A friend asked me today how I had felt about giving up my American citizenship and if it hadn’t been a hard thing to do. I said “no”, that given my rootless upbringing it made little difference. At nine years old, when I was just beginning to discover that I belonged to something much larger than my immediate family, we moved to Mexico and everything changed. My mother stopped cooking dinner for the family and the children (my brother and I) were served supper in the kitchen by and with the maids who spoke Spanish, a language I still had to learn. The acres and acres of fields and woodlands that surrounded our house in New Canaan became a fenced in garden with nothing but flowers and grass and a few trees. Gone were the vegetable patch and the field with wild blueberries; gone the endless woods and the long walks with my father; gone were the tractor and hay rides in the autumn… as a matter of fact, gone were the spring, the summer, the autumn and especially the winter. Instead, there was a dry season from October to June and a wet one from July through September. There was no snow except on the peaks of the (then) visible volcanos, Iztaccihuatl and Popocatepetl, and plants generally flowered all year around but never with the magical profusion of a New England spring. Even the school year was then different as at that time, in Mexico, the long vacations were over Christmas (to take advantage of the sunny dry season) and school continued during the summer (when rain made everyone stay indoors anyway).
So, considering that I was only 9 years old, did I adapt and identify with my new Mexican surroundings? Well, not really. I was sent to the American School so that most of my classes were in English and many of my school friends were Americans living in Mexico, many of them temporarily. The Mexicans in school all spoke English, so English continued being my principal language. My parent’s friends came mostly from the American Colony in Mexico, therefore I continued identifying myself as “American”, but a second class one because most of the desired cultural symbols enjoyed by youth my age in the USA were not available in Mexico. I dreamed of Double Bubble and Mars Bars while breaking my teeth on chamuscadas, eating Tin Larín and drinking Royal Crown Cola instead of Coke. I listened to American music when I could get the records to play, but never tuned into a Mexican station to hear the local music. I went to American movies when they finally came to Mexico although I didn’t even once go to a Pedro Infante or Jorge Negrete film, and I read every American comic book I could get my hands on and it never even occurred to me to pick up a comic of Memín Pinguin or Kaliman which is what Mexicans were reading at the time. In other words, it was like living on a small and distant island belonging to the US but not really America. Every time I went to the States (as we called it) I felt like a second-class; each visit showed me more how out of real American life I was and how different I was. My cousins would introduce me as their “Mexican” relative and ask me to speak Spanish while they pretended to understand what I was saying and showed off in front of their friends. They had toys I had never heard of, read comic books that weren’t sold in Mexico and shared a common cultural language with their friends that was as foreign to me as Spanish was to them.
And if I was different in the USA, I was much more different in Mexico. There I was a “gringuita” with a coloring that wouldn’t be considered Mexican under any circumstances. Blond, blue-eyed and with a skin that always required a hat lest it turn bright red, I was as foreign as foreign could be. Furthermore, I was confronted immediately with something children don’t see much of in the USA: a marked class difference. As a matter of fact, my contact with Mexicans was seldom as friends. The closest were the maids, separated from me by their language, the color of their skin, their age and their maid’s uniforms… in other words, their position in the household. Then there were the lecherous men who made obscene and salacious remarks with words I had never heard before as I walked by. There was the kind gentleman, who had the paper store where I went often to buy paper dolls and crayons and notebooks and pencils, and the girls at the checkout counter in the supermarket (but you never got to know them). There were the sad looking men who put on worn out uniforms and tried to direct the parking in town or at the market. My mother would always get mad at them because “they didn’t help, just blew their whistles but never picked up a bag for you”. They were commonly called “pesómanos” and it was generally expected that you would give them a “peso”, but my mother would only give them a 20¢ piece, and I would feel embarrassed and sad for them. When I was old enough, I remember telling her one afternoon that she should give them more: “After all, at least they put on a uniform and come every day; they are not begging on the street,” I said, but she kept on giving them the shameful token. There were construction workers and bus drivers and craftsmen or women and my father’s secretaries in the office who were very nice. But they weren’t people you would invite to dinner at your house or whose children would come over to play. A few of my mother’s friends that she played golf with were Mexican, but they all spoke English and I, of course, knew them only slightly as “Mom’s friends”.
We kept our American customs and ate dinner at 8 pm and lunch between 1 and 2pm. Our food was more American style (roast beef, hamburgers, salad, pasta) than Mexican (chiles rellenos, quesadillas or tacos) and the few times I went to visit Mexican families with my parents, I felt strange and out of place; they talked about movies I hadn’t seen, books I hadn’t read, songs I hadn’t heard, just as when I went to the States. It was a neither-here-nor-there existence even though I didn’t realize it at the time because I had my group of school friends who were as second-class-Americans as I was.
When I went away to boarding school, whoever was in charge seemed to sense this ‘apartness’ for they put me on a floor of the house we boarded in with two American girls who also lived in Latin America: one from Columbia and one from Venezuela, who was my roommate. As I look back now, I realize that none of us talked about our countries of residence, nor did we identify as what we would now call ‘ex-pats’, but rather tried to identify with the two American girls that also lived on our floor. In the beginning, I didn’t notice the differences because we were all new to boarding school, but later, when coming back for the second year, after vacation, the summers the American girls had lived had nothing to do with my experience; they had lived things in common which they could share, whereas my experience had been somewhat shocking and definitely not shareable. When they had gotten home for vacation, their friends were also on vacation and soon they were all sharing summer experiences. When I got home for vacation everyone was in school. Even when I did get to see my old friends, they were talking about things that had happened during the school day or week that I had not lived: they had shared experiences to which I was foreign. I remember a strange feeling of not belonging, not belonging anywhere. In Mexico I was not a Mexican, I was not even a Mexican-American along with my ex-pat friends; and in the United States, I was an American by passport only.
This and other things –sex and alcohol, for example- caused an adolescent crisis during my first year at Barnard College and I refused to go back when the summer was over. I had identified my problem as ‘not belonging’ and decided to delve into growing roots in my country of residence: Mexico. I started by the one thing I knew for sure about my adoptive country: its poverty. I took a course in Social Work envisioning myself as the saving angel of an impoverished population and then threw myself into volunteering at the National Rehabilitation Center. Both places were 100% Mexican, no ‘gringuitas’ other than me. I spoke Spanish all day and began to make Mexican friends. I became a Catholic (I had not been brought up with any religion). I started dating Mexican boys; my old schoolmates were a thing of the past. In the midst of this, I met the man I would marry a year later. He was definitely Mexican, although his family came from the north of Mexico not from Mexico City and did not belong to the same social class as mine. He was also the most handsome and serious young man I had ever dated, so my parents thought it was fine. His father was a doctor and he himself was finishing his doctor’s degree. Not one of their customs and habits were anything like those of my family. It was, so to speak, deep-Mexico. I was attracted to the size and closeness of his family although I would soon discover that his father was an alcoholic and went on periodic binges. His mother was extremely overweight (110 kilos) but a kind and simple woman whom I grew to love. His family was warm and close in ways that mine had never been and I felt very welcomed; his father forbade the use of the derogatory term “gringa” around his house from the first time he met me. I began to feel that I was accepted and therefore that I belonged in this family.
My future husband, on the other hand, looked down on his own family and wanted nothing more than to be totally accepted in mine as an equal. So we were the perfect match, each hoping to get what we thought we needed from the family of the other. When we set up house, however, it was much easier for me to organize it the way I was accustomed with American hours and meals and my husband put up no resistance as he found that more ‘refined’.
Two married children and thirty years later we got divorced. In the interim, I had obtained my degree at the National University of Mexico (the UNAM) in Hispanic Language and Literature, had produced 8 books which had been published, was included in the Dictionary of Mexican Writers and felt more Mexican than American to the point that anyone mentioning the fact that they heard a slight American accent when I spoke Spanish was a quick recipient of my rage. I had also gone through several years of psychoanalysis and become a recovering alcoholic.
After the divorce, I began working doing subtitles for films my son was distributing; but my main source of income was the rent from the house I had lived in while married, which was my share of our accumulated capital. Seeing as it was the first time I had earned money in my life, I thought it would be a good idea to start doing my American income tax returns so I called a tax lawyer. He immediately asked if we had been married under a regime of ‘community property’. I said that we had.
“Well then, you should have been declaring half of his income as yours from the beginning.”
I was horrified. I had never known what his income was, but rather had been handed whatever money I needed to run the house as I asked for it, so there was very little chance he would tell me now about his earnings. After being told that the only thing I could do was fill out the last three years of income tax returns and hope that no one asked why I hadn’t filled any out before I realized that the task was risky at best and probably impossible anyway because I was not on speaking terms with my ex-husband at the time. There was only one thing to do: renounce my American citizenship and become Mexican, and for that, it turned out, I had a slight advantage. As I had left the United States as a child and never legally worked there I did not have a Social Security number or a Taxpayer number or anything that even closely resembled it. Even though there was always the chance that, when they checked my “record”, not finding me would be as damning as having purposely not paid taxes, but I could see no other way to solve the problem. I know that ignorance is not considered innocence under the law, but it sure felt enough like it for me. So I was finally going to make the ‘roots’ I had put down legal.
The first thing I did was begin the paperwork to request Mexican Citizenship. It was long and tedious but finally I was a bonafide Mexican. Passports in hand, I presented myself at the American Consulate in Mexico City. There was a long line reaching out into the patio of women with their babies in their arms waiting to register them as American citizens. I wondered if they knew that these innocents would have to make tax declarations to the United States for the rest of their lives. I walked up to the counter and told the lady behind it that I was there to renounce my American citizenship. I thought she was going to faint.
“One moment,” she muttered, “I have to call the Consul; I have never done that,” and she disappeared into a back office. A thin, short, middle-aged man of indistinct coloring came out and approached me.
“Madame, my colleague tells me you want to renounce your citizenship” –his voice denoted incredulity as his eyes drifted over to the long line of mothers with children in their arms-; “do you realize the gravity of this act? You are aware, aren’t you, that once you do that you will not be able to get it back, you will have to wait, just as any other foreigner to get a new one?” I nodded.
“Can you tell me why you wish to give up your citizenship?” he asked, without taking his widening stare off of me.
“I have just become a Mexican,” I said, trying not to act scared, “and Mexico does not recognize dual citizenship for a naturalized citizen.”
“Oh,” he exclaimed, looking very relieved, “that’s no problem; the United States pays no attention to that; you can keep your citizenship.”
Suddenly, the fear I had felt turned to indignation: “Are you suggesting that I lie to the government of my new country?” I asked looking him straight in the eye. I don’t remember his answer but a few minutes later I had the papers I needed to fill out in order to cut myself loose from the US. It took me over an hour to answer all the questions; it was tedious and terrifying, and I felt as if I were committing a criminal act. I handed in the papers along with my American passport; they said they would get in touch when the answer came back from Washington.
When six months went by and I had heard nothing, I was sure they were investigating. I called the Embassy.
“Oh, no there’s no problem,” they said in response to my question, “it’s just that there is only one person in Washington working in this area and it takes a long time.” Three months later, I finally got the letter of termination of my citizenship along with my stamped and cancelled American passport.
Was it hard? For a moment I thought so; I had a feeling of orphanhood, but I was seeing a therapist at the time and she smiled: “All they have taken away is a piece of paper; your Americaness, your heritage, your history and your memories, no one can take that away; you are as American today as when you had your passport, just without the papers.” Wisdom is always there in some form or another just when you need it.
The game of musical nationalities did not end there. When I moved to Spain I decided to get my Spanish citizenship to which I had a right because of my father. I presented all the papers and filled out the request on which I stated that my father had NOT married my mother and I was, therefore, an illegitimate child. This was a lie. My father did marry my mother, in Reno Nevada the 13th of June, 1941 and only one hour after they had both obtained “quickie” divorces from their respective spouses. Seeing as she had been a single woman only for the last 60 minutes, my mother apparently had no ID in her maiden name, Cook, and thus was married to my father using her married name, Wasey. Therefore, my mother being Elizabeth Cook while my father married Elizabeth Wasey I could see the difficulty of having to try to explain this to the third level bureaucrat who was going to issue my Spanish birth certificate. So, as I sat in the grey office, in front of the grey representative of the Spanish government who was filling out my papers, I was fully prepared to accept my bastardhood. When she asked if I was sure they were never married, I lied and answered immediately that I was. She then informed me that, as I was an illegitimate child and this would be visible on the birth certificate, I would have to come personally to pick it up.
“You cannot even give a power to someone else to do this,” she insisted, “you must come yourself.” I wondered who she was protecting. It couldn’t have been me because if I wanted no one to know, I would have come personally for it even without instructions, and if I didn’t care (which I didn’t) I needed no protection. Then she handed me a piece of paper with a pledge of loyalty written on it.
Do you promise or do you swear to the following” she asked pointing to the paper. I, not up on the difference between one or the other, chose “promise” and read out the words that would henceforth make me loyal to a new country, king and government. Later, I asked someone what the difference was between swearing and promising and was informed that the first was before God and the second before the King. I found it quite amusing that in becoming a citizen of the most Catholic of countries I did so as a bastard and an atheist. So be it.
And, by the way, I religiously pay my Spanish taxes each year and am proud to be a Spanish citizen, but if someone asks me –which sometimes they do- I feel more a citizen of this ONE WORLD. And sometimes, when somebody asks me where I am from, I simply respond: Planet Earth.
 Iztaccihuatl is actually a mountain, only Popocatepetl is a volcano and an active one at that.
 Since then, Mexico has adjusted its school calendar to match that of the rest of the western world.
 A very hard candy made from burnt caramel and milk.
 A chocolate bar with cookie inside.
 “Gringo/a” is a pejorative term for Americans; “gringuita” is the diminutive meaning “little gringa”.
 At that time about 8 pesos to a dollar.