Think back to a long, rugged road trip you’ve taken: the unexpected obstacles, the storytelling stragglers you met along the way, the inevitable heated argument sparked by a car breakdown. Add these elements to an impromptu journey of self-discovery and you’ve got Stephanie Elizondo Griest’s Mexican Enough: My Life Between the Borderlines.
This nonfiction collection by the Texan author of Around the Bloc maps out the author’s travels from one end of Mexico to the other, carefully detailing the festive traditions and historical moments that have shaped and molded modern-day Mexico and its people. Despite the ever-invading American influence of Wal-Mart/Sam’s and Coca-Cola, Elizondo Griest captures an enduring Mexicano sentiment and floods the senses with Mexico’s tranquil spirit.
The philosophy ni modo, or “oh well,” is explained by one of the many characters she comes to know: “We can either live tranquilo or we can worry about things we cannot change.” Elizondo Griest illustrates how this rings true on many levels in her description of towns full of women who are left behind by fathers, brothers, sons, and husbands seeking better lives across the Texas-Mexico border. She reminds us of the many who live openly gay lives among the outnumbering traditional Catholics, further uncovering the turmoil masked by the calm.
From the self-proclaimed flaming flojos of Querétaro to the pensionless Braceros of Aguascalientes, Elizondo Griest’s accounts of the angst-driven people of Mexico explores the reality of holding onto a treasured culture while also wanting desperately to be accepted by another. Though she is determined to be more in touch with her Mexicano self, another world of questions and traditions is unearthed before her.
A Corpus Christi native born to a Mexican-American mother and a Caucasian father from Kansas, Elizondo Griest vividly communicates why her search for a stronger sense of cultural identity within this tossed salad of a world is so important. Asked about nurturing her connection to her Mexico roots by developing her Spanish-language skills, she describes it in one word: Liberation. “Spanish was always the joke I was never in on, the party I was never invited to,” she said, “and maybe, I even sort of resented that because I was so frustrated I couldn’t speak it and had so many ridiculous hangups about it.”
Throughout her travels, it seems as though the author is trying to engage life’s larger struggle: being accepted as a good person despite cultural differences. About a quarter into her journey as both an outsider and a writer, she realizes that her ways and the ways of her hosts and companions are headed for a collision. Her initial lack of communication skills isn’t the only difference between her and the people she is faced with, and true acceptance by Mexico’s people was not to be achieved so quickly. In one instance, she is scolded by her housemate and dubbed fria while documenting tales of border crossings because her livelihood is based on the tragedies of others. Her housemate continues his condemnation by reprimanding her for not pitching in on household chores, implying that an American has invaded and expects to be waited on hand and foot.
This is just one of many episodes in which the author comes face to face with strongminded individuals. In another, she spends time getting to know socially conscious luchadores, Mexico’s famed masked wrestlers whose battles within the ring emulate the fight between Mexican citizens and their corrupt and negligent government for fair wages, better living conditions, and honest politicians. One luchador confesses: “Everybody likes to see a good fight, whether it’s between cocks, dogs, or us.”
Mexican Enough will escort you through a landscape of “magueys, lazy desert octopi with aquamarine leaves swirling in the wind,” and lead you down roads filled with “caterpillar eyebrowed little girls,” and meat-chopping toreros, bullfighters, with “wormlike scars burrowing from one end of the face to the other,” to the clandestine Zapatista Guerrillas of Chiapas and a minimum-wage-funded coming-out party for a 15-year-old that’s not to be missed.
Expect a turbulent tone fueled by a yo-yo linguistic style that swings from slang to pedantic rhetoric, a sign of the author’s own inner battle between what was taught to her and what she finds on her expedition. This makes for a shaky ride, but it emphasizes the underlying tale’s internal conflict. What resonates deeply is the author’s references to similarities among different cultures based on her world travels. “I felt really embarrassed that I didn’t know about Mexico the way I was supposed to,” said Griest. “I’m not supposed to know anything about Russia or China, but it’s so different with a culture that’s supposed to be your own. It was shameful for me.”
Her decision to focus on some events in detail while only cursorily describing others can be frustrating, such as her thorough description of the caste system within Mexico’s bus depots versus her very brief observation of pilgrims in Tepoztlán who are drawn to the energy vortex — something the reader may prefer to know about more than which class of bus offers refreshments. Yet, despite these shortcomings, Elizondo Griest is successful in reaffirming that we are more alike as human beings than we care to admit. •
Meet the author at Gemini Ink’s December 5 First Friday reading, starting at 6:30 pm. Info at geminiink.org.