“To make good rice,” my father used to say, “you need a special talent.” Mexican rice is… how to say? temperamental. The short, puffy grains explode into batter if overcooked. The canola oil needs to be warmed up at mid-temperature. Then, the rice is added and fried for a minute or two. Next, fresh garlic and salt are added, just before the onions. The onions need to get translucent before one can add chicken broth and tomato puree. The Roma tomato puree needs to be fresh and well-seasoned. Finally, the rice needs to boil. The temperature, later, lowered and the peas and carrots added, until the rice is cooked, but not overcooked. About 20 minutes, although it may be less if you are in Mexico City, where the water boils faster… Miss a step and you will end up with rice puree instead!
I never learned to make Mexican rice. I grew up at a time when instant rice came in little packages sold to “working women” who had almost no time to feed their families because they were engaging in second or third shifts… Kraft Foods distributed it, and made it into a symbol of “modern womanhood.” In between that and the actual difficulty of cooking Mexican rice, the craft was never passed down to me.
Since I was a kid, I was told that I had what Mexicans call sazón. Anglophones do not have a word to describe it… but it is basically an innate cooking skill, which determines whether someone’s cooking will taste good or not. You can follow a recipe to a tee, but if you have no sazón, it will taste nothing like it should.
When I immigrated to Canada, I feel that a lot of that sazón stayed behind… perhaps at the airport… or maybe even in the sky. It just did not follow me.
I became familiar with the blandness of white people’s food. I also became acquainted with watered down versions of the cuisine of people of colour, which are always called “Ethnic food.” I walked aisles of “ethnic products” featuring the appropriated American/Canadian versions of the cuisine that I had learned to love. And just as these prepackaged products, “ethnic cuisine” in Canada abided to the rules that deemed Westerners careful and healthy, while labeling us “the other:” Food sold in Canada has a whole less salt because Westerners are said to really care about health; a whole less spice because white people are said to be “sensitive;” and a whole less “weird” because white Westerners cannot get past the fact that the rest of us have managed to make delicacies out of our surroundings.
No Mexican restaurant in here serves chapulines, escamoles or moronga, but once in a while they pull out a bottle of tequila with a worm inside, because white people like “exotic” southern alcoholic drinks. They are just edgy enough to be “exotic” but familiar enough to be comfortable. Good thing other drinks, like mezcal have not yet become readily available, because otherwise they would be playing “shot games” with it or mixing it with things like Red Bull and the alike, something that would terribly offend my gradfather, who has a mezcal producer.
“I know Spanish!… Tequila! Fiesta! Cerveza!” The say to me. Nine years after moving, some Canadians can still catch my accent and smell the southerness…
When I got here, Canadians loved to note my accent. “You are so cute… say house…” And I would say “khouse,” not realizing that Anglophones have no strong “H” sounds. I will also continue to type “jajajaja” in conversations, because that is how we laugh in Spanish. At the beginning white people thought my accent was “cute;” but after a few years, they felt the need to correct me. “You can’t say ‘eschool,’ there is no E,” “We don’t say ‘estop,’” “There is no such a thing as a ‘jolk…’ it is ‘yolk.’”
These little cues of my hispanicity (and yes, I can call it that), eventually transformed into invitations for people to exotify, sexualize or criminalize me. Men would comment about my curves and they would happily examine my body visually, because Latina’s are a product always available to the Western-white gaze. They would comment about my long brown hair. They would ask me, “Do you know J.Lo? Eva Mendes?” They would question my lighter skin and my “Asian” features, which are truly a sign of my Indigeneity, something most white Westerners cannot wrap their heads around. And do not get me started on the stereotypes… You cannot imagine how many people have asked me if I am here illegally, or if my relatives are drug lords and mules.
Some days these things would really get to me, and I would stand in front of the mirror, trying to practice my English and aiming to erase the accent that would give up my background immediately. I was never really able to get rid of my accent… just to modify it enough for people to be confused. Some think I am a Francophone, some others plain and simple cannot tell. And I laugh at their attempts to pin point my background… I have never quite understood white people’s obsession with knowing where someone is from… or knowing why someone looks the way they look like…
But I guess that is just one of the many features of white supremacy… as if the bland food, the othering and the fake politeness were not enough.
I often walk into rooms with other “others.” Some are immigrants, some are refugees, some are somewhere in limbo. Sometimes you can tell who came when and from where, just based on their experiences of immigration. For instance, in my experience, some South Asian immigrants who came to Canada in the 60s and 70s, after the government lifted its ban on non-white and Indian immigrants, tend to be quite deferential to the Canadian government and have embraced Canadian multiculturalism, despite its problems. The same can be said of some refugees who came from countries like Afghanistan, Chile, the former Yugoslavia and El Salvador throughout the 80s and 90s.
For many of us who came later, the story is a bit different. While some refugees are still thrilled at Canada’s reception, some of us have never being received with arms wide open. Mexicans, for instance, are one of those groups that have ambivalent experiences. Many of us have been criminalized… denied permanent residence or citizenship even after years of living and paying taxes in Canada. To immigrate here, we go through medical processes that screen out people with illnesses like HIV and cancer. LGBTIQ communities, elders and single-mothers have also been denied immigration at certaing points in time. Our families are also investigated in connection to drug activity or armed insurrection, as if that was what being “Mexican” is all about. And in recent years, despite being “best friends” with Canada through the North American Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Canada imposed a visa on Mexican tourists that was more expensive than the American visa and much more difficult to acquire (to be lifted on December 2016). Mexican credentials are also rarely recognized, preventing many of us from acquiring jobs with salaries above the minimum. Not to mention, that despite ongoing activism triggered by the unnamable abuses by the Mexican government and a death toll higher than that of Iraq or Afghanistan, Canada refuses to name Mexico as an “unsafe” country for its own citizens to avoid granting Mexicans refugee statuses.
Better-off Mexicans in Canada are often the product of brain drain. They have never worked the fields, they encounter little institutional barriers and are rarely exposed to abuse and low pay. But the racism, the exclusion and the tokenism do not go away. We will always be reminded that we are not really part of settler-Canada, particularly if we are not white-passing.
We are often asked why we leave our countries. And let’s make it very clear.We all leave for different reasons. But regardless, we do not leave because we do not love our countries, our families, our friends, our language, food and culture… We do not always leave because Canada is “better,” in fact, we often suffer the transition. We often leave because our countries are being bombarded by Western forces or coups d’état are perpetrated and defended by the same countries. Or because lack of American gun control fills our streets with killing devices. Or because NAFTA sunk us into poverty and the global economy has even driven low paying jobs into China, Taiwan and Bangladesh. Or because being Indigenous in Latin America is to hold one of the most dangerous identities in the region… ironically, we are “safer” in the same countries implicated in the killing of fellow Indigenous activists.
So no. I am not thankful. I am angry. I am ambivalent. I am annoyed. Why are we not desving of life? of opportunities? of peace?
For me, immigration is to lose a part of one’s self. One leaves everything behind, including the language, the people and the traditions. There are also tons of things that we have no idea we are losing until they are gone. In my case… I left behind the ability to make rice and along with it, a piece of my soul.