Aerin Moreno (’16)
I am kneeling beside a very old and frail woman, who is sobbing and clutching a tapestry to her chest. The chants of an old language I cannot understand surround me, vibrating off the walls. The cement floor is stone cold and the roof is low. I am in the village of Acteal, witnessing a memorial ceremony. As I try to escape the feeling of being an outsider, I look at the hand-painted crosses that lie next to me. I begin to read the names of the 45 men, women, and children who were massacred here 19 years ago by paramilitaries. I stop dead in my tracks. There is my name, Moreno, painted in gold on a green cross.
Her full name was Manuela Paciencia Moreno; she was 35 years old. After the ceremony I look at the photographs on the walls, and I immediately find Manuela. I stare at the picture, trying to see similarities in our faces. What if she was family? An unlikely possibility, but how would I know? I know very little about the Moreno Mexican lineage. That side of the family’s history has always been a mystery to me. My grandfather passed away decades before I was born, and my father and I are the only living descendants. It wasn’t until this summer, when I traveled to Chiapas, Mexico, that I had any contact at all with authentic Mexican culture.
In June, my social studies teacher took a group of students to meet the indigenous women who are involved with The Chiapas Project. These women craft artisanal goods that students sell in Los Angeles to provide the women with a steady income. Prior to the trip, I expected to feel very comfortable in Mexico, or at least more so than my non-Hispanic classmates. I’ve never had much to grasp onto — no religion, no defining family history. I thought this trip would solidify my Mexican heritage, but it didn’t. From visiting the autonomous communities to walking around the city of San Cristobal, I felt like an alien. A tourist in the country that had provided me with my name. The only similarity I found with people was the structure of their canine teeth, which were set higher up in the gums and protruded out to look a bit like fangs. An obscure detail to notice, but one that had made me self-conscious of my smile as a kid. Now, years of braces have repositioned them to look “normal.”
I had always checked the box to identify as Mexican, but once I got to Chiapas I realized I had no idea what that meant. How could I identify with the women of Chiapas who work every day of their lives without help from absent and abusive husbands? How could I identify with my Mexican heritage when I don’t understand the struggle? I have never fought against a corrupt government, I have never witnessed a paramilitary attack on my family, and I have never had my human rights jeopardized.
When my father was growing up he disassociated from his race in order to fit in. He was encouraged to assimilate in order to succeed. In the process, our rich culture and language was lost. Just like my teeth, I have been re-aligned to fit in with my surroundings. I try to dig deeper into a past that is faded from neglect, a process in which I have unwittingly participated in for my entire life. My trip to Chiapas did result in an awakening of my Mexican roots, but rather than offering a sense of belonging, I left with mixed emotions of pride and emptiness. These powerful feelings, initiated by seeing my name shared with a brave woman in Chiapas, have ignited a new personal devotion and drive to discover and connect to my authentic cultural identity