Identity 2018

Identity ’18: “Secrets” by Luisa Kay Reyes

The lady had called back which could only mean good news. And being ever so eager to be the first to share with my mother the welcome news, I rushed into the bathroom even though my mother was in the midst of taking a bath, promptly informing her that the lady from Georgia had called back. While pouring some of the bathwater over her arm, my mother trembled, saying she wasn’t sure if she should return the call, leaving me bewildered at her lackluster reaction. “It would mean leaving Tuscaloosa” she told me. The significance of which I didn’t fully understand at the time.

For a while, the popular mindset held that our home state of “Alabama, the Beautiful” was pretty much a culturally barren wasteland. For us to leave our flagship university town for the hills of Habersham in the Northeast Georgia mountains, that were immortalized by the poet Sidney Lanier in his “Song of the Chattahoochee,” represented quite a cultural shift. The shift being that of coming from a college town to a part of the country that touched upon the hills of Appalachia.

With us being new to the area, our first residence was a single room in a rather cheap looking hotel. It was an inexpensive establishment run by a mormon lady who seemed to respect my mother very much, since she was one of the new teachers hired by the state of Georgia as part of their program to start teaching foreign languages from kindergarten on up. My brother was less impressed, however, as he confided in me periodically that he was giving my mother another week. If she didn’t find better living quarters for us by the end of those seven days, he’d take off and go live with our dad in Mexico.

***

I was in my sophomore year of high school and I soon learned that while the term “minority” in Alabama most often was used in reference to the African-American population, here, in the Northeast Georgia mountains, it was used to refer to the Mexicans and Laotians, since there were hardly any African-Americans in our large public high school that pretty much serviced the entire county. I wasn’t sure at first who the Laotians were, having never heard of Laos before, but we soon learned that Laos was a country in Southeast Asia bordering on Vietnam.

One time while we were driving around town and pulling up to a street corner, I saw a group of brown-skinned men huddling together and I assumed they were Laotian. I was puzzled, however, for I recognized the language that I heard them speaking through the car windows. And they were speaking Spanish. I was stunned.

“Why are those men speaking Spanish?” I asked my mother.

“Well, because they are Mexican” was her response.

I felt startled. But, I’m half-Mexican, I thought to myself. And we had lived in Mexico City until I was ten. Yet, try as I could to rack my brain, I couldn’t recall ever seeing anybody back in one of the most populous cities of Latin America who looked so much like the Laotians.

“I understand they come from the rural parts of Southern Mexico to work in the chicken factories” my mother expounded further. While I sat in the car trying to contain my urge to stare at the group of people huddled together, in disbelief.

In school, I knew that there were other Mexicans, but, somehow, my class schedule didn’t coincide with theirs. Come time for the lunch hour, I found myself at a loss for whom to sit and eat lunch with. For the cafeteria was rather large and everybody seemed to have a group that they instinctively knew they were automatically a part of for the partaking of the midday meal. The football players always sat together, sporting their team jerseys on a nearly daily basis, with the rest of the Caucasian student body divided along more socio-economic lines.

I was the new girl in school and knew not where to go. So, standing in line for my lunch, I fell in with a group of slender and petite Laotian girls. Feeling content that I had found somebody to eat with, we all sat and ate lunch together on a daily basis. With the conversation one day turning to a discussion of the various churches in town.

In my family, we had tried the local Methodist Church at first, but then settled in on one of the big Baptist Churches. The Laotian girls didn’t attend either one, with one of the girls explaining that she had visited the Presbyterian Church once. “But”, she added, after pausing for a moment with a pointed glance in my direction, she didn’t like it because “it is too white.” Too white? This comment took me most by surprise. In Church they always emphasized on how all humankind was a part of God’s creation, so I couldn’t understand why a particular Church was considered white.

With our lunch break ending before I could ask my Laotian lunchmate for more details, I asked my mother when I got home what she meant by saying the “Presbyterians were too white.”

“She’s right” was my mother’s response, leaving me to try and reason this latest revelation out on my own. For actually, the Methodist Church we had attended was primarily Caucasian, as well. With the students in my rather quiet and unresponsive Sunday School class coming from some of the more affluent families in the area. In fact, the congregational makeup of our Baptist Church could be considered primarily white, too. But, yet, the Presbyterian Church was the one receiving the moniker of being too white.

“Why?” I finally had to ask.

“Well, they are well-to-do white” was the explanation I finally received when I pressed my mother further. A detail which my classmates later corroborated. And, even though my mother was highly regarded as a teacher in the area, I noticed we never bothered to visit the too white Church.

***

My first class in the early mornings was chemistry. I struggled at first, but I soon found the subject intriguing when I started writing a research paper on Irène Joliot-Curie, the scientist daughter of the famous Marie Curie, learning some details throughout my readings about protons and electrons that my professor even said she was unaware of. The revelation fascinated me. While my chemistry grades soon improved with some extra tutoring on the part of my professor, the best student in the class, by far, was the Asian girl who received hundreds while the rest of the class bemoaned their test scores.

Consequently, one early morning, one of the Caucasian fellows in our class started trying to make some small talk with her about some Laotian food he’d tried over the weekend.  Food that included a lot of sticky rice and the marinated meat dish of larb. Even though I sat at a distance from her, the grimace on her face was clearly visible, indicating that she was most displeased. “That’s Laotian food” she explained. “I don’t know Laotian food, I only eat Chinese food.”

“Oh, I’m sorry, I forgot” the boy responded. The matter was dropped.

I soon learned that I wasn’t the only person from Alabama in one of my classes, a neat coincidence that both I and my classmate found interesting. My Alabama native classmate was also Asian, although not from Laos, and had run away from home when she was twelve. Although, she was now living in the Northeast Georgia mountains, she was thrilled to meet somebody from back home. Coming across as a studious classmate and well-behaved in class, I felt just a bit perplexed as to why she would be a runaway. It was part of her culture, she explained to me. When I asked my mother about it later, she told me she had read an article in the newspaper once about an Asian culture where the kids take off from home at the age of twelve.

It was curious. During my early childhood years while living in Mexico City,  people often commented on the promise of America with a dreamy look in their eyes. To hear them tell it, of the streets in the United States were lined with gold. Yet, here in the Northeast Georgia mountains, it seemed fortunate indeed if the streets were even lined with so much as small gravel stones. My mother commented one day as we drove past a house where one of my mother’s students lived, a house that included no indoor plumbing. “I had no idea such poverty existed in America.” It was an unforgettable moment for the three of us.

With the lack of financial resources being such a reality in the area, it would almost seem like hope was dead in such a place. However, the Appalachian culture of the Northeast Georgia mountains, did include with it one advantage: the people were rather good looking, as in classic Hollywood, movie star types of good looks. This fact hadn’t gone unnoticed by some of the modeling talent scouts, who had defied the geographic odds by finding their way to the remote “hills of Habersham”. Several of my young classmates were left to ponder whether or not they should drop out of school and take off for New York to become a fashion model.

A few of us focused on the more academic route of making it in the world beyond the mountains all around us, with one of the girls in my Geometry class announcing every day that she wanted to go to Harvard for college, a class which included a girl that was noticeably expecting and had to eat snacks all day long, as per her doctor’s instructions. Then, one day, the announcement was made in another one of my classes that one of the girls in our class had dropped out of high school at the age of fifteen to live in a trailer with a guy in North Carolina. Coming from a family that included five generations of teachers and professors on my mother’s side, I found it unfathomable that someone wouldn’t finish high school. Yet, “Don’t y’all do the same” was the warning our teachers repeated to all of us in earnest.

***

With long flowing dark hair, coupled with my dark eyes and thick dark eyebrows, I never made any attempts to disguise my Mexican heritage. Although, it didn’t take me long to pick up on the fact that it wasn’t something to be trumpeted from the stage of the school’s fairly full-sized theater. Yet, one day, I still know not how, the word got out. People were astonished, for to their eyes, I had more of an Italian look, since I also was a little bit fair of skin. Being so incredulous to discover that I was “one of them”, when I was walking along in the hallway in between classes with my textbooks in hand, one older boy started exclaiming “Luisa is Mexican! Luisa is Mexican!” for all to hear. I thought about what I could say to him, for truthfully, I still struggled with the concept that it was something regarded as shameful. Before I could come up with anything to say, a boy walking along next to him told him to be quiet. After all, “she’s actually smart,” he said. The issue was never brought up again, at least not in my presence.

I soon learned that I had fared well, however, for my brother informed us that when word got out in his middle school that he had Mexican heritage, he was spat upon.

It was all rather mind boggling. In Mexico City, we could take a brief walk to get to my ballet school, where we were taught classical ballet by one of the premier Mexican dancers who had performed in some of the most impressive theaters in Europe. We adored “Miss Yolanda” and studied in earnest for our ballet exams, administered by an examiner flown in from London as part of the Royal Academy of Dance. Here, in Habersham County, my mother would have to drive me nearly two hours each way to take me to my ballet lessons at the Callanwolde Fine Arts Center in Atlanta. Teaching a full day of classes and then having to drive me to Atlanta for ballet, was a bit taxing at times. One afternoon, my mother begged me for permission to miss a day because she was simply too tired to make the drive. I understood, for even though we were just passengers, the two-hour trip each way wasn’t always easy on my brother and me, either.

***

Shortly, I became friends with the daughter of the owners of the local Chinese restaurant. She was very excited because she was up for the Chemistry award. In fact, we were both nominated for awards for the upcoming awards night, and she was debating whether or not she should smile. In China, she explained to me, it was considered childish and unprofessional to smile in that kind of a setting. Naturally, I felt that smiling would be perfectly understandable, especially since our high school was a large one and to be the recipient of one of the academic awards was quite significant.

As the evening approached for the awards night, my mother and my brother and I all dressed up nicely for the ceremony. To my delight, I received the Geometry award. My Chinese friend received a number of awards. With her face beaming, she went up to receive her awards every time her name was called. Yet, she most definitely did not grin from ear to ear, a fact which my mother remarked upon. I started to explain to my mother that she had debated whether or not to smile, but I knew my Chinese friend well enough to tell that while she wasn’t going wild with a big grin, just the fact that she was beaming with her closed lips curved upwards, represented a huge smile on her part.

One day, all of my Laotian friends were absent, except for one, and we got separated from each other in the lunch line. By then, I was excelling in our History of Western Civilization class, which in Georgia was a Freshman class, rendering me the lone sophomore, but making me a familiar face to my younger classmates. Somehow, they graciously invited me to sit and eat with them. The yearbook had come out and the ninth grader in front of me was looking through it to see which girl he was going to marry one day. We were all laughing back and forth when it suddenly dawned on me. I looked around and and I realized that I was sitting at one of the all-white tables. To my surprise, I felt unsure about how long that would last, but at the same time I couldn’t repress the feeling of pride that overwhelmed me at the realization of that fact. There was this unshakeable feeling that somehow I had arrived. I did also find myself wondering whether or not I should let them know that I was half-Mexican and maybe excuse myself. But we were all teasing the fellow in front of me over the girls he was picking out of the yearbook, that it didn’t seem like the appropriate time for such a statement to be made.

Later, I was sitting talking to another one of my Chinese friends. She was in a different section of chemistry than I was so when she made a reference to the Laotian girl who made the top grades in my section, I corrected her. “She’s Chinese” I said. “Not Laotian.”

“She’s actually Laotian” she corrected me. “She just feels that since she’s lighter she can pass for Chinese. She’s begged me not tell anybody.”

It was a proclamation which astonished me more than The Declaration of Independence. While my friend didn’t force me into promising not to reveal the secret of our Laotian Chemistry genius, I knew that it was something I wouldn’t share. For, here I was, harboring a similar secret of my own.


Luisa Kay Reyes has had pieces featured in The Raven Chronicles, Fire In Machines,  Windmill, Halcyon Days, Fellowship of the King, Enchanted Conversation: A Fairy Tale Magazine, Route 7 Review, The Foliate Oak, The Eastern Iowa Review, and other literary magazines. Her piece, “Thank You”, was the winner of the April 2017 memoir contest of The Dead Mule School Of Southern Literature. Her Christmas poem was a first place winner in the 16th Annual Stark County District Library Poetry Contest. Additionally, her essay “My Border Crossing” has just been nominated for the Pushcart Prize by the Port Yonder Press.

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