What I Wish Someone Had Told Me: On (Always) Being a Foreigner



I hardly ever get to see my boyfriend on Sundays- I’m usually running around, trying to tend to the needs of women under my care in several congregations I belong to, which turns my day of rest into a day of exhaustion. By the end of the day when we’re finally reunited we have a days worth of stories to catch up on while cuddling up in his hammock. It is one of my favorite parts of Sunday.

“You will never guess what I was asked today” he says, almost as if there’s a punch line.

“If you were single?”

“No- I was asked what I did to get an American girlfriend. They thought you were American”.

The thing is, it’s not the first time- and I’m sure won’t be the last time either. So, as a public service announcement to you, my exiled sister or brother I’d like to tell you that you will always, always be a foreigner.

I say this with 4 years of living in Mexico and a Mexican birth certificate as my credentials to tell you that if you’re coming back, being foreign never stops.

Coming to the U.S. as a child was an interesting experience. For me the difficult part was assimilating. I finally had access to all the Greek Mythology my little heart desired but I was constantly reminded of my foreignness.

I looked vaguely Latina, but sounded white. My entire middle school and high school experience was full of questions similar to: “Are you mixed?”, “Where were you born exactly?” and a large celebration (and over emphasis) of Cinco de Mayo and shady looking zarapes.

Then I moved to Utah and that came with its own horribly misguided statements and approval seeking looks when anything vaguely Hispanic was mentioned. Being the only go to brown person in people’s lives was amusing and isolating. I had statements ranging from “I wasn’t even aware Mexicans could speak English so well!” to “And I thought all [Mexicans] did was have dirty babies and feed them tacos on their lawn!” (I so wish I was kidding about that last one).

When I became the stereotypical Mexican (OMG UNDOCUMENTED!) while being palatable to white sensibilities (OMG she likes Thoreau and harbors a somewhat obsessive love towards The Beatles, particularly George Harrison!) it became obvious how incredibly “other” I was. I got people offering to claim me or sponsor me, people who asked if a student visa was a possibility (not in my case), people being bold enough to come and explain how undocumented people were wrong and should be returned without one shred of irony- and all of these people were white people, acutely aware of my being “other” since their numbers “proved” that they were the norm.

Somewhere in my remaining 90 days Stateside I made a list of potential positives to my return- I say potential because everything felt like one gigantic question mark- and in the list was “Rediscovering my culture” and “(potentially) belonging”. “Belonging” seemed like a very real possibility to me- I would not be encumbered by undocumented jokes, or asked about my status or how I came here or where I was from and how did I celebrate Cinco de Mayo? And OMG Day of the Dead’s like the Mexican Halloween, right?

I would have a break, And I would be accepted.

The thing is, depending on the time you’ve been Stateside, you have picked up on some strictly U.S. behaviors, behaviors that don’t magically disappear once you set foot on Mexican soil.

In my case, crutch words like “Um”, my constant asking of “Is that a real word?”, as well as my excitement over strictly American things, things that in some way became home, or reminders of a lovely time immediately gave me away.

Like the time I went to Progreso, a port town, and found a store that sold Teddy Grahams. It was a lonely moment where my worlds mixed into each other, with an American friend and a Mexican friend alongside and me, a water and oil mixture of the two looking at a thing that one took for granted and the other did not know.

I bought that box and ate them all within a few days. They were slightly stale but after 4 years without them they tasted glorious.

But even in my mixed company, even in a town full of expats, I was an “other”. After 15 years in the U.S. and 4 years in Mexico, I still was an other to both.

I was an other because of my curiosity to find the correct word usage, my lack of know-how in social situations, my inability to cook without a cook book, my inexperience in the public markets, my innocent assumptions of the streets at night, my watery eyes at the sight of stray dogs, my fury and desire for activism against a corrupt government, I am a foreigner for the way that “God Bless America” still makes me cry and how I feel conflicted about celebrating Thanksgiving or ever returning to the U.S.

Your reasons will be different, but make no doubt about it, they will show. You will slowly start to distinguish those factors that isolate and bind you to more than one thing, more than one place.

We will always be foreigners, “others”, Americans here and Mexicans in the U.S.

I wish I could give you a clear cut answer on how it ends. I honestly don’t know if it does. There are good days where you forget and almost blend in and there are bad, no good days where you are reminded in angry and mocking tones that you are a failed attempt at permanence.

What I can say is that there are others like you, and that they can be north stars that help you in your journey. You don’t have to do this alone.


2 thoughts on “What I Wish Someone Had Told Me: On (Always) Being a Foreigner

  1. Hi, loved this!!!! I, like you, lived a good percentage of my life en los yunaited, 21 years to be exact and I can empathize with much of what you say. You are right, we will always be foreigners in someones eyes, some habits die hard and others never die at all so we will always be different. Some customs I refuse to pick up from my new old home and others from my old home I wish I could lose but all of these are what makes us who we are. I for one feel that what makes us different is what enables us to make a difference even if its a small one. I am satisfied knowing I am doing my best to make my immediate surroundings better. Like you said, we are not alone, there are many of us and all we have to do is keep our strength up. Greetings from Guadalajara

  2. Hi! Just wanted to tell you I’ve loved looking through your blog, and I especially loved THIS post. As a Mormon Latina (born in El Salvador) who grew up in Utah (and whose name NOBODY can pronounce or spell right…), I completely feel your pain! I’m now working in DC for a Latino civic engagement organization, so your immigration story is also of great interest to me. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! :)

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