September 20, 2011 § Leave a Comment
Here’s an essay I wrote last year for my assistantship with the Center for Community-Based Partnerships. The assignment was to capture my culture. Just thought I’d share.
Blue-Eyed and Mexican
By Brett Bralley
As a stainless steel deep frying pan full of chiles rellenos sizzled over hot flames, I watched as my mouther poured salsa over the stuffed chiles. My sister Brynn guarded a pot of pinto beans beside her, mashing them gently as they softened while adding cheese and milk for a bit of flavor. We were having chile relleno burritos for dinner.
“I have to write a culture sketch for my assistantship,” I mentioned to my mom as she set the lid on top of the chiles.
“Oh,” she said excitedly. “Well, be sure to mention that your mother is a fifth-generation Los Angelina.”
The history of my mother’s family starts on Olvera Street—one of the first streets formed in Los Angeles. My great-great-great grandmother’s house, La Casa de Sepulveda, prominently stands in the middle of the Mexican marketplace that smells of spicy food and leather purses. This is just another claim to my Mexican heritage. A reminder to all that, despite my light brown hair, blue eyes and pale skin, Brett Bralley is Mexican.
Yet, for the better part of my college career at the University of Alabama, I avoided mentioning my Mexican roots to most people, not sure if one-fourth of an ethnicity was enough to claim. After my first day wandering the Capstone, I sat in the pristine office of the scholarships director learning the specifics of the National Hispanic Scholarship I had been offered. I pondered whether or not she was confused by my not-so-Hispanic appearance. I half expected her to ask for a family history along with my application.
“You’re Mexican?” many fellow students asked with surprise, as I apologetically explained that yes, my mother is half Mexican; yes, my scholarship is the Hispanic scholarship. Whether it was a lack of self-confidence or a lack of pride in my roots, I did what I could to avoid the topic.
I had not decided on a major when I started at UA, so when it came to deciding what classes to take, I stuck with what I knew. I was not raised speaking Spanish—my Grandpa decided not to teach his children the language—apart from a few phrases my mother taught us.
“Con su permiso, perdoname por favor,” my sisters and I used to ask our mother when we were little girls wanting to be excused from the table. Perhaps those phrases made me comfortable with Spanish. It was a subject I consistently made A’s in throughout high school.
But it wasn’t until I took a Spanish conversation class at UA that I realized I truly loved everything about the language. Chills fluttered through my body when I could finally understand lyrics to songs in Spanish, and I started to hear full phrases without having to chew on each individual word. I could learn this language for real, I thought. This romantic song that flows swiftly and poetically off of Spanish-speaking tongues was actually a small part of me. I was a part of a people who thought, lived and breathed this language.
So to get really good, I went to Chile for a semester.
I spent five months navigating my way through Valparaiso and Viña del Mar, learning to conquer the rapid Chilean Spanish and augmenting my vocabulary. When I came back, I practiced my Spanish twice a week by translating for two middle school students in Tuscaloosa.
The summer after my time in Chile, my Grandpa came over to our house for dinner. My mother eagerly asked me to speak Spanish for him. For a minute, I was nervous. It had been at least a month since I’d had a conversation in Spanish. But he started the dialogue by asking me if I could read and write well.
I said yes, that I was translating enough to keep practicing even though I wasn’t taking any more classes.
“Well,” he said in English, “I think you’re the only one.” He nodded in approval with a smile.
“The only one what?” I asked.
“The only one in the family who speaks it, other than me and my brothers and sisters,” he said.
Whether I’ve grown up, overcome insecurities or simply learned to love who I am, I proclaim my ethnicity with pride when I encounter doubters. My Grandpa, I say, was born in Douglas, Arizona, just beside the Mexican border. And we eat Mexican food at least twice a week in the Bralley household. In fact, the easy, stress-free meals I cook after a long day of classes or work are burritos, tostadas, quesadillas, Spanish rice and frijoles. I sometimes throw in to Los Angeles natives that the Sepulveda House on Olvera Street belongs to my family.
At Christmas, I tell them, nearly 100 relatives gather at my Grandpa’s house, and we feast on steaming pots of tamales and menudo (a spicy tripe and hominy soup) topped with a bit of cilantro, onions, and a squeeze of lemon.
I may not look like it, but I am Mexican. No doubt.