Sunday, September 07, 2008

Stephanie Elizondo Griest: Mexican enough

'Around the Bloc' author belatedly discovers her Hispanic heritage

Sunday, September 07, 2008

By the time she turned 30, Corpus Christi native Stephanie Elizondo Griest had traveled by bus to 42 states, lived in Russia and China and collected dozens more stamps in her passport. Yet she'd hardly set foot in Mexico.

"Growing up in South Texas, you only hear the worst things about Mexico," the University of Texas graduate says. "The perception is that it's totally dangerous, and I would have sooner hitchhiked through Kyrgyzstan than go to Mexico."

It was in the midst of her early travels that she had an awkward epiphany.

"I was in Cuba, meeting all these amazing people," she says, "and I realized I could barely communicate. There I was, a Mexican American, wishing that the Cubans would speak Russian."

That epiphany has blossomed into her latest book, "Mexican Enough: My Life Between the Borderlines."

Though Griest's mother was second-generation Mexican American, she never taught her daughter Spanish, fearing Griest would experience the same discrimination she had in her youth. Griest's father, a retired Navy jazz drummer from Kansas, is Anglo.

An early passage in "Mexican Enough" describes a moment of reckoning when, after Griest announced she "was Hispanic" on the first day of class at elementary school, a primer was passed around the room and the children were asked to read aloud:

That's when I realized the difference between the other students and me. Most of them spoke Spanish at home, so they stumbled over the strange English words, pronouncing yes like jess and chair like share. When my turn came to read, I sat up straight and said each word loud and clear. The teacher watched me curiously. After class ended, I told her that I wanted to be 'where the smart kids were.' She agreed and I joined the white class the following day.

For eight more years she stuck with being white. That is, until it was time to apply to college and her guidance counselor explained that she would get more scholarship money if she identified herself as Hispanic.

While a student at UT, Griest "flirted with a Chicana stage" during which she changed her "white-bread middle name," Ann, to her mother's maiden name, Elizondo — but never learned her mother's maiden tongue. She studied Russian and journalism instead. After graduating in 1997, she traveled through much of the former Soviet Union, China and Cuba, an experience chronicled in her first book, 2004's "Around the Bloc." (The book was the 2007 pick for Austin's annual Mayor's Book Club)

"Mexican Enough" picks up later, explaining how, on her 30th birthday, Griest decided to "Mexicanize" herself. She moved to the Mexican city of Querétaro and enrolled in a language school.

What follows is a nearly two-year journey of self-discovery during which Griest befriends gay activists, seeks out Zapatista rebels in Chiapas, lingers at the Laredo/Nuevo Laredo border to talk with Border Patrol agents and meets countless women abandoned by men who've immigrated to El Norte. She tracks down ancestors in the town of Cruillas, a place reportedly wiped off the map when its residents were hired in 1854 to work on the King Ranch in South Texas. (The story is untrue. However desolate, the town remains.)

The resulting conversations amount to a journey into the psyche of the country itself. Griest learns that Mexicans are as divided about their cultural inheritance — be it from the Aztecs, Mayans, Spanish and even Americans — as she is of her own.

"Because we are biracial by definition, cultural schizophrenia is practically encoded in our DNA," says Griest. "What I came to realize is that nobody feels Mexican enough. Even in Mexico, my gay friends don't feel macho."

Griest's mixed ethnicity has turned out to be an asset in her traveling lifestyle. "I have dark hair, caterpillar eyebrows and blue eyes," she explains, "The way I look is handy, because I fit in a lot of places. But where I fit in the best wasn't Mexico, it was Turkey."

Since completing her Mexican sojourn, which lasted through much of 2005 and 2006, Griest has been busy. In 2007 she published her second book, "100 Places Every Woman Should Go." Earlier this year, she spent a month in Mozambique working with the charity group Save the Children and a month in Barcelona happily ensconced at a writers retreat. The remainder of 2008 will be taken up with touring the U.S. and, in all likelihood, proselytizing about human rights issues in Mexico.

"I became very aware of the different issues in Mexico and see it as my role to talk about them with people," she explains.

Indeed, when we met to talk, Griest was about to give the keynote speech at a Hispanic women's conference in Houston. She planned to discuss how Mexican society unfairly treats gays and lesbians, prisoners, indigenous groups and laborers.

"I don't want to get up and point a finger at people," says Griest, "but I think people in the U.S. need to be more aware of how much they are responsible for what's going on in Mexico. I feel very strongly that NAFTA has systematically destroyed the Mexican economy, and while I'm not naïve — Mexico is very corrupt and has to take 50 percent of the blame — the other 50 percent of the blood is on the U.S.' hands."

She also wants to inspire people to visit Mexico firsthand and see the country for themselves, instead of being intimidated by rumor and conjecture.

"What traveling has taught me is that any place can be amazing," says Griest. "But I'm now convinced Mexico really does have the best of everything — the most dramatic landscapes, the tastiest food, the warmest people, the craziest stories. It has to be the best all-around place on Earth."

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