From the archives: Mexico y mi papa Daughter makes journey to the past

03/01/2014 5:32 PM

03/01/2014 5:32 PM

Originally published May 4, 1997

My father shifts his cane from one hand to the other and says softly, "Tell me what was beautiful."

So I begin to tell him of my three months in Mexico, the country of his birth.

I tell him of marveling at millions of mariposas, giant monarch butterflies so numerous they transformed a green forest to orange, their beating wings the sound of wind.

We talk of the centuries-old churches, immense structures built of the stone from crushed Aztec temples.

I tell him of climbing mountains and reaching crosses erected at the summits, wooden homages to God given in exchange for a prayer granted.

I describe the mesmerizing effect of the enormous Mexican flag, flying above the zocalo, Mexico City's town square. Unfurled by the wind, the flag casts a shadow like an eagle in flight.

Finally, I tell him of my search for El Parroco de la Concepcion Tequipehuca, a nearly 300-year-old church in Mexico City. It is the church of my grandmother. In 1917 she carried my infant father through its huge wooden doors to be baptized as a Catholic.

My father sighs and says, "You got there before I did."

The role of Mexico

My father's heritage is obvious, in the olive of his skin, the black of his hair and the "z" at the end of his name.

But only recently have we begun to talk of these things. I have begun to define the role Mexico will play in my life; he has begun to accept its role in his.

My father does not remember Mexico, but he has lived in its shadow for all of his nearly 80 years.

His mother brought him to the United States in 1918. He was 8 months old. The Mexican Revolution had just ended. My grandmother's brother and sister had already crossed the border.

Mother and child lived in Texas, Nebraska and near Chicago before settling in the predominantly Mexican-American Armourdale area of Kansas City, Kan. She sliced meat in a packing house, took in laundry and sold corn out of large burlap sacks that she and my father dragged along the railroad tracks to the Mexican men repairing the ties.

Spanish is my father's first language. But he never spoke it in our South Kansas City home, except for occasional commands to my two brothers and me: vamos! ("let's go") and andale! ("hurry up").

He says Spanish is a flowery language, dismissing it as archaic and of little value today.

I think it is beautiful.

My father never made a conscious decision not to teach my brothers or me Spanish. Long before we were born, he decided that America, the land of immigrants, would allow him to dismiss being Mexican.

But Mexico will not be forgotten.

It came back to him through the daughter whose face is that of his mother and whose voice demands to speak Spanish.

A link to the past

I have always felt a connection to Mexico.

Perhaps it is because my father's attempts to discount Mexico's place in his life made it that much more important to me, a gaping cultural hole, questions unasked, much less unanswered.

Perhaps it is because I look more stereotypically Latin than either of my two brothers, even though we are all half-Mexican. I suspect it is something deeper, less easily explained by rational thought.

At the very least, laying claim to it became a professional responsibility.

I am a byline: "By Mary Sanchez." People read the name and then wonder what kind of a Latina I am.

Mary Sanchez. She speaks Spanish, right? She grew up having tamales for Christmas Eve, right? She had a grand quinceanera celebration for her 15th birthday, right?

But I didn't. I didn't know about any of these things until I was an adult.

I always heard that my grandfather was more Spanish than Mexican. It was always said with pride, and I absorbed it, knowing that to be of such pure lineage was somehow better.

I don't know if it is true. I suspect it is not.

My father and I didn't have to grow up in Mexico to inherit the country's confusion with race.

Mexico is not the land of the Aztecs. It is not the land of the conquistadores. It is the land of la nueva raza - the new race.

But 500 years after Cortes, Mexico's angst over race continues. Female stars of the telenovelas - the ritually watched nighttime soap operas - are often blonde or fair. It is the darker-skinned Indian children who wander the streets, selling candies for a few pesos.

One theory speaks to a national identity crisis and likens Mexico to the biracial child of a violent rape.

When Mexicans look in the mirror, it is the children of the conquest they see. One parent is the victor, the Spaniard. The other is the defeated, the Aztec.

My grandmother's name was Juana Melendez Sanchez. She died of cancer 12 years before I was born.

My father, Herman Sanchez, says I bear an almost eerie resemblance to her. The only possession I have of hers is a tiny gold cross, a speck of a diamond in its center. My father bought it for her. I never took it off while in Mexico.

He tells me that at the Mexican dances in Armourdale, people would clear the floor when my grandmother danced, gathering in a circle to watch her fluid grace.

She eventually contracted tuberculosis and was sent to the Kansas State Tuberculosis Sanitarium in Norton.

After that, my father began living in the hotels of downtown Kansas City, paying his rent by the week. He was 15.

He took a job washing dishes at the Muehlebach Hotel. Restaurants became his life's work. For 26 years he was the chef at Putsch's 210, a gourmet restaurant on the Country Club Plaza.

Remembering the past

"Take lots of pictures" was the only instruction my father gave me before I left for Mexico. "I want to see what it looks like."

So now we are seated at his kitchen table, prints from 16 rolls of film by my side.

"This is the cathedral, " he says, holding a photo of the Catedral Metropolitana, a massive compilation of intricately carved stone.

"Look at that architecture, " he says. "You couldn't find anything like that here. Look, Mary." And he hands the photo to my mother.

My father begins to remember bits and pieces of Mexican history he must dust off to see, shake to verbalize.

Diego Rivera, the famous Mexican muralist. The home Rivera shared with painter Frida Kahlo in Coyoacan, a section of Mexico City. Their friendship with exiled Communist leader Leon Trotsky.

Quetzalcoatl, the plumed serpent god.

"How do you know these things?" I ask.

"My mother told me, " he says.

Suddenly another memory falls into place.

"Las Mana itas" my father exclaims, throwing his head back with a smile and a laugh.

"I learned that song, " I say. "It's very traditional."

"Yes, " he says, "Yes, it is."

As he studies more pictures, my father struggles to remember Spanish words and phrases.

"I'm sorry, " he says, "The words, the years, they kind of blur in my mind."

Then he talks of the great natural resources of Mexico, the gold and the silver, the temperate climate. The country, it has so much, he says.

I tell him that new trade agreements with the United States have made it easier for American corporations to buy Mexican soil.

"They did it to us before, " my father says.

It is the first time I've heard my father speak this way - he and Mexico are the "us" and the United States is the "they."

He begins to recite one of Mexico's most famous quotes, the words of former President Porfirio Diaz.

"Pobre Mexico, " he begins. But he stumbles through the words, pausing, then stopping.

I finish it for him, jumbling and mispronouncing the Spanish.

"Pobre Mexico, tan lejos de Dios y tan cerca de los Estados Unidos - Poor Mexico, so far from God and so near the United States."

"Yes, something like that, " my father says.

The choices of life

While I was in Mexico I dreamed that my father died.

I thrashed in my sleep, believing that I would never realize the fantasies in my mind.

I would never tell him of the cliffs of Guerrero that look as if God held a paintbrush to them, stroking turquoise and red stripes.

I would never tell him of the beautiful Mexican children and their eyes of obsidian.

I would never tell him the church of his mother is the place where the Aztec empire died and Mexico was born. It is built on the spot where Cuauhtemoc - nephew of Moctezuma and the last of the Aztec emperors - made his final stand before being captured by the soldiers of Cortes.

In my dream, I believed I had learned the language of my father too late. I would never have a conversation in Spanish with my father.

But I have returned. And we have talked. My father and I have talked more now than ever.

He speaks of the choices of his life. Things he no longer questions. Things he regrets.

Like not teaching me Spanish. His mother would have liked it if he had. When my father was about 5 years old, his Spanish began to garble with English. My grandmother, who never learned much English, hired him a Spanish tutor.

But as he moved further toward manhood, he grew further from Spanish.

"By the time you kids came along, I'd forgotten so much of it myself, " he said. "I was embarrassed.

"I guess I should have taught you Spanish."

Mary Sanchez, minority affairs reporter for The Star, was chosen for the National Press Foundation's Spanish language fellowship, which allowed her to spend three months in a Cuernavaca, Mexico, program.

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