My family and I just got back from a wonderful trip to Mexico. I’ve been to Mexico a few times, the first one being in college on an archeological/architectural study. This was my first time taking my kids though, and something stood out to me over and over again during our time there: Everything felt so very familiar to me. It felt like a strange thing to think, having visited the country only a handful of times, each time many years apart, and to entirely different regions.
I love travelling. I’ve been lucky enough to travel to many different countries on different continents, and I have many more on my list. One of my favorite sensations while travelling is to feel completely lost. I don’t mean physically lost; I mean mentally lost. To be surrounded by sights and smells and sounds so very other that your mind doesn’t quite know what to make of what it is witnessing. To feel so removed from your own carefully-constructed world that it’s at once terrifying and exhilarating.
I didn’t get that on this trip. Not once. Sure, I experienced new, delightful things, but they all still felt somehow familiar to me. Like a story I’d been told as a child and forgotten. The food, the language, the music, it all felt comfortingly known to me.
Living in Texas, this shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me, and yet somehow it did. I suppose in some corner of my mind, I thought crossing an imaginary line on a map a few hours to the south of where I live would magically transport me to a drastically different world. And yet when it was time for dinner, I recognized almost everything on the menu- the items were similar to those at our favorite restaurant back home. At a street fair, my youngest played (and won!) Lotería- a game similar to Bingo- she remembered it from school. A mariachi band played a song I pulled from a memory of a birthday party I’d attended years ago. A group of ballet folklórico dancers brought back recollections from a similar dance in a hometown parade last Fall. The aguas frescas on the street corner tasted exactly like the ones the grocery store across town sells.
Each similarity piled up in my mind until I finally said something to my husband about it. “I know all of this! This feels like home! Look at the kids- they aren’t the slightest bit freaked out because they know all of this, too!” I laughed as I said it, but really I felt like crying. Because, after all, weren’t these the exact things so many people are actively trying to keep out of our country? Wasn’t all of this the stuff that stays on the other side of the wall in order to preserve a mythically pure, untainted America? Wasn’t everything here supposed to feel so very, very foreign to us?
But of course, cultures don’t work that way when they come in contact. Over time, they absorb and melt and morph into one another. They become a part of each other. They belong to one another. They seep under walls and around laws and in between politicians’ words. The fear-laden cries to build barriers against brownness feel especially ridiculous in the face of this. There is no keeping “them” out. They are us. We are them. We always have been.
It’s a decidedly different message than the one we’re supposed to believe. The immigrant has to be labeled as “other” if she is to bear the weight of the blame we heave upon her shoulders. Seeing the similarities between us would be too confusing, too painful.
Far easier to believe someone is a rapist or a criminal if you don’t see yourself in him. Far easier to deny someone entry to “your” country. Far easier to tear the crying child from her mother’s arms. Far easier to send her to a camp where she is caged and neglected and abused. Far easier to ignore her cries.