In my undergrad writing classes I’d turn in my meta-fictional surreal vignettes and my instructor would nicely go over them with me, though I knew she was heavy into realism. After talking about some mechanics, she’d get to what she thought I really needed to write about—My ethnicity. I never heard her tell anyone else that, so I asked her why. “Oh, you have a unique perspective coming from two cultures. Last name Duncan and all,” and she’d look up at me then quickly back down at the paper. But I knew it was only one of my cultures she was interested in since it was the 90s, back when Anglos liked reading about Chicanos, though they still saw us as immigrants who needed to melt in the Anglo pot. Like in Linguistics when a classmate turned to me as the class discussed Ebonics and said, “When those people come to our country they need to speak English.”
I didn’t like what my writing teacher advised me. She, the person who also said she wished she was half something else, because she was just “normal.” And she didn’t tell Gary the Gringo to write about his ethnicity, why should I? Can’t I have artistic concerns on themes other than the color of my skin and the history of my people? So, I decided not to write the story titled, “A Wetback Named Scott Duncan,” like she wanted and I kept writing my surreal stories, though most often colored (if you will) by my Neo-Chicano college experience of being profiled on campus, hardly called upon in class, having my ID triple checked, and Anglo classmates thinking I was going to school for free.
Years later, in the next century, my classmates in grad school kept asking me where I was from. I said, “Ramona.” “Pomona?” “No, not the city of Pomona, the shitsville town of Ramona near San Diego.” Like everyone ever they’d say, “Oh, not that, I meant. ‘Where is your family from?’” I’d say, “LA.” “No, I mean like where do they come from?” “LA.” “Really? You look Mexican though.” My family were some of the founders of LA. “Oh, when did they come to the US?” By then I’d think Anglos don’t even know their own damn history and so I just mutter the thing that was radical and widely distributed 50 years ago “The US crossed us.” “Oh, gee, I didn’t know. You should write about that. It’s interesting.”
Despite everyone’s reaction, I don’t see myself or my name as an anomaly. White men have been banging brown women on this continent for 500 years, after all. My dad’s redneck side even says they are Scottish and ‘Black Dutch’ not knowing Black Dutch is euphemism some distant half-Comanche relative came up with to explain his dark complexion. And as far as the name, the first mestizo, Martin Cortez, was named in the language of his father as well.
Yet in grad school I had to explain “where I was from” so much and every motherfucker told me it was so interesting that I decided for once to take the advice of professors and classmates and address the ethnicity question. And I envisioned a book to smack the face of the next person who asked it. So I wrote The Ramona Diary of SRD on my experience as a Chicano and reclaiming the myth of Spanish California as a descendant of a Spanish Don and a Mission Indian or two.
I turned in chapters to workshop classes and hardly anyone commented on them out of what I guess to be terror that their comments might seem racist, actually be racist, or out of a general dislike of me, but who could blame them, I was better looking.
It was then I realized my book doesn’t fit the one narrative about Mexican-Americans people in the US are willing to read. Ones with a nice peasant mother who made the life-threatening desert crossing over from Mexico or about me taking ESL classes and winning a spelling bee that, by magic, kept me out of a gang. Those are great stories that need to be told, glad everyone wants to read them, but they ain’t my story. My story is the US dispossessed and disenfranchised my family so we went from being the sons of Dons to being the sons of Broke-ass Beaners and, to coin a phrase, got treated as foreigners in our native land.
Now, after putting my experience in the book and talking about it, everyone think I’m obsessed with race, which is odd because I’ve heard that question, “Where are you from?” all my life from other people along with these monthly, out-of-the-blue statements and questions: 1. You look SO Mexican. You sure your father is white? 2. You look nothing but white, why would you claim otherwise? What are you up to? 3. What tribe are you from? My grandmother had high cheekbones because she was Cherokee. We are probably related, ha-ha.
Perhaps my professor and classmates thought as a half-white I’d do something light and touristy, like when they waltz into a taqueria and adventurously order something gross they can’t pronounce. I suppose no one wants to hear about how the American Dream was built on the looting and subjugation of the West rather than some whitewashed cowboy fantasy since it’s not 1996 anymore. And no one wants to hear how dangerous being brown and male today is, even for a half-breed named Scott. People still seem to want to hear the stories of Californios where we dance fandangos till we drop dead like we do in every story told by others, from the novel Ramona by the East Coast Anglo who started the craze for Mission Style everything to that more recent rip off of a racist fantasy titled Zorro by that famous South American.
Do I regret taking the advice and writing this book? No. I understand Chicano history and my own history better and moreover wrote myself a place in my own native land. And I figured out what my professor and classmates really meant when they said I should write about my ‘interesting ethnicity’ –Dance for us, amigo. Dance.
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