By Tag Christof
Cool party trick: being from New Mexico. On the off chance your new friends know where it is on a map, or that it is a US state at all, someone will inevitably remark that “you don’t look Mexican,” and marvel at your unaccented English. It’s a fun reminder of how little the cursory bullet points we’re defined by – color, accent, nationality – actually reveal about who we are.
I grew up in Española, the undisputed low-rider capital of the world. It’s the only town in America with ñ in its name, whose skeletal sprawl now sits shabbily along a breathtaking valley that five centuries ago was the crown jewel of northern New Spain. Much later, it briefly became part of Mexico, but that colorful, convivial culture never quite managed to penetrate its stoic, Franciscan heart. When at last New Mexico became a territory of the United States, the railroads and highways and speculators passed the valley by. And so, its tight-knit families, with their proud, old bloodlines, guarded their traditions, their land, and their antique dialect, and, in their isolation, they grew to resent any and all encroaching cultures: the mostly Anglo artists, hippies, scientists, and celebrities who brought wealth and worldliness to prettier towns nearby.
Julia Roberts, Shirley MacLean, Tom Ford, Ted Turner, and even Oprah built lavish compounds in the picturesque foothills. Tourists came in droves to see turquoise, silver, and the otherworldly light and landscapes Ansel Adams made famous. Meanwhile, I was born in the hospital on the mountain-top where Oppenheimer invented his atom bomb. My mother was 19 and alone, a pariah from one of the proudest among those old Spanish families. By some accident of genes, I came out a few shades paler than all my cousins, with a shock of yellowy hair, pink cheeks, and green eyes. Family photos are a sea of tan and olive with one transparent, smiley baby. And even though I was unmistakably her son, I was the gringo, the guëro, the blondie, probably switched at birth for one of those white mutant science babies on the hill.
Legend had it my biological father was a handsome, artistic Spaniard. He was a painter or musician or something equally mysterious, and he disappeared without a trace well before I was born. By the time I was a toddler, my mother had entered into a marriage of convenience – a sad Brady Bunch of tidier symmetry: He had a daughter, she had me, together they had my brother. He legally adopted me, I inherited his generic English name, and the family fairytale limped along through a half-decade of his abuse, affairs, and alcoholism. They divorced at last, following a spectacular confrontation after my mother braved an affair of her own. We hid out for days in a motel room just off the interstate, my mother, my brother, the illicit boyfriend, and I. Our car was stolen the first night, but at least we were safe. I was proud of my mother. It wasn't long before that relationship also went up in violent flames, but she was free. We were free.
Despite my protests, my mother and grandparents decided it was best I keep that easy-to- pronounce adopted name, mostly because it will open doors in the world for you, mijo. But I was already white enough to reap any advantage a name might bring. Just as I was already way too white to avoid bullying at school for looking like the people our families told us to hate. Privilege is relative.
I learned to beat off thinking about the rough boys with crew cuts and black slicked-back hair who had their run of the school. The ones who were good at football and knew about Hip-hop. They despised me, so I retreated into band class and art class and anywhere else they weren’t. I made out with girlfriends I hated making out with while I longed for those badasses – the same ones who slashed the tires on my first car. The same ones who used shoe white to scrawl “white fuck” and “dirty gringo” on its windows and on cafeteria walls. Next to those, faggot and joto barely registered. I knew they didn’t really know, anyway. They called everyone faggot. They seemed to say, you can be a faggot and still be mostly like me. You can be a faggot and still be my primo or my hermano or my friend. I don’t care who your family is, you are none of those things if you are a gringo.
In college, I learned French and spit-shined my Spanish. I adopted an inscrutable new name, invented mostly out of thin air, to sound as plausibly Swiss-generic as American-cosmopolitan. And then I escaped America altogether, first to France, then to Italy, then England. Far away, I was from somewhere only vaguely real: the storied land of Santa Fe with its Georgia O’Keeffe overtones and cerulean skies. Privilege is reinvention. Privilege is a twenties spent having my heart broken by Italian royalty, a debonair French architect, a British film director, a moody Irish musician whose beautiful name I had tattooed on my leg in a moment of desperation.
Meanwhile, the man who helped my mother escape her first marriage died, together with his son, from a bad batch of heroin. Her second husband, also ancient history, died of alcoholism, but not before leaving his own young son permanently paralyzed in a drunk-driving crash. Most of the boys who gave me hell in high school had died of overdoses, car crashes, bizarre murders. One is in prison for knifing his pregnant girlfriend. All but one of my beloved great-grandparents, each old enough to have had their mouths washed out with soap by itinerant Great Plains teachers for speaking Spanish at school, passed away quietly. I missed every single funeral.
Today, the world inside that desolate dreamscape is bigger. But like the parched land, life there remains partitioned and defined by class and color. A new economy dominated by big- box stores and native casinos has transformed its poverty from imperial to postmodern. But the players are mostly the same. With what feels like 100 years of distance, I can at last understand the resentment and defensiveness that are embedded in the culture. I understand how a worldview shaped there might include the belief that whiteness means wealth and a generally frictionless existence. Still, it stings when old friends and even family suggest, however gently, that only brown can possibly understand adversity. Or that pale skin and a basic last name, not hustle or sacrifice or grit, were my golden tickets out.
If only they had seen all my shabby apartments with just a mattress on the floor. Or my bloodied face that time I was mugged in London. Or that time my Italian boyfriend shut me inside his wardrobe when his mother showed up unannounced. Even today, my best attempts at well-adjusted white adulthood feel like a charade played to someone else’s script. Privilege, it turns out, is not knowing where "who you are" ends and where "who you invented" begins. Now, my hair has long since turned the darkest shade of umber. I had just worked up the courage to mail off a paternity test with that long lost Spaniard. We met over beers, four green eyes and the same pale skin.