This summer, my grandmother called my mother weekly to complain about the amount of papers that my grandfather had stored in his filing cabinets in the basement. To be sure, my grandfather had accumulated an astonishing amount of quotidian detritus, which had somehow found its way into a small labyrinth of storage systems lovingly maintained by my grandfather. This would not have been such a problem had my grandmother not set out on a Great Purge of her earthly possessions earlier in the year. Having recycled several handfuls of her mystery novels (much to the horror of my mother) and donated a large box of dishware to me, she had fallen upon the basement with a vengeance. My grandfather, sensing her looming presence, had the wisdom to avoid confrontation, but after several months of his artful dodges the matter had come to a head. My grandmother raged and my grandfather demurred, but very little was actually getting done. With limited recourse, my grandmother would call my mother to complain. On one such occasion, my grandmother interrupted herself, shouting, “If you don’t know that book by now, you never will,” after the retreating back of my grandfather, who was on his way to a Bible study.
Such was the distress of my grandmother that God mercifully sent a flood. After two straight weeks of rain, the foundation of my grandparents’ house sagged and the basement was flooded, swamping my grandfather’s filing cabinets. In the following weeks, I spent many hours in the cavernous (and now mildew-filled) halls of my grandparents’ basement, wading through soggy carpet carrying piles of neon windbreakers and shaggy sweaters. An uncle and several cousins generously arrived from out of state and together we began what I considered a modern-day equivalent of a barn-raising, and attempted to salvage the basement. Failing to recognize the disaster as heaven-sent, my grandmother complained with greater enthusiasm, causing my brother to mutter mutinously as he hauled mushy boxes of tax information from the 80’s out of the wreckage. And, after most of the basement had been cleared and the relatives had departed, the filing cabinets stood defiantly untouched.
It was after several long days of sorting that we came upon a treasure buried among the yellowed calendars and pulpy receipts. It was a small, faded red notebook, with the words “Federation of Malaya” and “Malayan Driving Licence [sic]” in all capital letters emblazoned upon the front. The notebook, reluctant to open due to so many years of remaining closed, contained several small legal papers signed by my grandfather, a list in miniscule type of the classes of vehicles, and an old picture of my grandfather, looking dashing and young and somehow exactly like how he looks now. It hadn’t, unfortunately, escaped the ravages of the flood, and I ran upstairs with it clutched in my hands, its fabric covers fluttering softly. I laid it on a towel in the sun to dry, trying to splay it open so that the pages would not lose their crispness. We checked on its progress throughout the day, carefully peeling each page off the last and pressing them between our fingers. Here was a document from a government that no longer existed, granting driving privileges to a man who no longer drove. It had endured so far beyond its purview of use that practically it should have existed in the same category as the ten-year-old calendars that it was stored with. Yet it was salvaged and rehabilitated, not as a keepsake or a memento, but as a living shard of a family myth.
Upon the reappearance of the documentation of his bygone foreign driving privileges, my grandfather greeted it with his unique brand of understated pleasure, all crinkly blue-eyed glances. The long nose that has unfortunately proven to be his genetic legacy seemed even longer as it curved over a smile wide enough to see his silver tooth. Never a particularly ostentatious or even a very vocal person, he shuffled upstairs with us to observe our ministrations to his old license, but didn’t say much. My mother was astounded at its sudden unearthing and my brother and I, well versed in the family lore, similarly regarded it at something sacred. My grandfather, however, merely stuffed his hands into the worn pockets of his faded blue jeans, and watched us.
In order for you to understand the significance of the story contained within the Malayan driver’s license, I must first explain that my family is one of doubles. My great grandmother had an identical twin sister, Frieda. My mother’s adoration of all things old dictated that a photo of the pair was hung in our living room throughout my childhood, and so the blank stare of my ancestors followed me eerily throughout my youth. I watched them right back, terrified that I would one day find one missing from the frame. My great grandmother, the beginning of the story of the license and of my family as I know it, was a woman of great courage who suffered many losses in her life. She gave birth to my grandfather and his identical twin brother. As my great-grandmother bore only sons and the propensity for producing twins expresses itself only in females, there were no twins in my mother’s generation. In mine, however, my brother and I make up one of several pairs of duplicates. My great grandmother’s twin, Frieda, had suffered a stroke and passed away about two years before my grandfather and his twin brother departed for Malaya.
I have known the story of my grandfather’s time in Malaya from the instants of my earliest memories. I remember hearing about it on car rides when I was too small to easily see out of the window. My grandfather and his twin brother Richard departed for Malaya shortly after graduating college to do missionary work and to teach Math and History on the mission. They trained for several months in the American South, and Martin Luther King Jr. spoke to their class of trainees. After completion of their training, they were sent to Malaya, arriving there by boat in the late 1950’s. Richard was to take up his mission work in a town called Malacca and my grandfather was to stay with him for several months before continuing on to his mission in Sumatra. The first several times the story was told to me, before it became familiar, I had no concept of what a missionary was, and a decade would pass before I understood the cultural and historical context and consequences of missionary work. As a result, I always imagined my grandfather living in a bamboo hut deep in a tropical jungle, isolated from anyone for miles and finding giant snakes in his bucket shower. It was not until embarrassingly late that I realized that this was not the case.
One particular story that I took at an early age to be proof of my grandfather’s rugged lifestyle was about how he had been bitten by a poisonous centipede only a month after he and his twin brother Richard had arrived in Malaya. So severe was the bite that my grandfather had to be hospitalized. This story marked the beginning of my abiding fear of centipedes. Even after my mother had explained to me several times that the kind of poisonous centipede found in Malaysia could not be found in the American Midwest, I remained vaguely suspicious of them throughout my youth.
While my grandfather was in the hospital, Richard and many of the other missionaries decided to take a trip up the coast for a beach party. Naturally, my recovering grandfather did not accompany them. The next day, Richard was caught in an undertow as he swam off the coast of Malaya in the South China Sea and drowned. There was a sign on the beach warning of the strong undertow, but as none of the party had yet learned to speak or read Malayan, the sign went unheeded. My grandfather was notified and discharged from the hospital. He returned to a near empty mission. There, he found his Bible open with John 14 Verse 2 circled in red: “In my Father’s house, there are many mansions. If it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you”. When I was young, I was never clear as to whether or not God himself had taken a pen to my grandfather’s Bible, but I think that there was never any doubt in my grandfather’s mind.
Days after Richard died, my grandfather was sitting alone on a bench and a girl from the mission approached him with surprise. She told him that she had heard that something very bad had happened to him. She told him that she heard he had died. My grandfather carefully explained to her that it was his identical twin who had died, not himself. I wonder if it was then that he realized that he would carry Richard with him henceforth, or if he had already accepted this responsibility. After the passing of Richard, my grandfather was asked to stay permanently in Malacca, to take up his brother’s place. I think the fact that he agreed speaks to an unfathomable courage or an unshakable faith that I can understand only during the most sleepless of nights. Regardless, he remained in Malaya for four more years.
And here, having washed up at the heels of a flood, was the driver’s license that my grandfather had carried with him when he went to attend to his twin brother’s body, which had appeared on the beach two days later. It was regaining its form and drying out steadily in the weak afternoon sun. It must have been in my grandfather’s pocket at the funeral, when he buried his brother in Malaya because the paperwork to arrange for the return of the deceased to America had not come through. He must have had to renew it when he decided to stay in Malaya, to carry out his term as a missionary, despite the way his mother had begged him to come home. He must have used it when he journeyed to Kuala Lumpur to witness the revolution that ousted British rule. And then—what? Had he traveled home, and stowed it away in the filing cabinet right away, or had it stayed in a bedside table until my grandmother complained and it was sentenced to the basement? Had it lay there, dormant for nearly fifty years, throughout my mother’s childhood and young adulthood, until it had been disrupted and reawakened by its own aquatic disaster? I could not help but wonder about the life this small document had led, particularly its early years, when it had inhabited my grandfather’s breast pocket, so close to his heart. And now it sits on my desk, resting on top of the plastic bag that I stowed it in for security, innocuous and miraculous.
The story of my grandfather and Richard’s time in Malaya is so integral to the culture of my family that, in discovering this small artifact which had lived through things I had heard about so many times I dreamed about them, I felt akin to how the brothers Grimm might have felt upon discovering Cinderella’s glass slipper. The story felt tragic, ethereal, and fantastic, and was surrounded by the fine mist of passing years. Yet this artifact made the story real and, somehow, implied that it was still unfolding in my grandparents’ basement. Upon discovering the driver’s license, I experienced simultaneously a sense of something familiar returning to myself, and of coming upon something new and cherished, both inside and outside of my self. By finding the license, I recognized the piece of myself that had grown up internalizing the story, fearing centipedes and undertows. But at the same time, it brought with it a new understanding of my grandfather’s life and that of his brother. By reconstructing the imagined life of the driver’s license, I felt that I could reconstruct this pivotal period in my grandfather’s life. More importantly, I felt it as a connection to his brother, Richard, whose absence had been so mythical and influential on all the members of my mother’s family. When my grandfather’s hand had touched that paper for the first time to sign, it must have been before he lost his brother. In this way, the license, beyond representing a presence where I was used only to absence, was also the condensation of a cultural ghost whose presence was held sacred by my family.
My mother has told me that, when she was growing up, the story was not openly spoken of except on very rare and sublime occasions. Though my grandfather tends toward quietness, I hypothesize that this moratorium was in fact placed by my grandmother, whose aversion to the expression of unwieldy feelings is mythic in scope. And though the tragedy has always lived inside my grandfather, a piece of it must belong to my grandmother, who was dating my grandfather while he was in Malaysia. So, while the story forms a structure so integral to my family that I, two generations later, have hung pieces of myself upon it, it is also not frequently spoken of. Once, when I was in middle school, I saw my grandfather cry when he spoke about Richard. It was at a family event and he was talking to adults—I ought not to have seen it. But there he was, slouching in plaid and white sneakers, quietly crying for a brother who should have been there, but hadn’t been for fifty years. I was touched and terrified.
So, when the driver’s license announced itself on that sunny June morning, we did not press my grandfather or speak much about what it represented. Once, about a year after I had caught the glimpse of my grandfather’s tears, he kissed my cheek before releasing me from a hug. I was surprised and delighted and he put his hands into his pockets and leaned toward a smile. Sometimes, that says more to me about him than all the rest.
Though of course I cannot begin to image all the feelings that my grandfather must have experienced upon uncovering the everyday reminder of the loss of his twin brother sixty years ago, the mere presence of my brother, my mother, and me allowed the event to be shared. His ambient grief was noted by us, and the existence of the license reminded us all of the existence of Richard. The absence of a presence and the loss of a double was observed and ritualized, and the way that the license has been passed around the family allows us all to take part. We, the middle and younger generations, can recognize our solemn duty and inheritance in carrying the reminder of Richard forth into the world and into family history, to continue its story and incorporate his into ours. So it is with great emotional care that we handle this distillation of the story of my grandfather in the form of the license. It remains our responsibility to ensure that his Malayan driver’s license, hopelessly outdated and useless, is nevertheless recognizable as priceless.
So the Lord took mercy upon my feuding grandparents and sent a flood. And a relic bobbing in the ocean of thirty years’ detritus was washed ashore, reminding us all of a sea half a world and half a century away in which the fate of my family was forever altered. Sometimes, when I’m feeling like poking at life with a stick, I wonder who circled the verse in my grandfather’s Bible the day after his brother died. Nobody ever owned to the graffiti and my grandfather never found out who was responsible. It is such a small part of the story that it shouldn’t matter and of course it doesn’t really except that it does. Maybe it’s just one of the small miracles that get us through the enormous disasters of life. One of those dim flickers of inspiration or coincidence that make us feel as if we’ve glimpsed something larger. Regardless, I think that, as I’m telling the story to future generations, I shall relate the appearance of the driver’s license with the same reverence because, for us, it was absolutely a small miracle.
You never knew you were different until you said palita because you didn’t know the word “dustpan” and the other kids made fun of you. How could you have known? You looked just like everyone else, acted just like everyone else, and talked like everyone else. Except for this little slip up. Now all the other kids had found out something you never even realized was a secret. For the first time, you understand that there’s a part of you that’s always been there, but has always been in the back seat, hidden from view, both by your appearance and your upbringing.
“I’m not Mexican, I’m Spanish!” It’s a phrase you’ve said for most of your 15-year old life. After all, that’s what your family has always told you. “Spanish” as our ethnicity has always been the status quo when discussing who we are and where we come from. No one has ever said “Mexican”. Looking back, it’s clear that insecurity influenced that word choice. No one wants to be Mexican in a world that hates Mexicans. But back then, you had no way of knowing things like that.
One day, a friend calls you racist for saying it, says that you claim Spain because Mexico is shameful. You’re more resentful of that than you’ve probably ever been of anything. You tell her that you wouldn’t be ashamed to be Mexican if you were, but you’re not. You tell her it’s racist to hear that someone is Hispanic and instantly call them Mexican. The Spanish speaking world spreads over two continents, not just one country. Being right has always been your favorite thing, and an argument like this is no different. You believe all of this because for you it’s true. No one had ever said “Mexican”.
Your mother’s story influences yours more than you ever could have realized. Born and raised in small town Pueblo, Colorado to a first generation ex-marine from Spain and a former nun with a family history in New Mexico going back over 12 generations, she didn’t exactly have it easy. Aside from the strict Catholic upbringing, she also dealt with the small town racism that only the 1960’s could embody so well. Despite living in a town whose name literally means “town” in Spanish, her language was frowned upon. Spanish was the first language of her two eldest sisters, but the trend ended with them once her parents realized the stigma that came with it. Your mother and your other aunt both learned Spanish second, and had to pursue it in school to really learn it since their parents did their best to make English a priority for them.
Your household is a strange hybrid. Spanglish is the norm, and was your first language, but English is still what you speak the most. When you get older, you wish your mother had taught you as a child so you wouldn’t have to take so many classes.
“¿Quién es ella?” she asks you gesturing towards the TV screen.
“I don’t know, Mom. Some celebrity I guess.”
“¡Responde en español! Necesitas practicar!”
“I wouldn’t have to if you had just taught me when I was little.”
“I’m teaching you now!”
Your mother has cried telling you about being called a “dirty Mexican” at school, or on the street, or by the parents of her high school boyfriend. That’s why she left him. She couldn’t stand the grief it was causing both of them, so she left, hoping it would be temporary. It wasn’t. In some strange way, if it weren’t for those racist old people, you might not even exist. You’ve always wondered if she would’ve been happier had she stayed with him. You’re certain she wonders about it too. But you’re both here now, and it’s become painfully obvious how that experience has come to shape yours. How she raised you, the way she wanted you to look, all stemmed from that experience, from that family. In some strange way, if it weren’t for those racist old people, you might not even exist.
Your father has green eyes, with yellow around the pupil. They’re pretty eyes. They’re the eyes your mother prayed for the whole time she was pregnant with you. Her faith in her own brand of spirituality was strengthened when you came out white as snow with hazel eyes. She says her prayer must have been answered since brown is the dominant color. You’ve stopped telling her that sometimes recessive genes can win too. There’s nothing wrong with letting her have this.
Her hair and eyes are the darkest part of her otherwise not-that-“ethnic”-appearance, but they were enough to mark your mother as “other” in her youth, so she prayed that you would be spared. She always tells you how much prettier you are than her, because of your light eyes and long waist. When you’re young, you think she’s just being silly because she’s beautiful and everyone tells you that you look just like her. When you get older, you realize she’s valuing the things about you that she doesn’t have. She’s valuing the Anglo in you she never had.
The first time you knew you were gay, you were five or six years old. You have a memory (though your mother denies it to this day) of climbing into bed with your parents and saying “I’m a lesbian.” You have no idea where you learned that word, or how you knew what it meant, but there you were, coming out before you could read. It was evident that your mother was bewildered, taken completely off guard, not happy. She pulled out one of her ever present women’s magazines and showed you a picture of a model in an ad. She asked you if you were attracted to this person, if you could like-like her. The tension coming off of her and the intensity in her eyes told you that the right answer was “no.” So you shook your head. “Then you must not be a lesbian!” The relief in her eyes has always stuck with you.
The second time you came out, you were 13 and you were pretty sure the world had ended. For the next five years, you laid awake listening to hushed arguments down the hall, hoping you hadn’t destroyed your parents’ marriage. You lived one life at school, and another at home. You made non-committal noises when your mother asked you if you thought the man on screen was attractive. Don’t ask, don’t tell.
On the long drive back from Castle Rock, she vows that she’ll never tell them, any of them. She can’t bear to hear her sisters mock her or say that her exit from Catholicism is what made you gay. That her “non-traditional” parenting is what made you this way. You sit in silence, juggling heartbreak and relief. You don’t want your mother to see you as some shameful reflection of her choices, but you don’t want to tell them either.
They say college is one of the best times of your life, the time when you really get to find yourself. Normally, you prefer to disregard what “they” say. Most of the time, you feel like “they” should keep their damn mouths shut every once in a while. Going to school has been one of the most stressful, terrifying, challenging experiences of your life. But when it comes to the “finding yourself”, “they” seem to have struck the nail right on the head. Being in college felt like waking up from a dream and finally getting to see the world for what it is.
“Gay” felt right. It was easy. Seeking out queer groups on campus just made sense, and Gay Straight Alliance was the obvious choice. The anxiety you felt walking into that room the first time was in response to meeting all those people. Feeling like you weren’t enough or that you were an imposter never factored into the equation. Finding queer community was like being wrapped in a warm blanket by someone who loves you. Trying to find latinx community hardly ever crossed your mind. When it did, it felt like trying to scale Everest with a step ladder.
“You’re such a gringa!” is a phrase you’ve heard all your life. It’s featured with other greatest hits like, “You only think this is spicy because you’re so white!” and “You have no rhythm!” and your all time favorite “You’re not in touch with your culture!”. Phrases like these grate on you, make you frustrated, and when you were little, they used to make you cry. Apparently your family has never realized that, since they still use them every now and then. You can shrug and laugh it off now, but that feeling of absence always remains.
Your only encounter with your paternal grandfather happened when you were an infant. You have no memory of him and your only context is that your father hated him. It’s probably for the best. Apparently he and his new wife were racists too. Grandma was a big part of your life when you were a kid, but after she got sick, she moved away and you never actually saw her again. In the end, you mainly remember her smoke damaged voice over a crackling line and the promise of birthday checks that never came.
The light eyes and skin that your mother felt blessed by seemed like a curse to you. Family resemblance was never something you could relate to, since your mother’s family, your main family, never really looked like you. Being white made you the black sheep. One of the only times your privilege would make you an outsider. Someone asked if you could trade it all in to be darker, would you do it? Absolutely.
Privilege is something you didn’t hear about until college. It’s a concept that’s easy to learn, and hard to master. You knew you were white. A Chicano history class you’d just recently taken caused the revelation that you while Spain factored in, Mexico couldn’t be left out of the equation of your heritage. Your great grandmother, the curandera, was evidence enough of the mestiza in your blood. Looking in a mirror though, that blood was always so well hidden behind the European features you could now only tie to a history of wrongdoing. So, where did that leave you? Confused mostly.
Despite your skin, you were trained to always check the “Hispanic, Latino, etc.” box on every standardized test and application. Mom always said getting that recognition was important. We wouldn’t want to miss out on any scholarships, now would we?
Claiming such an identity at a university where very real activism takes place felt like a farce. Saying it in front of a group of queer and trans people of color felt even worse. It was your reality, your truth, but it wasn’t spelled across your skin or your facial features, so how could it be on a level with their realities and truths?
Your mother went to Pride with you this year. She marched in the parade by your side, held a sign, and yelled. It’s days like this that make you appreciate how far she’s come, how far you’ve come together. Normalcy is the banner your mother lives her life under. It’s how she’s learned to survive in this world. After all the abuses she’s suffered, you can’t really blame her. She’s always tried to push that doctrine onto you, to keep you safe as best she can, even if it left you lonely and afraid. Radicalism is the banner you’re starting to adopt. It’s the only way you can see to make the world move forward. Cheesy as it is, you believe in being the change you want to see in the world. The two of you clash, often and loudly. But your mother holding up a glittery sign that reads “We Love Our Latinx Family” surrounded by half-naked queer people and drag queens is a good step towards compromise.
The Chicana/Latina panel you attended was amazing. An hour of listening to the insights of women on campus about their experiences with those terms and in general. Just having the opportunity to listen to them speak on their own terms, from their own perspectives felt magical. You weren’t prepared for the sentence that changed everything.
“Even if you are Spanish, even if you came from that imperialism, you’re not it. That imperialism isn’t you.” For the first time, the feelings of absence and falsehood slip away. Tears roll down your face as you walk out that door.
College is coming to a close, and you’re more terrified than excited. Your expectations have been shattered, the ground beneath your feet feeling far more unstable than you ever thought it would when you imagined getting to this point. Your parents constantly ask you what you’re going to do with your life, anxious that you might be wasting your time and their borrowed money. But it’s not just career goals that have you shaken. You don’t know who you are anymore, not really. At eighteen, you knew “Mexican” had to factor into your equation. There was no way it didn’t. You want to feel proud, but “woman of color” just doesn’t feel right. The color of your skin has never caused you strife or pain. No one has ever accused you of shoplifting for it, or said that you’re smart for a brown girl. White doesn’t have the same comfort it used to either. The white kids you know don’t think in Spanglish. They’ll never know the frustration of not being able to use the perfect phrase because it doesn’t translate right, or of being asked “what are you?” You’re standing on the precipice of change, and you really don’t know whether or not you’ll fly.