Photo: Eduardo Rgz/Shutterstock

Stephanie Elizondo Griest on Traveling to Your Motherland

by Valerie Ng May 8, 2009
Author and traveler Stephanie Elizondo Griest struggled with her cultural identity. Upon turning thirty, she ventured to her mother’s native Mexico to search for her roots.

Stephanie Elizondo Griest aptly describes herself as a “globe-trotting nomad,” having traveled through more than 30 countries and 47 of the United States.

Her extensive travels have included stints hanging with the Russian Mafiya in Moscow and editing the English language propaganda of the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing.

Until recently, Griest was unfamiliar with the language, country, and culture of her ancesters, Mexico.

She documented her experience moving to Mexico to study Spanish and explore the country she had long overlooked in her book Mexican Enough: My Life between the Borderlines and speaks with Valerie Ng about the importance of motherland travel.

BNT: You concluded your first book, “Around the Bloc,” by mentioning that you had neglected to learn Spanish and acquaint yourself with Mexico, the country of your ancestors, despite having made your way through so many other countries around the world. Was “Mexican Enough” a continuation of that book?

SEG: Absolutely, it was very much a continuation. It was like a prequel, and it would be good to read “Around the Bloc” before “Mexican Enough,” as I took the long road (to the motherland).

By going to those other places I realized how much I wanted to go to Mexico.

I had met so many incredible individuals in Russia and China who had made sacrifices for their culture, like risking imprisonment for printing newspapers in their native languages, and even met some people whose parents had been sent to the gulag.

I also realized that some of the things that had happened in the Soviet Union had happened here (in the United States). South Texas used to be a part of Mexico not so long ago, and my mom, aunts, and uncles suffered discrimination for speaking Spanish.

By being there it was easy to look at another nation’s policies and think that what they did could only happen in a faraway place, and then you look at the policies of your own nation, and realize that some of those things happened in the U.S., and that was a big eye-opening experience for me.

It took a few years for me to work up the courage to get to Mexico, which began in 2005.

You were born and raised a biracial, third-generation Mexican American in South Texas. Were you exposed to much Mexican or Spanish-speaking culture while you were growing up?

I grew up close to the border (in Corpus Christi), and I remember eating tortillas at the huge gatherings that my family had. But I didn’t grow up speaking Spanish.

I think this is changing today, but when my generation was growing up in the 80s in Texas, which is a really big, really proud state, Mexico was considered the enemy in my Texas history class.

We were taught that the Mexicans had to get out of the land so that the explorers could take over, to carry out their Manifest Destiny as true blue patriots. But the Mexicans wanted to take over the colony that was their country to begin with, and our history class portrayed the opposite of that.

If I hadn’t gone to college, taken Chicano politics classes, and read Howard Zinn, I would never have known the real story of the Alamo and Davy Crockett.

That inspired me to join an organization called The Odyssey from 2000 to 2001, a diverse group of people that spent a year traveling around the United States covering U.S. history that’s generally left untold.

We followed Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States,” and had an audience of 500,000 students all over the world that read along.

We wrote about history from the perspectives that are generally not taught in the classroom, which I did not grow up learning, and we were able to reach students who might not see those perspectives of history.

What were your experiences traveling in Mexico with your family? Did you appreciate those early visits and did they make you want to see more of the country?

When I was little we would travel to border towns. I had never seen poverty until I saw it in Mexico, and I would hand out money to everyone I could. But bordertowns are not really Mexico.

If you ask Mexicans, they will say they are too American, and Americans will think they are too Mexican. Plus, violence is a problem there, but it is U.S. and Mexican policies that make the border so dangerous.

The border is very fascinating from an anthropological perspective, with coyotes, drug tracking, and prostitution, but it’s also scary.

But Mexico is a very rich country. 10% of Mexico’s population is indigenous, and within that 60 distinct ethnic groups, with some being the modern day counterparts of the Mayans, some are Aztecs, some are Zapotecs, and all have their own dialects, languages, customs, and religious practices, that are incredibly distinct from each other.

I have now traveled to over 30 countries, and Mexico is hands-down my favorite.

What was the final impetus that led you to quit your job and move to Mexico, or was it a long-term goal you had had? How did you know it was the right time to go?

It was a long-term goal I had thought about doing since 2000, but first I had to publish Around the Bloc, which took a few years, and then I did a massive book tour.

I am also a big believer in signs, and that you have to be receptive to them.

A huge number of places I was invited to speak were for Latino cultural groups, where people came up to me and started speaking Spanish, and I couldn’t respond.

Also, I was approaching my 30th birthday and I was talking about things I did when I was 21, and I didn’t want to be known only for things I did when I was 21.

I am also a big believer in signs, and that you have to be receptive to them.

My birthday was coming up, and I needed new goals. When I was wondering about what to do, I encountered a group of Mexican border crossers. Then in New York, I got off at the wrong subway stop, and saw an ad for trips to Mexico.

But I didn’t have the money to go. I was living in New York with roommates and working as an activist. I quit my job, and even though I only had a few thousand dollars I knew I had to do it.

On Christmas Day I was with my family opening presents, and when I opened mine I got a check for $5000. Tia (my mom’s aunt who raised her) had died earlier that year and had given her money to all of the kids, and that was my portion.

That was another sign. I thought what better way to spend that gift than to go to Mexico and learn the language.

How did you prepare for this experience?

Not a lot. I was working and had a bad transitioning period. I had a friend from junior high who had been living there for a year and was about to leave, and he had me take over his place. The only thing I did to prepare was buy a plane ticket. I didn’t have a chance to brush up on my Spanish or do any reading.

When you first arrived in Mexico, did it feel different from your arrival in Moscow or Beijing? How was the overall experience different from your previous travels?

I prepared 4 years for Moscow, studying the language, the history, and the literature. I prepared for a summer for China, studying Mandarin and reading about the history. For Mexico, I didn’t prepare at all, or had prepared for my entire life.

In Mexico, I can pass for Mexican, but some people thought I was Chilean or Spanish, rather than American, and I had an accent that wasn’t necessarily American. There, a lot of things looked familiar because I was racially Mexican myself. I was more culturally sensitive in Moscow and China, really on edge and observant.

My Mexican housemates were cleaning fanatics, and they expected me to be the same way, but I didn’t want to. They wanted me to get down on my hands and knees and clean as well, but I was thinking, you’re just like me.

If that had been the case in China I would have, because it was a different culture. I realized that even though the Mexican culture seemed similar it was really just as foreign.

You were leery of traveling to Mexico for many years, associating it with kidnappings, narco-traffickers, and murders. How did your perceptions of Mexico start to change?

Before I was fearful that these things would happen to me personally, but then after a while I was no longer afraid for my personal safety. The people I met that had bad things happen to them was because they were indigenous or activists.

Mexico in 2005 to 2006 was an extraordinary time, when schoolteachers were shot at with rubber bullets, and indigenous activists activists were kidnapped and tortured.

You had your hangups about being a “bad Mexican,” not having spent much time learning the language or culture. Do you feel that you became “Mexican enough” through this experience? How did you come to terms with your Mexican-American identity?

The main thing I’ve learned is that part of what means to be Latino is to be culturally schizophrenic, culturally reflecting, unsure of who they are, what they are, and when you get down to it, am I enough. This affects every American Latino that has reached a level of economic stability.

On a good day, Mexican enough is the best I can possibly be. On the worst days, you think you’re not enough of this, not enough of that. I get letters every day from people worried about the same thing.

You are certainly not the only person who has had reservations about visiting the Motherland. Did you feel that the Mexicans you met accepted you as being at least part Mexican?

No. Whenever I referred to myself as Mexican in Mexico, they laughed. To them, I was just as gringo as everyone else.

But when I explained that I had Mexican blood, that I cared about them, that I was interested in the culture, and wanted to learn the language, they appreciated it. I was there to find a connection, not to drink tequila and never saw a body of water.

In the United States, I refer to myself as Mexican-American, Chicana, or Latina. Chicana is my favorite because a friend of mine refers to it as a “pissed-off Mexican who is a politically engaged, active Mexican.” It has a bite to it, referring to someone who is politically conscious of their identity.

In your second book “100 Places Every Woman Should Go,” you included a section on Motherlands, describing it as the most meaningful of all travel destinations. What advice do you have for anyone who would like to embark on a journey to their motherland?

Lose your fear an just go, just go, just go. It can be intimidating, you may have your hangups but just go for it. It can seem very challenging, but it’s very rewarding.

Even though I am a huge advocate of traveling alone, but it can be more powerful to travel with your mother, father, sister, brother, child, grandparent, or great-grandparent.

Try to learn as much of the language as possible, interview your family, and look through photo albums. Travel as close to your ancestors’ home as possible, although in some cases it can be a whole continent.

This is truly a trip to prepare for, it can’t be spur of the moment.

Learn more about Stephanie Elizondo Griest on her website. And read her interview with Rolf Potts on travel writing.

Discover Matador