July 11, 2010

Identity Crisis

I don't know who I am. 
"I'm ten years old, my life's half over. And I don't even know if I'm black with white stripes or white with black stripes."  -Marty the Zebra from Madagascar the movie
Religiously I know I am a Muslim but secularly I have no idea.  Now, the counterargument I have gotten so far is that "we don't need anything other than Islam" and although that may be true it comes off as false when said out loud.  For starters if the people saying that REALLY believed in it then there would be no need for them to retain their native language, food, culture, songs, poems, clothes (salwar, hula hoops and what not), idioms and anything else that identifies them as other than Muslim.  

This is not meant to be a rant, a religious commentary or an attack on anyone's beliefs and forgive me if it does, inshaAllah.  This whole thing started because I am still reading the autobiography Living to Tell the Tale by Gabriel García Márquez and I am both depressed and fascinated.  The people of his generation were REALLY into literature and had a firm grasp on their cultural, national and religious identity. (1 out of 3 isn't bad right?)

Now I came to the USA 3 days before my 8th birthday and this didn't give me enough time to soak in what it meant to be a Salvadoran.  When I came here I lost all my friends, lost contact with family members and was forced to learn a new language and culture. I even lost the food because I was the cook in the house and we ate whatever I could make from what was in the fridge.  For better or worse I became Americanized, learned the language and slang, loved hip hop and everything else that this country had to offer me (minus the drugs).  English became my dominant language and although I could speak, read and understand Spanish, writing it was a whole different story.  Something unique to America is that Central and South Americans identify as "latinos or hispanos" which is unique because normally we would just mention the country we are from.  Also most of the people I grew up with in El Salvador RARELY traveled outside so it was really hard to communicate (before the internet became widely available, WOW, I can't believe I just wrote that, am old.) unless we were at war with each other.

It may be the discrimination we face together as nearly all latinos are categorized as Mexicans that we unite as brothers and sisters.  It was the first time my mom and I had friends from all over the Latin world and beyond. My only connection to my roots was my mom blasting vallenatos (Colombia), rancheras (Mexico), bachata (D.R.), tango (Argentina et. al) and other ethnic music while we worked.  Dear lawd I can still sing you songs that date all the way back to the time before written history when everything was oral.

I never really cared for not knowing  much about where I came from or "my people" until I reached high school and shockingly due to my aptitude in picking up Spanish Literature I was recommended to the Advanced Placement classes.  My writing improved but almost a decade later I have lost most of it again. 

I was introduced for the first time to Federico García Lorca, Gabriel García Márquez, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Jorge Luis Borges among others.  It was during this time that I started to mourn (just a little) missing out on my culture.  Spanish grammar infuriated me with all its nuances but I was able to overcome my huge writing handicap. Anyway after graduating from high school I took some courses in college but they couldn't beat the insights of my AWESOME high school Spanish teacher (I still keep in touch) so I stopped taking them.

Reading Márquez's autobiography brought me to question who I am and I don't know. I don't know who the last 4 presidents of my native country are, when we won independence, what native language do our natives speak, or anything else that someone growing up there would know.  I am an American history buff and I know English literature but no idea about my own.  Does it make it my own if I identify with it?  Even American history is marked by the immigrants of that time so technically I am borrowing on the Italian, Irish, British and the rest of the migrants' experiences.  I know this can't be unique to me but others who have migrated to other countries may feel this at one point or another specially if it was done in their childhood.

To make matters slightly muddier my son is 20 months old and while reading Jenny McCarthy's book (Mother Warriors: A Nation of Parents Healing Autism Against All Odds) I realized that my son only speaks a couple of words in English and 2 or 3 in Spanish. So I freaked out. I was crying thinking that my son might have a developmental delay and I hadn't noticed it until NOW since he and I communicate as if we are one person.  Then I heard my son interact with his grandparents and realized that he speaks their language! I felt relief because that meant he didn't have a delay but rather I didn't understand that the gibberish he was saying were actual words but in another language.  This relief then turned in to sadness again because it wasn't Spanish. And if it isn't Spanish it means I will be forgotten. My son will grow up identifying with his father and his family and I  along with my family will be tossed aside and relegated to the unknown annals of  convoluted family genealogy. You know what is worst? Because I understand bits and pieces of their language whenever I needed my son to sit I used their word for it and he would do it. So technically I am accomplice.  BTW don't get me wrong, I LOVE the fact that my son can communicate in another language. It has been a dream of mine.  Its just that in my current identity crisis I am seeing more into it than I should and am more emotional about it.

I am going to finish Marquez's autobiography and I will  go back to reading Spanish books, meeting old ladies in my supermarket and asking them how to cook certain Salvadoran dishes. I know some of you may think that's crazy but that is actually how I learned to cook and how to pick fresh cantaloupe.  Old ladies are just a treasure trove of cultural information just ready to share it with who ever asks them. I think I will be speaking to my son more in Spanish now as I am determined not to be forgotten iA.  You know whats interesting? My most favorite Spanish author BY FAR is the Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges and one of the topics he covers is the Argentine idenitity that is convoluted and elusive.  Because Argentina identifies ideologically, culturally and in every other way with Europe but they are geographically located in South America.  They want to be  high class erudites but still love their gauchos and their traditions. So maybe this national identity crisis is what appealed most to me about his writings. Anyway I will dedicate a post just for Borges because I love him so much.  He died a year after I was born and subhanaAllah if Borges had been alive today, I would have married him.

I don't know how to end this post because its longer than I wanted and am still not done pouring my heart out so I will leave you with the following quote,
You ticked off the people! You bit the hand, Marty! You bit the hand! "I don't know who I am! I don't know who I am? I gotta go find myself in the WILD!"  -Alex the lion from Madagascar the movie


CareMuslimah said...

I've always been discussing this in my mind. Mainly because I cannot see myself raising my kids in Venezuela. So I wonder what would they feel? Would they feel (insert dad's ethnicity here)? Would they feel (insert place of birth here)? Would they actually feel Venezuelan?

Someone I know told me that the predominant culture should be the dad's culture. I guess because dads lead the family, blahblah and all that. But I refuse to accept that. Like you, I don't want to be forgotten with time.

It's hard when you're mixed, or (like you) raised in a different country. But on the other hand, aren't you grateful you got to experience two different cultures? I think it's very smart of you to go back to your roots, learning about El Salvador, literature, political history. It's very interesting, and you'll be able to transmit this to your baby when he's older.

I have no kids, so I don't know if you're supposed to teach him two/many languages at the same time. But catch up on the spanish-teaching lady! lol

Your kid is so lucky mashallah!! Having contact with 3 different cultures and languages from a young age? That's beyond cool.

Ps. A secret, I've never felt identified with any group of people. Except for my family (mom,dad,brother) And Muslims wearing hijab, after all "Muslim" is what everyone sees when they look at me. Alhamdulillah :)

AlabasterMuslim said...

Oh yeah, and I've never identified with anyone even though I'm white, born in america. The only time I've ever felt I identified with anyone is with muslims. On top of everything great about Islam, it gives me clothes to wear, how to behave, what to eat (what not to eat), and even how to clean myself properly. Subhanallah!

BuLaN said...

Well, im a Malaysian, born in the country. My mom is a Pakistani descendant. Yes, I look very different from local kids. So, since I was small, the kids around neighborhood use to say "Go back to your country". That's Sad! I never been to Pakistan, I don’t speak the language and im culturally Malay. Even now, people still asking me whether I am an Arab or local. Insyallah, I’ll be marrying an Algerian...so, I wonder how things will be. Perhaps he has to keep on saying to his friends that I'm not an Algerian but Malaysian. LOL