A proud, and puzzling heritage/Times Union

May 16, 2013/Times Union

My grandfather’s 80s have been the kind of slow burn you hope to never suffer through yourself, an unending ellipsis rather than a period. Years ago, it seems he just gave up. Books and other hobbies were deserted in favor of the television, a mix of Spanish soaps, CNN and sports, day in and out, while epic stubbornness decayed into complacency. Gradually, his mind began to weaken from misuse, as did his body.

Having already survived losing one lung to cancer, in March, at 84, he was diagnosed with a highly aggressive skin cancer. The prognosis is unclear, but when I booked a flight home, my mother said this year might be his last.

In the months that followed, I prepared for the inevitability of losing my first grandparent. And then I confronted a trickier issue: What losing my grandfather might mean for my own sense of self.

Family histories are often complicated and the Alcala family is no exception. Ethnically Syrian, as an infant my grandfather was adopted by a young Mexican couple, Manuel and Margarita, who raised their son, Raul, to think of himself as no different from any of the other children in the Mexican ghetto of San Antonio where they lived. My great-grandmother was revolted when her smart, handsome Mexican son married my blond-haired, blue-eyed grandmother. My mother further disparaged our Mexican lineage by marrying a Norwegian-American, who brought to our family tree leftse, Lutheranism and an ability to withstand temperatures below 45 degrees.

All this makes me basically your average white American with tangled roots. I was always raised with a strong appreciation of my Mexican heritage, albeit a lineage adopted and then once removed. Light haired, blue-eyed and fair-skinned, my outsides didn’t quite match.

My great-grandfather, Manuel had swum the Rio Grande in hopes of a better future. He worked as a waiter in San Antonio while my great-grandmother sewed dresses for much less than a living wage. At 10, my grandfather began working at a Coca-Cola bottling plant, where he lost part of an index finger. I count his affection for Spanish-language soap operas and habit of showing up late as proof that heritage is largely learned.

My great-grandfather died years before I was born, but my great-grandmother was a fixture of my youth. Shortly after my mother was born, my grandparents moved to California, in part fearful of raising mixed-race children in Texas. Even at 80-something years old, my great-grandmother would every so often hop a Greyhound and arrive unannounced on my grandparents’ doorstep, to stuff us with Mexican home cooking and other necessities we were undoubtedly starved of in our middle-class American existence.

My grandfather assimilated in most ways. He always saw himself a Mexican, but his main duties as grandparent were to teach my brother and I things like how to build telescopes or fish rather than to perfect the roll of our “Rs” or deepen our knowledge of the saints.

When my Abuelita Margarita came to town, though, it was an education in an identity I found both exotic and completely comfortable.

When she and my grandfather told stories of our family’s struggles in the Mexican ghetto, I felt like I was related to superheroes. I also understood that relation was in some ways tenuous. What right did I have to claim a heritage that wasn’t by blood?

Even as a 7-year-old I felt the conflict of two selves. A friend’s mother made borderline xenophobic comments about Mexicans, not realizing her daughter’s fair-haired friend was descended from some. I was incensed, but understood the people she was talking about were somehow different from me. Growing up near Mexican families in California, it was clear I was both insider and outsider. Our families lived in different neighborhoods and celebrated different holidays but ate the same foods and spoke the same language. Filling out forms and applications brought an identity crisis. Which box — Hispanic or white?

As an adult, I tried on new identities. I moved to New York and studied Arabic and the Middle East. Hoping I might find a sort of cultural home in the guttural sounds of the Arabic alphabet, my blood right, I studied in Morocco and traveled through Egypt. (I concluded home was likely elsewhere.)

At some point, I decided to make up for the lack of Mexican blood by asserting my identity in other ways. I became a Mexican food purist, and shunned the way my mother made enchiladas — the American way, a sort of very cheesy tortilla casserole. When friends or strangers expressed surprise upon finding out my heritage, I would seldom explain that I don’t look the part because, technically, I’m not. It seemed shameful to admit that the culture I was raised to embrace wasn’t perhaps really mine.

On my last trip home, after over a year away, it was suddenly starkly apparent how very little is left of the grandfather I recall. As a kid, it was always a special treat to stay the night at the grandparents. Always a late sleeper, sometime around noon my grandfather would arise, to munch on whole tomatoes and tortilla chips at the kitchen table, crumbs everywhere, as he read the L.A. Times. He instilled in my brother and I his same sense of wonder and curiosity about the world around us. Once, as a kid, he drove me around for hours on a rainy day, on an endless hunt for the place where, I hypothesized, it was pouring rain on one side of the street and sunny on the other. He knew the fantasy place I pictured in my head was non-existent, but wanted me to discover that for myself.

In March, the man I found was deflated and disinterested. I wondered what would become of my Mexican-self once my last living link to it was gone.

Most often, I choose to think of my grandfather as I remember him a decade ago: As the philosopher and scientist who happened to sell life insurance for a living. I imagine how he might advise me had I approached him with my own philosophical conundrum. Identity is a fluid concept, he would say, having less to do with how the world defines you and more with how you choose to define yourself.