On the day of my performance for my piece “reMexico” I had a panic attack. I was certain I was going to be judged for not being able to make the salsa or tortillas that were a part of my performance or that my cooking would be so bad that it would be a health hazard. Or worse, that I would be called an imposter to belonging to my mother’s culture.
Doubts instigated by social media
As I child I fully embraced my Mexican heritage but in the last ten years I started to question my belonging to my mother's culture. These doubts bubbled up as I worked and interacted with activist communities, particularly as I read opinion pieces and blog posts intending to teach the masses about the harmful effects of "cultural appropriation." “Cultural appropriation" as referred to in trending social media, holds a negative connotation and describes the stealing of cultural traditions and rituals by the dominant (colonial) culture from the sub and minority culture (the colonized.) Examples include a white person wearing a Native American headdress or wearing dreads.
However, as I read these articles I had forgotten that as a student of cultural anthropology I had previously learned that the word "appropriation" had no negative connotations at all and was used to describe universal social phenomenon of learning and integrating cultural ideas from others. But as I read the recent trending blog posts on the subject and understood its current associations with outright stealing and contempt for those with less power, my activist self started questioning my white self’s right to adopta culture that it was not fully immersed in from the beginning. I wondered if I could be Hispanic if I did not speak Spanish fluently. I wondered if I could call myself Mexican if I could not make tortillas or rice. I wondered if other Latinos, Chicanos, or Mexicanos would also question my stake in claiming my mother’s culture.
Connecting with others in real time
As a way to connect others with these ideas I created the piece I call reMexico, which included audio, projection, and dining/cooking area, and became the backdrop to stage a performative social engagement piece. During the performance I made salsa and tortillas, while telling gallery visitors about my relationship with Mexican food, family, and my feelings of being an imposter to my mother’s culture. I awkwardly made tortillas, only having practiced a few times in my life while I held casual conversations with my audience, guided around the theme of appropriation, culture, and how it feels to have a plural identity and not quite belonging. The idea was to remix and recreate the parts of my mother’s culture as a way to blend the parts of my self together as an integrated whole.
It turns out that food was a perfect catalyst to discuss cultural blending because of the symbolism in the act of food mixing, the cross-cultural uses of non-native ingredients, and for most people it creates a feeling ofbeing “at-home,” making room for feelings of safety while having conversations about difficult things. During the performances I met and talked with others who have the same kinds of feelings of being an imposter or not quite belonging.
As a result of these conversations and my own cultural explorations I’m starting to see another perspective of appropriation. The message I had received through social media is that appropriation is a binary issue—you are stealing culture or you are not and if you are appropriating you are automatically disrespecting and disregarding its cultural of origin. However, the idea that “cultural appropriation” is never okay and that only those who “belong” to that a particular group may practice those traditions is a bit is too close to ethnic purity and ethnic cleansing. On top of that many fields like science, art and spirituality use appropriation to grow and evolve—new ideas are always blends and built on top of old practices.
Creating reMexico may not have answered all my questions about identity or appropriation, but what it did do was help me realize that I am connected to a larger group who has the same kinds of questions and feelings of being a cultural imposter. I AM appropriating my mother’s culture, I AM selectively adopting parts of our heritage and integrating them into my life and identity. I am learning to cook, to speak Spanish, to be resourceful, to be in the moment, and to contribute to my community with the skills I have, all practices and values I learned from my Mexican heritage. And with each new tradition I appropriate I create a new sense of self, one that has a stake and right to claim the cultures I am a part of.