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Where is the Truth of My Heritage?

by Diana Martinez, DRIEP Education and Content Manager


It is already difficult enough navigating two cultures being from a Mexican family, being of U.S. nationality, and raised in the United States. I say we are a Mexican family because my experience of family is an extended family, a binational family, and my elders were raised in Mexico. However, we are not only Mexican, but we are from a subgroup of Mexicans who are also Lebanese, a.k.a. Mexican Lebanese. Growing up in the U.S., there was always the ever-present yoke of U.S. culture

Outside Abuelita's casita.

through media and school. Then there was the Mexican influence into my life through my mother and our extended family. My family in Juarez came to El Paso, or we would go to Juarez.

I remember crossing the bridge weekly to Juarez to be with primos, tios, and most of all los abuelos. Abuelita's white casita on Pedro S. Varela was the nucleus of the family.

Those of us who straddle two cultures are neither here nor there. We are both an outsider and an insider. Both cultures are a part of me, and I don’t fit perfectly in either culture. I am not a master of either culture but discovering more all the time. And no matter how much I crossed the bridge growing up, I would be judged as not Mexican enough for certain people on this side of the border. I distinctly remember one Anglo professor questioning how Mexican I was because I did not know who Lila Downs was, despite the fact I could list a dozen other Latinx artists.

I was also not American enough. In grade school, I would bring candy from Juarez to my classmates, only for them to tell me it tasted like dirt. I could feel the stereotype of the “dirty Mexican” seep through their words. I never felt my experience as binational as valued at any level of my education. It was always master Shakespeare, Dickens, Dickinson, Thoreau, Frost and other English language authors. It was to master English because my future depends on it. I remember being left at my Abuelita's house as a child by my mother. I was terribly thirsty, yet as a small child I did not know how to ask for water in Spanish. I had to point at the sink and mime drinking a glass of water several times. I was 5 or 6 years old asking my mom and siblings, "Hey, hey, I have a question. Hello. Hello. Helloooo! How do I ask for water in Spanish? How do I ask Abuelita for water?”

On the drive over the bridge, I remember asking my siblings to teach me Spanish so I could talk to my cousins. As I got older, I asked why Spanish was not spoken first at home. My mother responded that she did not want me to be discriminated against by the school system. I had to succeed in English at school. Later as I got older, I learned that students in the generation before me were physically punished for speaking Spanish in school. They got a swift hit on the hands at the very least for speaking Spanish.

Then there was the added element of being Arab, or Lebanese, or Palestinian. The exact identity and history is an enigma that was a vision in the mist trying to be uncovered. Between family stories and national media, it was confusing trying to understand what it meant to be Arab. My first memory of being introduced to my heritage was looking at a plate of yummy baklava at my Abuelita's house in Juarez. My mother told me that the dessert comes from Arab culture, and that some of our ancestors had come from the Middle East. (The Middle East is not quite accurate, but that is how the United States refers to the entire region in the media.)

Me, age 12, wearing my Abuelita's shirt that was made by her grandmother in Bethlehem and brought to Mexico.

I had wondered what it had meant to be Arab. Even though food is not what it means to be Arab, it was one tangible connection to that one part of my heritage. My Abuelita had told me that her father insisted on eating Arab food, and she made him that food. For me, eating that food in any way I could get was special. It was a small connection, but any connection was big for me. She made a special dish, rellenos de repollo, stuffed cabbage. I had no idea what the Arabic name for it was until a Lebanese college classmate told me it was malfouf. I felt like my classmate had given me a gift, a piece of my heritage.

Photos, documents, oral history, and DNA results were the next pieces of the puzzle that informed my heritage. There were family photos of my ancestors from Lebanon. Two elders sat in traditional mid-19th century clothing. The woman wore a thobe with geometric embroidery of the Palestinian community. The older gentleman had a face like my grandmother's and a turban. The young man with the fez hat standing up was the one who came to Mexico. The photocopy was framed in my grandmother’s house. The original sat in her sister’s house in San Luis Potosi, where it all began. The photo was also published in a book, De Libano a Mexico Cronica de un Pueblo Emigrante. This history book sat on my Abuelita’s coffee table in her sala in Juarez. There, it named all three of them. “Issa David Assaf and Anastacia Salvador de Assaf, with their son Elias in Bethlehem 1899. A little bit after this photo they embarked in the direction of America [as in the continent].” (Kuri, MacLuf)

Issa David Assaf and Anastacia Salvador de Assaf, with their son Elias, my great grandfather, in Bethlehem, 1899

The oral stories were only fragments. I could not verify or get clear information from family members. Some stories said that he owned a mine in Zacatecas, then lost it to Pancho Villa. He then moved to San Luis Potosi. He had started with only lard to sell, but then expanded it to a shop selling shoes and clothing. I do remember my grandmother recounting to me several times about how she had to help her father sell shoes.

My prima began looking up a registry of Arabs who came into Mexico early in the 1900s. There were so many Arabs coming into Mexico at the beginning of the 1900s, that Mexico had to make a National registry for them. In that registry she uncovered a document of our great grandfather. It said he was born in Bethlehem, Palestine. And all those decades I thought I was Lebanese. Then I did the DNA test. The genetic marker came up specifically for Lebanon. So, am I Lebanese or Palestinian? Or is there a more complicated history of migration within that region. Did Lebanese ancestors move to Palestine? Why? Where is the truth of my heritage? Is it my DNA? Is it the scant cultural knowledge passed down through the generations? Is it through the paper trail? Or is it through the stories I can find from thinkers like Edward Said?

I had always wondered how are we Arab? There was always that media and U.S. image of what we are told it means to be Arab- radical, angry, contorted faces, exaggerated features, violent, extremist, religiously conservative, undemocratic, unfeminist, unmodern. Those seemed so far from who I am and my family are, yet so immediate in our face in film, news, and political cartoons. Before the Iraq war my fellow Latino friend Robert said, “I hate Arabs. They stink. They are always stinky.” I had asked him ,”Does a part of me stink? I am part Arab.” He responded, “You are from here, not directly from there.” It reminded me of when my white friends said, “You do not look Mexican to me.” And so, if we do not fit a stereotype, are we not authentic? Am I less Arab or Mexican if I do not fit some expectation?

It was the author Edward Said with his book that liberated me from these Orientalist images. He wrote about how the West created images of the “Orient” to fit their geopolitical imperialist agendas. I witnessed it before the Iraq war. The road leading up to the invasion of Iraq was filled with negative images of the Arab world, and why they should be invaded. Said pulled back the curtain and made it possible to discredit the negative images that were always uncomfortable and painful. He gave us the discourse to create a new narrative. A new narrative in which we are not stinky, dirty, and backwards, but poets, scientists, and historians. We are not terrorist; we are meditators- Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, and non-religious. We love normal things like walking down the street eating ice cream. We are complex and nuanced people. We present in many ways. Some of us present as white and some of us not. We may present as ethnically ambiguous. Some people are completely unaware of our complex identity when they make a statement about Arabs in general or Palestine specifically. They are unaware when they make these statements, but we feel it.

If you are interested in reading the work of Edward Said, here are two books to consider:

Works Cited:

Diaz de Kuri, Martha and Lourdes MacLuf. De Libano a Mexico: Cronica a un Pueblo Emigrante. Grafica, Creatividad y Diseno, S. A. De C. V.; First Edition, January 1, 1999.

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