Ten years ago I made my first trip to Oaxaca, a married gringa heading south to meet the family for the very first time. Juan was heading home for the first time in over 10 years, bringing a bride. From the minute I walked through the door of his mothers tiny house in the foothills, I felt I had come home–a home I never knew I had, a home that was waiting for me for almost 30 years.
I was raised Irish Catholic–practically 100%. I was born Margaret Ann Casey. I went to a Jesuit college. I have cops in the family. I can actually do the jig. I am a stereotype. Classic Irish American girl.
When Juan and I met and fell in love he was worried about being swallowed up by us Caseys. We are here. We are loud. We have crazy traditions which we will shove down your throat. We are Irish Americans dammit. Proud.
I loved him and I wanted our life together to be equal. I made an effort to bring the Mexican into my life. I pledged him we would be an Irish-Mexican-American home. I made it my mission not to let his culture be sidelined.
But from the minute I crossed the threshold and embraced his mama, my suegracita, it was no effort. It was natural. It was breathing. I was a gringita by blood but Mexicana by love. Even my suspcious father in law had to admit it. I adopted the culture as easily as I breathed in the clean country air.
A feminist, I had always struggled with the patriarchal church of my youth. But in Oaxaca, I found a community of mostly women, devoted to la virgincita, the mother of all of Mexico, of all of us. I came home to my faith in this culture surrounded by tiny older women kneeling and lighting candles and asking another woman for help, believing in magic and miracles. As a feminist and a Catholic it suddenly all made sense. Home.
I came home to real cooking as I learned to use a molcojete to mash up tomatoes, grind chiles and make salsa (blenders are for chumps people). My love for spice and chocolate found voice in true Oaxacan mole cooked over an open fire all night long, stirred by women taking turns at the community fire, telling the stories of their lives–comadreando under the stars. This was the way my heart told me to cook. This felt like home to me.
From my first Dia de los Muertos where I helped my sister in law decorated her beloved daughters grave, while mariachis sang and a street vendor wandered through the cemetery selling fried dough and families set out picnics by the graves, I embraced the traditions of remembrance that seemed to come from my ancestors too. It made so much sense to me. It was a tradition that I knew must be mine. Had always been mine. Would always be mine. Communal grief poured out. Acknowledgment that we never get over the loss of someone we love–we just change and move on. This was the way I feel I always knew it must be done. To never forget. To love and laugh.
My name was Meg Casey-Bolaños. I chose that name–not just because I married a Mexicano but because it said who I was-someone who had embraced, had absorbed something from the magical Oaxacan sunshine. A woman forever changed by the magic in the air, the water and the countryside. Who loved los santos, who ate mangos by the bucketful and who milked a cow named Marguerita. I wore it proudly–It was a symbol of who I had become: a mujer who was changed forever by milagros and mole and muertos in the Oaxacan foothills.
When Juan left I went back to Meg Casey. It made sense in many ways. It was a demarcation. A milestone. It told people my life had forever changed. It told them I was going it alone. It told them that I was me.
But it also very subtly said I was no longer a member of a familia Mexicana. That maybe I divorced not just Juan but a part of myself too.
A few weeks ago I got an email from Anne asking me if I missed the culture of my adopted family. If I missed baking pan dulce and drinking hot sweet pot coffee on Sundays. Or if I still did it? She wondered because she knew how I had come home that first trip. That every trip I made south over the last ten years was a reunion. She wondered if I was homesick.
I still have my little altar to la Virgen where I light my candles, but many of my milagros have been put away now. From time to time I put away the coffee maker and make my coffee in a pot, the way my suegra taught me. I sometimes pull out my cookbook, the one where she wrote all her recipes down–the one with measurements like “a pinch”, “a handful” and “not too much” and will bake some bread that smells like anise and cinnamon. But really, its true, I packed so much of that away when Juan packed his bags. And I am feeling a bit — well–not quite whole, come to think of it.
Yet, when I decorate for Muertos or consider a party for Tres Reyes, I feel like such a poser, a gringita adopting traditions that are no longer hers. I struggle with whether I can appropriate these secrets that were told to me when I was familia. I feel like an outsider looking in and I can’t figure out whether I should fight my way back into the circle or turn my back on it forever. What do I do with this piece of who I was who was tied so closely with someone who isn’t mine any more?
This week I read this lovely piece about identity–Claiming it, holding it, attaching to it, and letting it morph, be, go, change. It reminded me of this little puzzle, not so neatly wrapped up after my divorce.
Is my cultura a wedding gift I now need to return?