When I was Mexican: A Black Girl Explores Her Ancestry
Pembroke Pines, Florida. Surrounded by the fresh smell of cotton steamed under the iron, I’m listening to my mother in the kitchen. My fingers caress the cuffs and collars of the floral shirts as I iron them. It’s Haitian Independence Day, and Mother, who is visiting from Port-Au-Prince, is helping me with the traditional joumou soup. She's milling around, laughing and talking, and the fragrance of garlic and hot pepper gives the day an authentic Haitian feel. Mother's tongue rolls around the Creole syllables with delight, and the warm cadence of her voice brings me back to the Caribbean mountains of my childhood. A soft, but unapologetic roll and clipping of words. A deep, modulated voice.
Mother has been working on our family tree. On my father’s side: African pirates—or so I’ve decided, since Papa never talks about his ancestry. His skin, black as the night sky, is the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. It's 2008, before genetic services become ultra-popular in the United States, before I reveled in reading details about my ancestry composition (54.9% Sub-Saharan African, 42.2% European, 2.9% unassigned).
Mother tells me about her own father. She loved Pa Roger, loved the stories he’d told her—about growing up in France with his half-Mexican mother, and later moving to New Orleans, where men and women danced their hips and feet to the drums, while their lips spilled laughter as brittle and shrill as clinking glasses where sugary moonshine flowed. She told me how her parents met in Port-Au-Prince, after Pa Roger arrived in Haiti to manage the railroad company. How my grandfather fell in love with the young woman selling movie tickets at Paramount Theaters. How Grandma Clara wore a gray beret on top a head full of black curls. How her laughter ran clear across the street. How Pa Roger went over to find out her name, tried to speak to her, but Grandma Clara was not interested. She wasn’t like other girls who chewed their cuticles and jiggled their legs nervously. She had a strangely straight mouth, a determined jaw.
In photographs, Pa Roger is so fair, the trail left by his veins can be followed across his forehead; he seems like a gentle man, tall and thin but with a sad face and sloped shoulders, as if his life on the island had eventually worn him down. My mother has his pale complexion, her skin café au lait, without the warm brown tones I inherited.
I'm excited to learn about Nana and her Mexican ties. ¡Ole! That explains it all. It’s in my genes—this attraction to all things Latino. Now I can justify the hours spent watching telenovelas that starred Kate del Castillo on Univision, perfecting my Spanish curses. My love for tacos and enchiladas, and Vicente Fernandez. It all makes sense now. Mother shows me a picture of Nana, and in the faded and cracked scene, she has a dignified face. A tight face with a sour expression. The sun beats against the window in her bedroom, bounces off her vanity mirror. She doesn’t smile, doesn’t seem to rejoice in the white heat. Nana was a teacher, just like me. My great grandmother died of an aneurysm. She gasped in her sleep, as though surprised. It was a rupture in the brain. A quick, silent explosion.
I spend hours at the Pembroke Pines library, reading about the Maya and the Aztec Empire, the Spanish conquest, and Benito Juarez. I download the recipe for tamales and posole. I get old photo albums from the wooden trunk in the laundry room and look for the pictures of my fifteenth birthday in Port-Au-Prince. I sigh, imagining how grandiose a quinceañera it could have been. I can see it all, the fancy full-length dress with frills, pastel tones and a matching hat, the dancing that lasts until the small hours, leaving me practically deaf and so thirsty my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth. For the Misa of acción de gracias, I am surrounded by my seven maids of honor or damas.
In May, Mom visits again. I make my 2009 Cinco de Mayo pretty special. I don a sombrero, and Mother watches me pensively as I keep yelling “¡Ole!” and “¡Viva Mexico!” on our way to the neighborhood Mexican joint. My voice sporadically covers the Haitian rara music screaming from the car speakers. The streets of Pembroke Pines are busy—people in the other cars are watching.
“You’re not getting out of the car with that hat, are you?” Mother asks tentatively.
“Of course, I am. ¡Ole!”
She can’t convince me to take off the sombrero. “You’re really killing the mood,” I say. I order agua de jamaica, but the restaurant doesn’t carry the drink. Turns out Casa Campesina is Colombian. They don’t have enchiladas. The tacos they bring are spongy and gross, and Mother has the look of someone who’s about to break very bad news.
“Chérie,” she says, “darling, you don’t have it in you.”
“I don’t have what in me?”
I am both confused and annoyed. “But Nana…” I sit like mush, hardly blinking or breathing.
Mother shakes his head. His fingers tap the table. “There's a possibility that Nana was your adoptive great grandmother,” she says, as my chest tightens with surprise and disappointment. “Your French ancestry is undeniable, but there’s probably nothing Mexican about us.”
I consider taking off my sombrero.
M.J. Fievre is the author of Happy, Okay? Poems about Anxiety, Depression, Hope, and Survival (Books & Books Press, 2019) and Badass Black Girl: Questions, Quotes, and Affirmations for Teens (Mango Publishing, 2020). She helps others write their way through trauma, build community and create social change. She works with veterans, disenfranchised youth, cancer patients and survivors, victims of domestic and sexual violence, minorities, the elderly, those with chronic illness or going through transition and any underserved population in need of writing as a form of therapy—even if they don’t realize that they need writing or therapy.
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