I can feel in the fabric of my soul how much I've changed when driving through Long Beach in California, the first leg of our road trip, my senses are fully awakened in the homogenously Mexican parts of town. The neighborhoods with bars on the windows, yes. With the old man peddling tamales and elote (Mexican corn on the cob), moving his cart from corner to corner. The taco stands with makeshift canopies and customers eating on their feet, wafts of smoky chorizo filling the air. The families barbequing carne asada in driveways and the tiendas with speakers pulsing out Cumbia music.
We're visiting friends, on the hunt for a store with a carniceria where we can find fresh cuts of beef for our own carne asada, and three out of the four of us represent the only white skin around these parts.
I barely notice, hardly remembering I'm not part Mexican myself, until the stares. Not impolite stares, but guarded. Curious. And I feel the walls closing between us in these streets, that though we can drive wherever we please, coming and going, there is palpable distance between us.
I feel it keenly, painfully: we inhabit different worlds.
* * * * *
We pass a man at his grill outside and Ricardo asks him, in Spanish, where we can find a store to buy good meat. I shift from one foot to the other, eager like a child to enter into the conversation. They finish and Ricardo tugs my hand gently toward the car, but I stay put.
"Listas para la cena?" I ask this man with a playful smile. He looks, for a moment, taken aback. And then, it happens so fast I almost miss it. His guard falls. He smiles back, catching my joke, and responds that, yes, dinner is almost ready, we are on time. We laugh and thank him, waving goodbye with a friendly, "Que le vaya bien!"
* * * * *
We pull into the jackpot of all Mexican grocery stores I've seen, blocks from this man and his barbeque. As soon as we enter the sliding doors, I pull away from Ricardo, squealing. The bags of still-warm sopes and tortillas, made on sight. The lit cases of fresh Mexican sweet breads. The swarms of people shopping, none of them looking like me. In the back of the store, we pull a number and wait our turn at the meat counter. I disappear down the aisles, finding a metal strainer, a large can of whole pinto beans, a bag of homemade tortilla chips. I'm in a room of heaven, and I'm in no hurry to leave.
When it's time to check out, Ricardo and I stand in line with our goods, and I smile at a tiny woman with white hair drawn into a bun, an apron like my grandma may have worn covering her dress, getting into line behind us with a tiny cart of groceries. I am compelled to talk with her, to bridge this gap between us. So I ask her how she is and tell her what a beautiful supermarket this is. How we live in Seattle and there is nothing like this there. She graces me with a warm smile and polite conversation, and I reach out for her hand, gently clasping it, to wish her well as we're leaving.
* * * * *
I don't know why, but my heart is clenching, fluttering, breaking in this place. Mexicans living so close to the border in poverty, many of them eeking out a living, and how easy it has been for Americans to dismiss or judge them based solely on their immigration status. But I know, they are here for a reason, many of them quite possibly for reasons more desperate and heartbreaking than they would ever let on, and everything in me wants to look them in the eyes and laugh with them and practice my limited Spanish with them and learn from the stories they tell, until they know beyond words that I see them as equals. As people, before anything else.
That I want to know them.
Driving back to our friends' home on the other side of town, I wonder if I could live in a neighborhood like this. Where I stand out like a sore thumb, at least on the outside. Because something inside me is crying out to build bridges where there have been few that have remained standing. To build a path, over time, between the walls, between houses. To believe, perhaps with some glimmer of idealism, our homes can even be connected.
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