Motherland Mexico

My relationship with Mexico, my motherland, is complicated, almost conflictive. My relationship with Britain, the place where I was born, is similar. Writing this in English feels a little strange but at the same time makes sense. Somehow it doesn’t feel right but neither does it feel entirely wrong. It would be better if I wrote it in Mexican Spanglish but not everyone would understand. I’ll try to explain myself…

I am a photographer and I currently live in Manchester, UK. My mother is Mexican, a sociologist who lived in Britain for almost fifteen years; she behaves as if she were British sometimes. My dad is British, is an economist and a few years after marrying my mum was persuaded to move to her hometown - Mexico City - over thirty years ago. I have a younger brother; he’s a photographer too, lived in London for many years and loves Mexico as much as I do.

I wasn’t born in Mexico but it is where I spent my formative years from the age of five. I grew up there. I am Mexican. I feel that way and will usually associate my cultural identity with Mexico.

In the past, when someone asked me where I was from, which happens a lot, I would have doubts and say I wasn’t sure, that I was from both Mexico and Britain; today I will say that I am definitely from Mexico, although I feel I need to give them an explanation on my non-Mexican looks or my non pure British spoken word (depending where I am) in order to ease them into my identity.

Mexicans don’t see me as Mexican straightaway; it takes them time to make sense of my perfect chilango (the spoken Spanish from Mexico City) and pair it with my Anglo-Saxon foreign appearance - I am normally considered güera (fair-haired) over there. At first sight, they will predictably think I am a gringa (from the USA). Once they have got over all of this and accepted me as Mexican they will move on to inevitably think that I belong to the middle or upper class and will proceed to label me as fresa (snob). Both perceptions of my persona make me uncomfortable. Firstly because I do not want to be associated with being from the USA (I have mixed feelings about that country but I am not going to go into them) and secondly because I do not fancy being associated with the Mexican privileged classes who tend to be the dominating elite that run the economy and the politics of the country.

When I was little, I didn’t know I looked foreign until someone pointed it out, just in the same way as black people didn’t know they were black until whites made them notice their skin colour. I didn’t perceive myself as any different to the rest although people would make sure I became conscious of it. For instance, schoolmates would stroke my light thin hair gently to compare it with their dark thick hair. This was very odd for me at first but I got used to it over time.

For many years, it was a hard to feel I belonged to the country I loved and spent most of my childhood, adolescence and early adult years, merely because I didn’t blend in. I was always somewhere in between belonging and not. Therefore, the idea of coming back to Britain was permanently present in the back of my mind despite the fact I didn’t have much connection with British culture except for my dad and the very few relatives we kept in touch with in the United Kingdom.

Twenty three years after permanently living in Mexico City, as an adult in my late 20’s and married to my husband who had warned me he would never ever leave his beloved country, We finally moved to Manchester thinking that somehow I would settle in easily and would immediately have a sense of belonging. Little was I to know that I would face similar issues to those I experienced in Mexico.

At first everything was part of the journey of moving to a different country and I attributed my sense of not belonging here to the time I had spent away.

Although I grew up in a dual nationality family where I learned what being British was more or less from my dad, I hadn’t been immersed in the culture as much as I had in the Mexican one. I wasn’t used to the different English accents, the utterly different weather and food that seemed very bland, and more than anything I had to start from scratch to make friends and social connections.

Slowly we moved on to finding our first rented home, got jobs, filled mountains of paperwork for my husband to become a resident and acquire British citizenship and progressed in life. Nonetheless, I still had the same feeling of not completely belonging.

To reinforce this feeling, people would ask me where I was from and say I had a funny accent, even though I don’t have a Mexican one, and most people would consider I sounded English enough. In appearance I was British but something didn’t quite match up when they heard me speak. They were able to see beyond my skin colour and overall facade.

What surprised them was to discover that I was Mexican (as well as British). Their shock was immediate and obvious. They didn’t see me as Mexican in my appearance or purely British when I spoke. For me this was confusing and disappointing, it meant that I didn’t entirely belong here (nor there), and that wasn’t the answer I anticipated.

I came to Britain in search of my roots. To find answers as to where I felt more connected and comfortable living in. So, to make life “easier” I resolved that I belonged to both cultures and that it had more pros than cons. There was no point in struggling to adapt to one culture only, yet I thought it was barely a matter of time to understand the British and feel British.

One advantage of my dual heritage and mismatching appearance was (is) that it allowed me and gave me the so called foreigner’s license to take pictures from an outsider’s/insider’s view in my own homeland. On every trip back I would observe and record daily life in order to understand my place in Mexican society at the same time as it aided me to assimilate my dual identity.

Time passed quickly. It wasn’t until four years after moving to Britain that I was able to visit Mexico for the first time but it was hardly revealing in terms of feeling the need to stay although I enjoyed its familiarity and the ease to engage with people. The second time round was another four years later and my experience was similar.

My most recent visit in March 2018 was totally different. As soon as I landed on Mexican soil I felt it was home and that I belonged. I was like a fish in the water, an extremely convoluted one, but one that felt natural and that connected with me immediately. Everything seemed to make sense again. This was the place I wanted to be in.

Before setting off, I was confident that I would never ever move back to Mexico. Its many political, social and economic issues annoyed, frustrated and worried me. I knew them well and was aware of the battles one is forced to fight on a daily basis. The revelation of my trip took me by surprise.

Someone said to me once: “Mexico City is like a very colourful yet slightly ugly soup but when you taste it, its flavours are beautiful”. I couldn’t agree more.

For the first time I was at peace. A heavy weight had finally fallen off my shoulders, I was ready to accept that integrating into a given culture isn’t determined by the place you were born in and that the sense of belonging is not always obvious, it takes time to realise and digest and sometimes you need to take a step back in order to move yourself forward both, mentally and physically.

I am uncertain as to when I shall be leaving Britain but that hardly matters right now, the fact is: one day I will be going home, to my motherland. I will be going back to mi querido Mexico.

* An essay based on this body of work appeared in Actual Size in 2018.

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