Mexico and Spain wage war under my medium brown skin as I brush against a Texas bull nettle. Tiny, white follicles attack my ankle and it nears eruption when my tongue lets loose in Spanglish, a mixture of Spanish and English. My right foot burns like a betrayal of the body and I fall into the dirt with my palms face down and my face upright lest la mala mujer grazes my face like a slap to the cheek.
My grandmother hears my verbal attack as it pierces the air, forming an arrowhead to her ear. She runs out of the back door, I assume, because we don’t use the front door all that often.
From the side stoop, she calls my name in Spanish, “Carolina!” It’s a mixture of frustration and worry. I know better than to play outside, in the dirt, without socks and shoes.
Cowering in pain, I limp toward her. She opens the door to let me in and grabs the calamine lotion which we always have handy for such a time as this. I squeeze my ankle when she reaches down to lather it in pink Pepto Bismol looking liquid, shooing my hands away like annoying gnats covering areas they are not supposed to.
She prays over my skin. I can feel her breath. She instructs me to lay down on the couch and to be careful not to get any on the cushions.
My grandmother is always prepared for unexpected company. I lay on the couch, forearms over my eyes. My face is a mixture of sweat, dirt, tears, and boogers. The pain is unbearable. A few hours later, I am walking with a minor rash, no longer swollen, and quickly forget the pain.
Tomorrow, I will venture outside, and for the rest of my life, I will recall la mala mujer, the Texas bullnettle, as I navigate spaces not meant for me to show up in without being properly prepared.
At the Festival of Faith and Writing a woman asks, “What does Tejana mean?”
After reading my lime green and pink business card, decorated with cactus nopales, she forms a sweet smile on her face. Her eyes beam at me and she touches her hand lightly to her chest. Her body language offers an invitation to answer. Her genuine approach in asking this question disarms me. She is interested in what that particular word means and what that all has to do with me.
I had never been asked this question. I’m from Texas; it’s a given.
I grew up on Tejano music, cumbias, and the best Tex-Mex food that money will ever buy. I mourned, along with the rest of my tenth-grade fifth-period class the afternoon Selena was murdered, and I distinctly remember when we stopped going to Mexico because instead of using our American accents to cross the border, Homeland Security now required a passport to visit my Abuela Esperanza.
The days of shouting,“I am an American citizen,” from the back seat of my mother’s white Pontiac Cutlass Supreme, with a red leather interior that stuck to the back of mine and my siblings’ legs in the sweltering border heat, no longer held any weight. We were brown Americans and we had to prove that. We continually have to prove that.
I answered the woman, “It means I’m from Texas and of Mexican heritage because when my great-grandparents were young, the border crossed them separating Mexico and Texas indefinitely. It is spelled with a ‘j’ because Tejas is a term in Nahuatl, an indigenous language of Mexico. It means ‘friendly.’”
I want to say, I am Tejana to accentuate that I am a south Texas native before the border grew rabid with hunger, establishing the separation of countries.
When the border grew hungry, it split the continent of my body in half, always reminding me that I am neither here nor there.
It reminds me that I am not Mexican and not American enough. It pierces my tongue like a serpent, always requiring me to choose between my Spanish and my English. The hunger of the border gentrified me before I ever knew that term existed.
I am no longer a kid playing in the dirt without shoes or socks. I am an educated brown woman who is first asked to be a history book before I’m ever asked about my essays or my poetry. This is what colonization looks like. Its effects are systemic and require those native to their own land to prove their worth on their own soil. When Spain colonized Mesoamerica, it gentrified the Aztec empire causing descendants to always question their roots, their heritage, and their worth.
Colonization empowers split identities.
Colonization lends permission to the colonizer to continue to gentrify the language, culture, and belief of a people.
I negate this permission simply by existing in spaces never meant for me to thrive in. As a Christian Latina, I bring with me all the ways Spain and Mexico have stolen dance from my native ancestors. I bring with me the crossing of borders because Mexico is too big to contain.
I bring with me the languages of those before and the grace of God on my tongue.
Where we were crucified on our own land, I find the war still alive in weeds like the Texas bull nettle. I find the glory of hope in the cactus nopal whose tuna blooms and bows in adoration. I find hope where Jesus wept in desert sands so similar to the land I stand on now. I navigate the in-between spaces of culture, language, and belief, what Gloria Anzaldúa calls nepantla because I am Tejana.