home. To drink, she usually prepared two different kinds of aguas, one of jamaica (rosehips) or tamarind, the other a milky drink called horchata derived from rice and flavored with cinnamon and sugar. A real Mexican school in the 1980's was full of students sipping their aguas out of small plastic baggies with straws.

Oddly enough, there was never a question of fitting in there. I was in school with my class since the beginning, and although everyone knew there were differences between my sisters and me and the other kids, we played the same games, studied from the same books, and, most important, spoke the same language. I liked being American, and I also loved being Mexican. I recall bristling at the mention that I might not understand certain things because I was not truly Mexican. There were teachers in our school system who were insensitive to me as a foreigner in their classroom, including one who pointedly aimed his remarks toward me when he explained that only those who were born in Mexico by Mexican‑born parents could become president. Unlike American children, raised on the pretty dream that “everyone can become president,” I always knew my limitations.

Political Systems       

Attending American University in Washington, D.C., recalled my childhood in Mexico in many ways. For one, it cured me of my disinterest in politics. Growing up in a political environment so overrun with corruption had really left me untrusting of government and feeling no hope for change. In Washington, though, I was able to really involve myself in the political environment as a spectator. Ironically, the similarities between Washington and Mexico served to make me feel closer to home. The fantastic amount of red tape in D.C. reminded me of the government of my childhood. It’s comforting to know that ours –  the Mexican government –  is not the only corrupt political system. On the other hand, it’s comforting to know that our American government looks great when compared to the Mexican model. I still hope for a greater sharing between the American politicos and the Mexican system, but the name of the Mexican president –  Ernesto Zedillo –  rarely graces the pages of the New York Times. We’re so near, and yet so far.       

In many ways, I feel more segregated from the American community now that I live in America than I ever did in Mexico. In Mexico, I identified strongly with Americans, feeling a sense of belonging within the group in addition to feeling at home among my neighbors and classmates. In America, I feel that the only way to preserve that part of me connected to my homeland is to keep my grip tight on the language, the way of dress, the social mores.

Washington enjoys a huge community of Latins, especially within the major universities of the area. However, the Latins, like any community centered around linguistic, cultural or ethnic similarities, is insular and isolated in its identity with this shared background.  The Latins partied with the Arabs and the Euros in flashy D.C. bistros and nightclubs; the americanos stuck to sport bar‑style places that featured ten-cent drafts on Thursdays and hip‑hop on the miniscule dancefloor in the back – and never the twain shall meet.

Latin Fascination       

Currently, America is in the middle of a huge fascination with the Latin culture within their borders. Being Latin right now carries a certain cachet different from the discrimination many Latins faced in the past. This new fusion between the two cultures I grew up in gives me a great deal of happiness because I feel more at home with both parts of myself than ever before. Looking for a job currently in New York’s hot writer’s market, I know I will be competing with other Latins whose mastery of both languages is as good as mine, and who bring many other things to the table. But I finally feel that I have succeeded in straddling the borders between my countries, and I know I will achieve so much more as a graduate of an American university than if I had stayed in my sleepy little tourist town.      

However, as much as things change, they never stray far from their origins. I will be celebrating the coming of the millennium on the beaches of Zihuatanejo, where I was born, where I will always belong, whether I end up here, or in London, or in Tibet. I also know that there are thousands like me who call so many places home. I love America, and going home to Mexico is difficult after the conveniences found in this country, but this is the way it has to be.

Young love is free and easy, and that’s the way I will always love Zihuatanejo, with the love of a child or its mother, with the love of the sea for the sand. Mexico simmers on a slow fire, and the obtuse attitude of what the gringos term ‘the locals’ can be maddening to outsiders – in fact, it’s maddening to the locals – but it’s easier to relax about your phone being out of service for a month or two when two steps from your terrace is a blinding swath of blue sea sparkling with a thousand shards of sunlight. There are drawbacks –  a hundred, maybe even a thousand –  to this way of life, and I cannot pretend it is right for everyone. But I must admit that, in my mind, taking traveling tips from people who don’t like Zihuatanejo is like listening to film advice from someone who didn’t get “The Usual Suspects.” All you have to do is catch it from the right angle and it’s such a lovely place, so absorbing in its small‑town dysfunction and ramshackle threads of gossip. Zihuatanejo is maddening and corrupt, sinister and dangerous, glitzy and trashy; but it’s also, to me, the most wonderful place in the world.

The downside –  the severe downside – to loving Zihuatanejo as much as I do is not being able to live there and at the same time wanting to so much. I know that this is because I’m from there. I know the sand, the beaches, the run-down dirt roads lined with great, thin-trunked palm trees and stray dogs barking furiously at the taillights of your car. I know the sunset, and its millions of variations, from the point where the sun sinks brilliantly into the water to each brushstroke of cloud set afire. Getting shoved aside while catching a taxi uptown during rush hour by a harried New Yorker is easier when you have the solace of these pictures in your mind, and as home as I am in the world today, there is only one place on the planet that I could ever call that.