Those words still ring in my ears when I think of the incident. It was Fall of 1979, and I had volunteered to run the sound board for a lecture presentation sponsored by the Chicano Law Students Association. I was invited by a high school classmate that was also attending Law School at the University of Texas School of Law.
When introduced to all the other law students at the meeting it was for the most part a rather pleasant experience. One of the students, however, was in a belligerent mood. He asked me if it was true that I had received the New Century Fund scholarship to attend school and I acknowledge that I had. “That is supposed to be for Mexican American students, isn’t it?” My answer was that it was.
Then it came. “You aren’t Mexican! The scholarship should go to a Mexican American student, and with a name like Bullis you obviously don’t qualify.” The words really stung because it had never occurred to me that I wasn’t. I countered with the fact that my mom was born in Mexico and that I was a first generation American on her side of the family. I asked him how long ago his parents had come to the US and he said that it didn’t matter. My last name was Bullis and there was no way I could be Mexican.
So I asked him. If my father had been the Rivera and my mother the Bullis then would you question my scholarship? He said “of course not.” At that point I realized I was in a battle of wits with an unarmed man. I wish I had responded with something other than “Eres pendejo”, which loosely translates to “you are an idiot.’
I have fought this battle for most of my life. To my father’s family, who I rarely ever saw and have never really met, I was the little Mexican kid. To a lot of my family in Juarez, I was the little gringo or “pocho.’ When registering for classes at UTEP I was called back by one of the registrars. She told me I made a mistake on my classification because I had checked off that I was Hispanic (or Chicano or Mexican_American or whatever the term that was used back then.) I remember a line in the movie “Selena” where the Selena’s father, played by Edward James Olmos”, said something to the effect that as a Tejano he was not American enough for Americans and not Mexican enough for Mexicans. I totally relate.
So the question is – what am I? My answer is I am what I feel that I am, and if I don’t meet the image or stereotype of my ethnicity that you have in your mind, then too damn bad.
I was raised by a single Mexican immigrant mom whose husband abandoned her and her two kids when I was very young. Since I spend a huge amount of time in Juarez with my grandparents, my primary language was Spanish. My grandfather, Arturo Rivera was my father figure. My grandmother, Mauricia Carrasco was my caretaker, morals instructor, and the director of culinary arts in our household. From the time that I was a little boy I was fascinated with Aztec history and I have continued that love to this day.
People stare at me at times because I use my tortilla as a fork to scoop up my food. I still find myself switching from English to Spanish to English in the same sentence when I speak to my wife or my kids. My mom treated me with the various Mexican medical remedies that I wrote about earlier. So am I Mexican? Maybe not by citizenship. I am an American, and a darn proud one at that. But my soul is as Mexican as it can be.
It has been a struggle at times. When my mom married my dad my when I was 10 years old, we were not allowed to speak Spanish at home because my dad did not speak the language. It got so bad that after a couple of years I had forgotten most of my Spanish and I could hardly carry on a conversation with my grandparents. I would get angry at my friends when they spoke Spanish to me because I lacked confidence to speak what at one time had been my native tongue. My girlfriend at the time encourage me to connect to my roots and embrace the culture. By the time I got to college I not only had relearned the language, I was actually a proud member of Macuil Xotchil, the UTEP ballet folklorico. I no longer got embarrassed when my friends spoke Spanish to me. I will always be grateful to that girlfriend, who later became my wife and mother of my children. We always wanted to make sure where they came from.
I have bad memories of my mom and us being followed by Border Patrol as she walked us to the park in Sunset Heights in El Paso. They just could not believe that those two little white kids belonged to her and that she was not just the maid. They looked at us with surprise when we spoke to our mother in Spanish.
It makes me mad that people assume that because my name is obviously Anglo and I am light-skinned that I don’t speak Spanish. Many a person regretted that mistake when they appeared before me when I was a Night Court Judge and proceeded to call me all sorts of names in Spanish assuming that I would not understand. They were sure surprised when I read them their rights in Spanish. More than one student has been quite shocked when I answered their disrespectful remark with a response in Spanish. Don’t judge this book by its light-colored cover
My daughter Erica and her hubby Shaun just finished a one year trip through Mexico, Central America, and a large part of South America. No one could have been prouder to see her also reach out and embrace the wonderful culture, traditions, and beauty of her ancestors. It is important to me to make sure that my children understand an important part of what makes their father tick.
This is not a story about labels. A label is nothing more than that. Call me a Martian if you want, but it does not change who I am. Did that jerk in law school have a right to question my ancestry? Of course not. Should the college clerk have questioned my answer on the form? Not at all. As long as I am comfortable with who I am, where I come from, and what made me who I am, then the label is not important.
But to answer the question that poor deluded law student asked – damn right I’m Mexican.