Seeking an Identity: Two Mexican immigrants explore their identity in a land they call home

Olivia Ruiz and Juan Esparza Loera
Olivia Ruiz and Juan Esparza Loera

We are American.

We are also Mexican.

We are Mexican Americans. The best of two cultures, two countries, two languages.

We were born in small ranches just like our forefathers. Three generations lived together in the same home. We helped milk cows or goats. Pigs, roosters and turkeys were part of our playgrounds. Radionovelas or telenovelas supplied the evening entertainment.

The oldest one of us (Esparza, 52) cut wood for his grandmother's stove, drank water drawn from an open well and transported on a buck wagon, used kerosene lamps for lighting and once fled as an 8-year-old to a nearby hill to avoid a river flood.

The youngest one of us (Ruiz, 32) participated in the town's Reina de la Primavera (Spring Queen) pageant and got her own tiara. She also realized that getting an education beyond the sixth grade was considered a luxury, because continuing school would mean traveling to the next town.

English was a very foreign language. Our early connections to the United States were tenuous: One of us (Esparza) had a Texas-born father who worked for great lengths of time across the grandparents' ranch nestled near the Río Grande; another's (Ruiz) father also would be absent for long stretches as he followed seasonal work in the fields of California.

Our lives changed forever -- Esparza's in 1958, Ruiz's in 1984 -- when we suddenly found ourselves in a new land, where speaking Spanish is sometimes frowned upon.

Where paved roads replace dirt roads.

Where families tend to live separately and were happy about that arrangement.

Where diversity goes beyond Mexicans who were identified as morenos (dark-skinned) or guëros (light-skinned).

Where your milk comes from cartons or bottles, instead of fresh-squeezed from the family cow.

Where playgrounds with swings and merry-go-rounds take the place of one's imagination running wild inside a crumbled adobe building.

Where people constantly change your name: Juan becomes John, Carlos becomes Charles, María becomes Mary, Jorge becomes George; José becomes Joe; Josefina becomes Josephine; and Roberto becomes Robert. You are lucky if your name is Cuauhtémoc, because it can't be Americanized.

Where corn or flour tortillas give way to white bread, bologna and mayonnaise.

Where plazas and their beautiful kioskos are replaced by shopping malls.

Where the dreaded mordida (bribe) takes place only in movies.

Where all school-age children are expected in the classroom.

Where a kid spends money on an ice cream cone instead of a raspado (snow cone).

There are two moments that help define our identity as Mexican Americans, the term we both prefer to describe ourselves.

Esparza: The first came on July 16, 1969, when, watching on a black-and-white television set outside Earlimart, I witnessed the historic landing of man on the moon.

I remember cheering when I saw Neil Armstrong walk on the moon and heard Walter Cronkite punctuate the moment with "Hot diggity dog! Yes, sir!" I was proud to live in America. That's when I realized the greatness and the potential of this country.

Ruiz: The second came in the November 1995 general election when I entered my polling place and found my name on the list of registered voters.

I could not stop smiling. I understood voting was my privilege and I planned to make full use of it. There also have been times when I'm driving late at night and I encounter the U.S. flag fully lighted. That tends to bring a warm feeling because I know this country has offered my family and me a safer and better place to live than Mexico, and I'm so grateful for that.

Our lives, we believe, have combined the best of two neighboring countries: carne asada tacos and cheeseburgers, Thanksgiving and the traditional Christmas posadas, fútbol and football, English and Spanish, the boot-stomping Tejano dances and disco. Well, maybe not disco!

The transition has not been easy.

There was a new language to learn where the English "h" was silent (ghost, John) and the "i" sounded like the Spanish "e" and the English "e" sounded like the Spanish "i." We were used to rolling our "r's," and had trouble pronouncing "chicken" (shicken), "scissors" (see-sores), "pizza" (pipsa), "picnic" (pick-a-nic) and "school" (e-skool).

Why would someone pronounce "island" with a silent "s?" Why did Sean sound more like "Shawn" instead of "See-an?"

Ruiz: When I came to the United States in 1984, I was in third grade and I remember feeling intimidated by the other students because I didn't understand what they were saying.

But I was lucky to have a teacher who gave a group of us English-language learners the chance to take time to learn English with a teacher's aide. By the fourth grade, I was fluent in English.

I don't think I had a really hard time with a specific word, but I can tell you I got in trouble with the word "stupid." I tried to impress my dad by showing him I had learned an English word in my first week of school. One day, as I was playing with my brother, I got frustrated and wanted to tell him to "stop it," but instead I said "stupid." Let me just say my dad was not very happy with me, but he understood what I tried to say.

Esparza: There was no bilingual education when I began the first grade. Everything the teacher said to me seemed to be coming from a Martian. One day, my older sister and I arrived at school before any teacher did because we accepted a car ride from a stranger. We got in trouble and were forced to write on the chalkboard: "I will not arrive at school before 7:30 a.m."

I had to mimic my sister's writing because I neither read nor wrote English.

I still have trouble pronouncing certain words, especially "aluminum" and "these."