All the caminos me llevan to Mexico
All photographs © Roxana Allison 2018 / Fotografías autoría de © Roxana Allison 2018 30 abril, 2018
I write this from my personal experience because I believe it will resonate with wider audiences. Everyone with a story of migration or mixed background will find coincidences and discrepancies. It is only my account but I hope it will function as a mirror of other people’s life stories.
My relationship with Mexico, my homeland, is complicated, almost conflictive. My relationship with Britain, the place where I was born, is similar. Writing this in English feels a little strange but at the same time makes sense. Somehow it doesn’t feel right but neither does it feel entirely wrong. It would be better if I wrote it in Mexican Spanglish but not everyone would understand. I’ll try to explain myself…
My first name is the third generation of Roxanas on my mother’s side of the family. I am a photographer. My mother is Mexican, a sociologist who lived in Britain for almost fifteen years; she behaves as if she were British sometimes. My dad is British, is an economist and a few years after marrying my mum was persuaded to move to her hometown – Mexico City – over thirty years ago. I have a younger brother; he’s a photographer too, lived in London for many years and loves Mexico as much as I do.
I wasn’t born in Mexico but it is where I spent my formative years from the age of five. I grew up there. I am Mexican. I feel that way and will usually associate my cultural identity with Mexico.
In the past, when someone asked me where I was from, which happens a lot, I would have doubts and say I wasn’t sure, that I was from both Mexico and Britain; today I will say that I am definitely from Mexico, although I feel I need to give them an explanation on my non-Mexican look or my non pure British spoken word (depending where I am) in order to ease them into my identity.
Mexicans don’t see me as Mexican straightaway; it takes them time to make sense of my perfect chilango (the spoken Spanish from Mexico City) and pair it with my Anglo-Saxon foreign appearance – I am normally considered güera (fair-haired) over there. At first sight, they will predictably think I am a gringa. Once they have got over all of this and accepted me as Mexican they will move on to inevitably think that I belong to the middle or upper class and will proceed to label me as fresa (snob).
Both perceptions of my persona make me uncomfortable. Firstly because I do not want to be associated with being from the USA (I have mixed feelings about that country but I am not going to go into them on this occasion) and secondly because I do not fancy being associated with the Mexican privileged classes who tend to be the dominating elite who run the economy and dominate the politics of the country.
When I was little, I didn’t know I looked foreign until someone pointed it out, just in the same way as black people didn’t know they were black until whites made them notice their skin colour. I didn’t perceive myself as any different to the rest although people would make sure I became conscious of it. For instance, schoolmates would stroke my light thin hair gently to compare it with their dark thick hair. This was very odd for me at first but I got used to it over time.
For many years, it was a little hard for me to feel I belonged to the country I loved and spent most of my childhood, adolescence and early adult years, merely because I didn’t blend in. I was always somewhere in between belonging and not. Therefore, the idea of coming back to Britain was permanently present in the back of my mind despite the fact I didn’t have much connection with British culture except for my dad and the very few relatives we kept in touch with back in the United Kingdom.
Twenty three years after permanently living in Mexico City, as an adult in my late 20’s and married to my husband who had warned me he would never ever leave his beloved hometown, I finally moved to Manchester [with him] thinking that somehow I would settle in easily and would immediately have a sense of belonging. Little was I to know that I would face similar issues to those I experienced in Mexico.
At first everything was part of the journey of moving to a different country and I attributed my sense of not belonging here to the time I had spent away.
Although I grew up in a dual nationality household where I learned what being British was more or less from my dad, I hadn’t been immersed in the culture as much as I had in the Mexican one. I wasn’t used to the different English accents, the utterly different weather and the food that always seemed very bland, and more than anything I had to start from scratch to make friends and social connections. This last factor has proven to be the hardest. However, it would be unfair of me if I didn’t say I have met good people and friends who have helped me to navigate and understand British culture.
Relatives supported us with settling in as much as they could. They offered their homes and gave us advice on how to integrate into the system and start looking for work and a home of our own. Slowly but surely we moved on to finding our first rented house, got jobs, filled mountains of paperwork for my husband to become a resident and later acquire British citizenship, and progressed in life. Nonetheless, I still had the same feeling of not completely belonging.
To reinforce this sensation, people would ask me where I was from and say that I had a funny accent, even though I don’t have a Mexican one, though most people would consider I sounded English enough. They saw my appearance as British but something didn’t quite match up when they heard me speak. They were able to see beyond my skin colour and overall facade.
What was surprising for them was to discover that I was Mexican (as well as British). Their shock was immediate and obvious. They didn’t see me as Mexican in my appearance or purely British when I spoke. For me this was very confusing and disappointing, it meant that I didn’t entirely belong here (nor there), and that wasn’t the answer I had anticipated.
I came to Britain in search of clues that would give me responses about where I felt connected and comfortable to live. The reality was completely unpredicted. To make my life “easier” I resolved that I belonged to both cultures and that it had more pros than cons. There was no point in struggling to adapt to one culture only, yet I thought it was barely a matter of time to understand the British and feel British.
Time passed quickly and it wasn’t until four years after moving to Britain that we were able to visit our homeland for the first time. Going back wasn’t revealing in terms of feeling the need to stay, although I enjoyed the familiarity of the place and the ease of its people to engage socially. The second time round was another four years later and the experience was similar.
A year and a half after that, going back to Mexico was totally different. As soon as I landed there I felt I was back home and belonged like no other time. I felt like a fish in water, an extremely convoluted one but one that was familiar and that connected with me straightaway. Everything seemed to make sense again and I knew that this was the place I wanted to be in.
Before setting off, my husband and I had assured ourselves that we would never ever move back to Mexico. Its many political, social and economic issues annoyed, frustrated and worried us. We knew them well and were aware of the many battles you are forced to fight on a daily basis. We had almost come to the conclusion of staying in the UK forever. So, the revelation of our trip took us by surprise.
Someone said to me once: “Mexico City is like a very colourful yet slightly ugly soup but when you taste it, its flavours are beautiful”. I couldn’t agree more.
My ideal country would have the best of both worlds in one place.
For the first time in a very long period I was at peace. A heavy weight had finally fallen from my shoulders, I was ready to accept that integrating into a given culture isn’t determined by the place you were born in and that the sense of belonging is not always obvious, it takes time to recognise and assimilate and sometimes you need to take a step back to move yourself forward both, mentally and physically.
I am uncertain as to when I shall be leaving Britain but that hardly matters right now, the fact is: one day I will be going home, I will be going back to mi querido Mexico.
My cultural identity dilemma has formed part of my photographic practice for the last ten years. I have undertaken several projects related to migration and cultural dislocation. You can visit my website and view my series ‘Motherland Revisited’ which revolves around my personal story here.
* With thanks to Rod Allison, my dad, for the proofreading and adjustments to the text.
Responsibility for the information and views set out in this publication lies entirely with the authors. And do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of Miradas Múltiples.
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