Soy ChicanaI will not be your Spanish senorita
I will not be your liberated mod
I will not curse my ‘buela for her role
I will not be your swingin’ ethnic broad
Nor your echo of cathedral’s purity
Nor your treasure of erotic sensitivity
Nor anything that you would have me be—
Nor anything at all that is not me.
Carmen Tafolla (1975)
I remember the first time someone asked me if I knew any swear words in Spanish. It was eighth grade and one of my white classmates found out I was Mexican and fluent in two languages. A boy who had never said a word to me now in my face asking me swear words and threatening to beat me up if I didn’t teach him how to swear in Spanish.
I didn’t know any swear words. In my house people didn’t swear. In my house, snide comments with deep hidden meanings were the closest thing to a public display of anger or frustration. When anyone yelled or swore, it was in English.
I was a failure to my classmate at an age where failing meant social rejection—as if I ever had a chance in that boy’s very wealthy circle of friends. He was not only disappointed, he made it a point to remind the rest of the class how useless I was even suggesting I wasn’t actually bilingual since I didn’t know how to swear. It was only when another young man, an African American male who would eventually become my first boyfriend came to my rescue by telling that boy to shut the hell up—in English. Michael was bigger than George. George left me alone after that.
Michael called me pretty—I had no idea that I could be anything but brown and a Mexican poser. I was unaware of the power of Latina sexuality—it didn’t learn this at home from my very beautiful mother and her very beautiful family. As a poser, I wasn’t Mexican enough so I couldn’t possibly be pretty. Michael could never convince me of this.
Latinas are beautiful and smart, quick witted and keenly instinctual about sex—the assumption is everyone wants them, and will get them because Latinas are easy. Wasn’t Rita Moreno sleeping with George Chakiris in West Side Story? Wasn’t Ava Gardner in the Barefoot Contessa sleeping with every gigolo on both sides of the Atlantic and doesn’t her promiscuity lead to her tragic end? Wasn’t Isabella sleeping with Columbus and wasn’t he banished by her husband, Ferdinand to go and find the end of the world—or at least Hispanola?
Chicanas can be sexual beings, having the exotic, bewitching and beguiling as tools in a well-stocked arsenal of seductive power. Chicanas can know their own mind, live their own dream or at least find ways to negotiate with themselves and the world, ways to make things happen. What Chicanas won’t do, is lived oppressed within their own homes—I want to believe that but I know it isn’t always true.
My grandmother once told my mother, “marriage is a trap” which was why Lupe never taught Rhea to cook or clean house. My grandmother adored my grandfather, but she also knew her place in the home was her place in the culture. In Mexico and as a single woman, Lupe had run her mother’s businesses in the marketplace—in the US, Lupe had to wait for her husband, Ponciano to be ready to make big decisions about their personal finances. It was Lupe that encouraged him to buy land, buy buildings, develop a portfolio with assets—it was Ponciano that always took the credit. Rhea had to unlearn the lessons of obedience and subservience as she was taught from the culture of colonizer to then learn the definition of Chicana feminist independence that poet Carmen Tafolla offers in the last line of her work, Soy Chicana, “Nor anything at all that is not me.”