I’ve been feeling the loneliness that comes with the realization that not only do others not see the world the same way as I, but that nobody sees it the same way at all. Not a one. Not even the people who vote the same. Not even the people who like the same movies, books, and dances. Not the dearest of friends.
This is not unusual. The space between two minds is vast, even when we embrace. It seems I never before noticed how the spaces between us change in size depending on the events swirling around us.
Our climate, and therefore everything that sustains life on this planet is careening toward crisis. Rocked by that idea, I can almost see the spaces between atoms. If there is a politics of fear, I feel that the destruction of our environment is the Big Bang from which that fear explodes.
Like dogs barking before a great quake, we feel something looming so we howl at each other. As if the seas and the heat rising to consume us care one whit for our religions or races or rights.
My husband once told me that everything we see is somebody’s opinion. The older I get the more this truth reveals itself.
About a month ago, just before America unburied its hidden spaces once again, my husband and I visited Washington D.C. While there, we spent hours in the Smithsonian Institution’s Air and Space Museum, and my favorite moment was sitting in the planetarium to watch the short film Dark Universe, narrated by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. In the film, Tyson explains that the planets, stars, and everything we can see makes up less than 5% of the universe. The other 95% is made of dark energy and dark matter.
That’s right, in a real way, we are incapable of seeing the universe as it is.
More astonishing was the idea that, if the universe is infinite, then it has no center. So where did the Big Bang start? Everywhere and nowhere.
All of this is humbling. We truly are stardust, a word that is one part brilliance and one part inconsequence.
We’re surrounded by news that is false and people who believe it. We have access to science that is empirical, and people refuse to believe it. Yet the seas rise and the fires burn without pausing to consider what we believe.
This is a world where nothing feels real anymore. And we only see 5% of it.
Today I think of Yeats:
“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”
With dread, I come to the end of his poem, The Second Coming:
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
The answer to this renewed question is not a person, I think, not a politician. It is neither man nor woman, neither conservative nor liberal, neither bigot nor humanitarian. This rough beast, I fear, may be all of us: driving to work, flying to vacations, buying phones and laptops, turning on and off the lights, running hot water. Neither right nor wrong, but going about the simple business of living—by the billions.
Billions. On a planet that carries the same amount of water it held at the start, before the first human stood upright. Much of that water now resides inside us, all of us.
One day perhaps, there will be nothing left to drink but each other. Water that has no color. Water that is clear.
Then, perhaps, the spaces between us will shrink until they become invisible to the human eye. In that interstitial world, we may come to see something in each other that we have yet to imagine. Something we cannot yet see in the dark.
The stares always come first. First the stares and then the question, which goes something like this: “What are you?”
I’ve memorized the short answer: “Mexican-Chinese-Irish-English-Swiss-French-and-Cherokee.”
“I knew it,” one woman said, “Mixed race people are always so beautiful.”
“Um, thank you,” I said, though it felt awkward. Because it’s a compliment, right?
“Do you know what you get when you cross a Mexican and a Chinese?” one guy said.
“A car thief who can’t drive?” I learned to tell that one myself, because it’s funny, right?
I’ve traveled the world in pursuit of the question—What am I?—Latin America, Asia, Europe, Africa too. When I’m traveling, the stares feel almost normal
At a hostel in Ireland, a drunk Englishman asked, “Where you from?”
“Really? But you don’t look American . . . ” He studied my face so insinuatingly I felt molested. “You have a different coloring . . . darker . . . like you might be Latin maybe, or…”
“I’m part Mexican,” I said.
“That’s it!” he said.
Then I added, “Yes . . . We have black people, too.”
Part of me hates the question, “What are you?” wants to scream, “I’m human! What are you?” But part of me loves being the melting pot personified. Part of me craves an excuse to tell my story.
On my father’s side, his mother’s mother was named Altagracia, though everyone called her Grace. Her family came from somewhere in Chihuahua, Mexico, but she grew up in El Paso, Texas. Back in the early 1900s, the Lopez family would not have had to wade or swim across the Rio Grande, but would have simply walked across the bridge from Juarez.
Back then, the first border guards, who rode horseback, were not tasked to keep out Mexicans, but to keep out the Chinese. You see, after the Chinese finished the railroads, and a recession hit, a slew of angry Americans blamed them for “stealing jobs.” So in 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, halting most Chinese immigration until World War Two.
My great-grandfather was Chinese. He did not work on the railroads, but owned El Paso’s Chung King Café, and he smuggled Chinese across the Mexican border. He was born in China—I’ve been to his village twice—but a few of his children believed he was born in San Francisco, a lie many Chinese told to break into this country, their birth certificates mysteriously lost in the Great Earthquake and Fire of 1906.
On my mother’s side:
My English ancestors lived in New England before the American Revolution. The Stoners. Yes, I’m part Stoner. One Stoner married a half-African woman named Kezia, which makes me approximately 1/2048th African-American. One of my great-grandmothers was a pretty Irish hillbilly from Appalachia, who put on her best dress, came down from the hills, and caught herself a man. My Swiss ancestors were Midwest farmers. Then there’s the Frenchman and the Cherokee—though I don’t buy the bit about her being a chief’s daughter.
That sums up the American mosaic, the torn bits and pieces, that make up me. When I watched the movie, A Day Without a Mexican, I wondered: if Mexicans really disappeared, would I be ripped to shreds, only 3/8ths gone? Still the pieces that make most sense to me are the Mexican ones.
I was seven when I marched with my dad in East L.A.’s Chicano Moratorium: 30,000 Mexican-Americans protesting the Vietnam War and draft. But to me it was just a fun parade, singing, “Viva La Raza, Viva Viva!”
My Anglo mother was rarely in the picture. I grew up splitting time between my Mexican dad in L.A.’s eastside, and his Mexican-Chinese mom in Downey, back when Downey was mostly white. I called my grandma “Mom.”
Whether I was in Mom’s white neighborhood or Dad’s Latino neighborhood, kids bullied me and refused to play with me. Some of that was because I really was a “weirdo,” but I know now it was also because nobody could figure out, “What is she?” White kids called me “beaner.” Mexican kids, my cousins included, called me, “Hey, chicharrona!” Chicharrones are fried pork rinds.
In middle school, my best friend was a white girl who not only called me “beaner” but also, and I quote, “N-gger nose,” because my Mexican schnoz was broader than her petite Irish one. Why were we friends? Because mean girls in the gym took my purse, dumped out the contents, and tossed them overhead from person to person, but she never joined in. She was my friend because she always defended me, because she lived on my block, because nobody else was.
Still she sneered about Mexican girls, all “cholas” to her.
I asked, “Then why do you like me?”
She said, “You’re not like other Mexicans.”
Was she right? Did other Mexicans roll up Oscar Mayer bologna inside their tortillas?
Something inside me insisted I was like other Mexicans, thanks to the grandma I called Mom. Thanks to mom’s big pots of cosido. Thanks to her stories about growing up in Boyle Heights, where she hid in the school bathroom at lunchtime because she had no money for lunch. Thanks to her Spanglish joke about El Peloncito, a guy who tried to fool death by shaving his head, a story that’s not funny in English no matter how many times I explain it to my white husband.
Still, on her deathbed, Mom shared a Mexican saying with me, and when I did not understand, she accused, “You see, you don’t really know Spanish!” Maybe, but whenever I took her to Mexico, she made me do all the talking.
Am I Mexican?
One tanned summer day when I was 12, I was riding my bike through my white neighborhood, when a little girl of about eight hollered, “Get out of my neighborhood, you dirty Mexican!”
Ever the optimist, I duck-walked over to her on my purple Schwinn with the banana seat, to explain why it’s wrong to call people that. When she saw how friendly I was, surely she’d apologize. But she stomped away, and I understood the truth: my daring to suggest her parents were wrong only made her hate me more.
It stung when one of my step-moms accused me of rejecting my father’s name, Lopez-Lee, in favor of just Lee, because, as she said, “You’re ashamed of your heritage.” It wasn’t that simple. It started when my high-school’s computer system could not handle the hyphen. So for a year my algebra teacher called me by the name on the attendance sheet: “Hey, Lopez-1/2-Lee!” Everyone laughed at this hilarious mathematical joke.
More than that, I wanted only the Lee, because I adored my grandparents who raised me, and resented the father who gave up on that task. Grampa was Lee, unrelated by blood, my dad’s adopted dad, a Korean-American from Hawaii. This took my middle-school friend by surprise: “Oh, I just thought your grandpa was a Jap.”
In my 30s, I embraced Lopez Lee—minus the hyphen—because it seemed to answer the question “What are you?” I’ll admit, by then, it was also more popular to be mixed-race. Though that doesn’t always help.
A guy in North Carolina once asked, “With a name like Lopez, why don’t you speak better Spanish?”—I wanted to ask him, “With a name like Mc-whatever, why don’t you speak Gaelic?”
I was on a book tour when an Arizona highway patrolman pulled me over in my old beater Honda Civic hatchback. I was not breaking any laws. He gave some vague explanation about “smugglers in the area” and asked to search my car. I believed I had the right to say no, but it was just him and me, so I smiled and let him search. I felt nauseous.
Today I have friends of all races, and sometimes I forget I’m different. Like those cats who think they’re dogs, sometimes I think I’m white. What can I say—I came of age when assimilation was a survival skill.
Sometimes I do it too well. One of my best friends would never say a racist thing if she could help it. Nonetheless, when I submitted a story to a Latino publication along with a paragraph about what being a Latina means to me, I asked her opinion, and she said, “But you’re not really a Latino!”
“Yes I am,” I insisted. But part of me feared she’d caught me, a fraud. If so, who am I fooling: Whites? Mexicans? Me?
What am I?
Sometimes I still hear that girl, “Get out of my neighborhood, you dirty Mexican!” These days she sounds like Charlton Heston in the original Planet of the Apes: “Take your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!”
I hope today I’d have the cajones to shout back, “It’s my neighborhood too, you damn dirty racist!”
Maybe next time someone asks, “What are you?” I’ll give a sly grin and say, “No importa.”
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