I am 48.
My cousin Alejandra and I are cleaning house with my daughters, age four and five, who are visiting. Alejandra’s house is less than 100m away from mine, in this small village, and she is often over to visit and help out. She’s an angel, and probably my closest friend apart from my sister, Dorotea, who is also her cousin.
The sweat is beading up on all of us, as the tropical sun beats on the thatch roof. It’s not too bad; humidity is minimal, as it’s Dry Season, and the thickness of the palm thatch keeps things relatively cool. Relatively.
Alejandra is sweeping out the corners, and the girls are on-duty to kill the scorpions that are occasionally flushed out. We are all barefoot, and a quick step is well advised.
(Another time, a juvenile coral snake was disturbed and scurried out very close to my toddler son — that was terrifying. I don’t think I’ve ever moved so quickly.)
You would probably not consider these happy little creatures to be my children; nor, in the West, would I. Nor would we normally think of Alejandra as my cousin. But here they do, and increasingly so do I, and that’s what’s important. Familial ties are different here, in this indigenous community, where I have been for the past seven years. I am godmother to these children — that’s the closest but entirely inadequate translation — the word translates roughly as ‘mother by/because of god’. Here, this is a blood-tie. It confers actual motherhood from me onto these children, with all the authority and responsibility that entails. It forges my sisterhood to their parents, and makes Alejandra my literal cousin. I have blood-ties to extended family reaching out to at least seven other villages across the region, that I know of.
These ties are understood to be lifelong and immutable. These ties are central to the functioning of the culture, and if I visit an unfamiliar village the first order of business is to figure out how we’re all related. That we are related in some way is a given: the family lines are extensive, and I am known. I am white, I am of the People, and I am unique in this place.
It’s a long and complicated story, and I’m not going to get into it here. Let’s just say that my assimilation came through a strange series of blunders (on my part) and intentions (on their part) spanning several years. I did not arrive in this place as an aid worker or missionary or researcher or NGO rep or in any way as a westerner intending to ‘study’ or ‘help’ them. For all my oblivious whiteness, I was never that thoughtless or vain or naïve. No, I came, originally and in great ignorance, for personal reasons, to learn; and through the grace of these people I have learnt a great deal.
Yes, I have been astonishingly ignorant and white and problematic and my people have been very, very patient with me; sometimes to their hurt. Over several years they became increasingly insistent that, if I were going to stick around (and they did want me to) then I needed to accept their gifts. Gifts of clothing and jewellery, gifts of art and baskets and household goods; of their children. Before money, this is a gift culture. Bestowing and accepting gifts is tricky business and comes with particulars of language and ties and obligations. You must be careful what and how and to whom you bestow (thus some of my worst early blunders), as well as how and what and from whom you accept.
Reluctantly, and still somewhat naïvely, I had accepted.
Years later, here I was, living in my acceptance and responsibility. Except for my yearly visits, I did not ever expect to return to the West. That was also naïve. (And that is another long, complicated, and very sad story; for another time.)
It was quite some time before I began wearing the clothing and jewellery I had been given. I did so only when offence had mounted to the point that even I, in my blind western-ness, realised the problem I was creating. I apologised deeply and did my best to explain my reluctance, to explain what ‘cultural appropriation’ is — the long history of white people stealing Native culture even as they went about destroying that culture — to explain that, as a white person, I did not have the right to wear these things.
They did not understand: They had brought me in and no longer considered me white. In the end, I donned the garments and they forgave me. My people are very forgiving, far too much so, really. In time, this would destroy them.
But that sadness is in the future and unknown and the worst of my blunders are in the past and forgotten — on this day that Alejandra and I are cleaning house with my daughters. Today is just another in the long string of days like all other days.
Alejandra lifts her broom, turns and bumps into a shelf, tipping a small vase to the floor where it shatters. She laughs unapologetically, having no notion of the significance this unusual artefact has for me. The crucial importance of giving and receiving aside, my people have no real attachment to things. Things are always temporary, and there will always be other things. The vase means nothing to Alejandra; she laughs easily as she sweeps up the shards and I laugh with her. I have learnt a lot in seven years. Beyond that, I see her casual destruction of this vase as a metaphor.
What I have never told anyone here is that, even before my arrival and although I am white, we are in fact related by blood, if distantly. I don’t mean this in the vague all-humanity-are-one sense; I mean this quite specifically. Indeed, this unmentioned connection probably played a part in my original arrival, though I was unconscious of it at the time. This all has something to do with the vase.
I am 15.
I have survived the horrible school of my first year in the USA, and escaped into the welcome oasis of the School of Performing Arts. It is 1972 and a lingering of the 1960s means that some of the cool kids sport headbands. I decide I want a headband, and sitting in the costume workshop I take thin leather strips and plait them, a skill learnt from my mother. I am pleased with my new accessory and wear it home.
It is not unusual for my father to be harsh with me, even violent, but this is explosive. He slaps the side of my head hard, knocking the headband to the floor, then backhands me the other way.
‘What the hell are you thinking? You have no right to wear that!’
I stand perfectly still and keep my eyes to the floor. I do not talk back. I have learnt this lesson.
He restrains himself, and through gritted teeth explains cultural appropriation to me. I am confused, because I know our family story. I can see it in his face, his skin, on his body, as well as my own.
‘You are white. Don’t you ever forget that, boy.’
This has been erased from the family, and I have no right to wear it.
I am 14.
It is the second week of school. I am sitting at my desk in this horrible school with these horrible people. I have been in America for only a few weeks and I have never in my life felt so isolated and alone.
The principal opens the door, interrupting the class and escorting a boy who looks a couple years too old to be in this room. The teacher walks over and exchanges whispers with the principal, who then leaves as the teacher takes the new boy by the arm and leads him to the front of the class. He stares at the floor as the teacher says, in a bright voice —
‘Well everybody, this is John, and he’s a Navajo Indian!’
I see him flinch. His eyes never leave the ground. I, too, have been treated to something like this and I feel the anguish of empathy. These are horrible people.
The teacher seats him in the front row. His hunched form makes it obvious that he’d rather be anywhere else.
I see him later, at lunch, sitting well away from everyone else. That’s me too: I have no one here, would rather be anywhere than here. I go over with my tray and sit across from him. He looks up and his hostility is palpable, but I don’t leave.
He returns to his food, ignoring me. I stare at him whilst trying not to stare, but I feel a fascination. I am looking at his face, trying to see if I can see any of my face there. My skin is light, but he is not really any darker. My long red-blonde tresses are nothing like his coarse black hair, which stands straight up in a buzz-cut; not long, like pictures I’ve seen. I think maybe we have the same cheekbones, and our noses are maybe kind of similar, not like the cartoon Indian, just maybe…a little wide? And maybe something in the eyes. A year or two older, he is, like me, hairless.
Even as I say it I know this is not the thing to say, but I can’t help myself. There is a stupid part of me that desperately wants to know about this, this thing my family has silenced, wants to say ‘Me too!’ without even knowing what that means and I just hope to god I didn’t say it aloud. Even knowing I’d thought it is mortifying. I have no right to wear it.
He looks at me with what looks like hurt mixed with hatred, remains silent. I am suddenly glad I’m a girl and he won’t hit me. I try to think of something to say to defuse the situation.
‘Your parents move here?’
This confuses me, and I blurt out —
‘But, who are you living with?’
I don’t even know what that is, but I know better than to ask. I can feel the dislocation, the ripped-away in him. It feels like what I feel.
He grunts, not looking up from his food. I don’t bother him with any more questions. He never looks at me again.
At lunchtime the next day I am seated away from the others as usual. He comes out with his tray and, seeing me, pointedly changes course and sits elsewhere, alone. I don’t bother him again.
I am 46.
I am away from my village for a month, on a visit to the States. An American friend and I are on a driving tour of the American southwest. We have been working our way west-to-east, driving across the stark brilliance of Death Valley, through the illuminated plastic of Las Vegas, past the monstrosity of Lake Mead, to the edge of the Grand Canyon, and are now continuing eastward at my request, following a particular highway which I have selected and which has no apparent scenic merit. My friend does not know why we are here and I have chosen not to explain, as I do not myself know how to explain it. This highway traverses a land I know nothing about, that I have no sensible connection to except…somewhere in this vast desert landscape are my great-grandmother’s bones.
This is not something I talk about. I feel I have no right to wear this heredity.
I met my grandfather a couple times. To me he looked like any other old white man. The Irish was strong in him. What was left of his short grey hair had a fine, European texture. You would not have thought anything unless, perhaps, you caught his profile just so, saw the sun in his skin, or perhaps noticed the hairlessness of his arms and cheeks. He did not remember his mother. For some unknown reason, his father had taken him to be raised by the new, white wife. This had never been questioned or explained. ‘Half-breed’ was a dirty word at the end of the nineteenth century and the matter was never discussed. No thought was given to the woman, even her name was discarded.
But her genes are strong, and as a woman I am very grateful to her. Grateful for the hairless body and cheeks that eased my own transgender journey into womanhood. Grateful for the skin which does not burn, but colours to a nut brown in the tropical sun of my village, matching my flesh to my sisters’.
At 46 my European hair has darkened to auburn, nearly to brown, but even with my sun-browned skin it marks me as white. One time on a trip into ‘Town’ with other women of my village, they talked me into buying black hair dye. They have a way of ganging up on me when they are enjoying my discomfort and they leant into me hard, wanting to see what I would look like with hair black like theirs, bullying me until I gave in.
We continue eastward through the dry desert scrub of the American southwest. At a junction there is an open-front shed at the roadside sheltering a few handicraft vendors from the high sun. I ask my friend to pull over and we get out to see what is on offer.
A man entices me with turquoise and silver jewellery, which I find very beautiful and which I want very much, but which I cannot buy. I have no right to wear it. Instead I move to the next table where a woman displays pottery of a very unusual kind, like nothing I’ve ever seen. It is of a fine, white clay, like porcelain, with strange designs in a very fine dark brown, almost black line-work.
I am looking at the pottery, but really I am looking at the woman.
When we got back to the village from Town, my companions took the bottled dye and coloured my hair and eyebrows. There was considerable excitement as they rinsed me out and sat me to dry in the sun, brushing and lifting my hair to dry quickly. They refused me my hand mirror as, with increasing enthusiasm, they greased my hair and rolled it into the traditional ‘fertility snake’ worn by the mature women of my people, pinning it at the back of my head. In the ensuing commotion women ran off to fetch other women and soon half the village was crowded round as, finally, I was handed my mirror.
With my brown skin and newly black hair, the result was striking. The women of my village have somewhat different features than I, and I am, of course, absurdly tall, but the result wasn’t all that far off. There are vague similarities in the cheekbones and nose, maybe in the eyes. They were pretty impressed, not to say thoroughly amused.
No, I don’t really look that much like the women of my village. What I look like, with sun-darkened skin and dyed black hair, is this woman in front of me, showing me her pottery as I try to stare at her without staring. Maybe. I’m not sure, but some part of me really wants to see the kinship. I have a lifetime of questions I want to ask this woman, but I just look at her pottery. I gesture for permission, then pick up a small, strange, pregnant-looking double-necked vase.
She explains the tradition of the wedding vase, how the bride and groom each drink from one of the spouts to seal their betrothal. How the strange line-work is done by burning horse hair onto the heated pot.
I think of my great-grandmother, abandoned by her white husband and deprived of her son. I wonder if they drank from a vase like this. I think of my place in my village, of the suitors I have. I wonder if I will marry one of them.
There have been several, widowers of a suitable age. Women die in childbirth, men die in the jungle, remarriage is usual. The families send messages through the family chain, the men travel to my village. They do not ask me, they ask my people, and my people tell them to come. They want me married, woven into the fabric, and they do not understand my resistance. When I turn suitors away, feelings are hurt — their family’s feelings, my family’s feelings — it’s the will of the family that counts in these matters, not the individuals’.
After I rejected the most recent, my sister Dorotea was frustrated and nearly angry with me. So what was wrong with that one? And I try to explain that I’m just not attracted to him and she is nonplussed — what does that have to do with anything? Her parents chose her husband when she was 12, married at 14, a mother at 15. What on earth is my problem? A woman of my standing can’t just go about unmarried forever…
And once again I am caught between cultures. I interrogate myself: am I being racist, that I do not desire these small brown men? Though female-bodied, I am still a trans woman (this is not known) and I am uncomfortable being held by a man who makes me feel huge; all the men are small. The reverse is not the case: they desire me greatly — I am exotic but culturally accessible — size no issue, I am a special prize. I try to imagine myself caring for a small brown husband, making his tortillas, washing his trousers in the creek. Sometimes my life confuses me greatly.
I look at the woman who I think looks like me. I keep my thousand questions inside and only ask her price. I think her answer is too low, but I do not offer more: I have learnt the trouble of careless gifts. This is a trade on her terms and I will not disrespect her. I purchase the vase. Perhaps when I get home I will use it.
We return to the car and drive away, making no other stops till after we have left the Nation. I do not tell my white friend what has just happened.
I am 48.
My cousin Alejandra and I are cleaning house with my daughters, age four and five, who are visiting.
My elder daughter has pulled out one of my nicer, traditional skirts — worn for occasions like festivals and weddings — and has wrapped herself in it, parading about the room with large, comical strides as my cousin sweeps up the shards of the Navajo wedding vase.
Alejandra picks out one of the larger pieces and inspects the strange thing, asking what this was. I tell her it was a souvenir of the trip I took to the States a couple years ago. Except I know of no word in our language for ‘souvenir’, so I just say ‘a thing’. She shrugs and scoops the debris into the bin. I smile and practice letting go. I have done a lot of letting go in recent years.
I can’t help but feel that this is a portent: So, I will not marry. As with my grandfather, in the end whiteness will win, and after a decade I will be gone from my people. Or, they will be gone from me, as whiteness has destroyed them. But that is a long, complicated, and very sad story for another time.
This story is true. When I first arrived the jungle was everywhere and western culture was only beginning to intrude. Money had arrived, in drips, but the People were still mostly subsistence milpa farmers and, to a lesser extent, hunter-gatherers.
When I left, ten years later, the jungle was gone; the land ‘owned’ by people with government connections, who lived elsewhere and had immigrant workers plant crops for export to Europe and America. The culture was shattered, food was harder to get, and the men fought each other for the few money jobs that were to be had. With money came alcohol. Greed had appeared and the village was torn between those who had jobs and those who did not. Oh, and evangelical missionaries from America, who gave money to some. There began to be fighting between families, sometimes violent.
I couldn’t help, and I couldn’t bear it.
The impetus for writing this story came from a difficult and personally challenging conversation with a patient and generous Native American friend.
An additional nudge came from reading Stephanie Abraham’s essay ‘No Longer Just American’ in Nobody Passes; an anthology of stories and viewpoints on passing and outing — on passing as white and as non-white, as American (or not), as straight or queer, as Christian or Muslim, as female and male, and, of course, as cisgender. I highly recommend the book.
I make a spare living doing this. You can support my work and get draft previews and my frequent ‘Letters Home’ for less than the cost of a coffee.