It was while reviewing the notes from a recent workshop on Chican@ Psychology: Acculturation, Family and Identity, presented by Manuel X. Zamarripa, that guided this writing by recalling memories of my childhood living on the border. I’ve heard, and agree, that a border life is completely different from a life transplanted from the interior of one country into that of another. The acculturation is different, if not, a missing process altogether. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, acculturation is a cultural modification of an individual, group, or people by adapting to or borrowing traits from another culture. In Dr. Zamarripa’s workshop acculturation was discussed as having a direct impact on an ethnic group’s beliefs, values, attitudes, feelings and behavior, on its psychological functioning, concepts and expressions. The outcome of the acculturation process is experienced and revealed through, first, the retention and value of the native culture, and second, the degree of positive relations, and relationships, with the new ‘majority’ culture sought. I add the quotes on majority as in many cases, the majority culture tends to be the native culture, particularly on the border, thus making the new culture, a minority. It is my experience that a border identity is all its own, not one defined by an acculturation process but one created from within its own particular culture. Allow me to expand.

This article will be a series of posts in which I will share the development of my border identity through various cultural experiences. It is total possible, and probable, this article turns into a short story, even a novel, hence the decision to make it a series of cultural posts.

As a child I was frequently reprimanding by my parents and other adult family members and friends for staring, always made to feel ashamed and, simply, bad. However, I enjoyed, and continue to enjoy, watching others, their physical characteristics, their expressions and mannerisms, their dress, and their customs. My short memories of living in Ciudad Juárez, México are enchanting. We walked and rode public transit everywhere, which gave me the opportunity to people-watch. Bus rides were my favorite, if able, I could spend the day riding the bus everywhere and nowhere. I especially enjoyed riding toward the back, as I watched people coming and going, losing myself in wonder and forgetting when and where to exit. ¡Bajan!

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Walking was also a favorite activity as it allowed me to watch others for a longer period of time, until they turned the corner or disappeared into a building. I especially enjoyed watching the Raramuri people, “originally from the Sierra Tarahumara Mountains in Chihuahua, the same state as Ciudad Juárez.” In particular, the mothers, mukí, and children that worked “making and selling handicrafts in the streets or at local markets, or begging for korima, or alms, in the city center.” The solemn mothers, sometimes with a sad, tired expression, children with beautiful dark skin, amused eyes and giant bright smiles with the whitest teeth, and babes deeply nestled, hidden really, in rebozos. I wondered how the kids got such pearly white teeth?!? I often got sent back to brush my teeth for a second and third time.

On the occasions of car rides, used for trips to El Norte, that is, El Paso, Texas, my people-watching focused on the mothers and children selling fruit and treats on the bridge. Often, if not every time, we would be stuck in a long line of cars in their attempt to get in the fastest line, not only to reach El Paso faster, but also going on the assumption that the BPA (border patrol agents) would not be scrutinizing passengers and cargos in depth. I favored the slower lanes as they provided the opportunity to watch the business-children negotiate a 1-for-2 deal, and haggling for a little extra tip. Once one of them got something extra it was heard throughout the bridge, such as the sound heard ‘round the world, and a rush of children targeted that vehicle. Although unschooled and speaking a broken language these children were, are, talented and business savvy. I was in awe then, as I am now, a memory that brings a smile to my face. It’s a fond memory of watching an uncle and the kids joke, haggle, and shake hands on a deal successfully negotiated. Tío Poncho’s orange-red 1970s Chevy pickup truck with white camper was well known on that bridge, recognizable by all the kids working the bridge.

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On the Other side, I was not only fascinated by people’s characteristics and mannerisms, but also by the gibberish that was the English language, at least that is how it sounded to me. The purpose of a trip to El Paso was either to visit extended family that had made the move north or to shop. My grandmother was a person I intensely watched, she was a talented and business savvy woman, fortunate to be able to travel to the United States to purchase merchandise and sell back in México. I would enjoy car rides to her clients’ homes as she made her deliveries. She was one of the first, the only, successful professional personal shopper I have known. Not only did she know her clients’ measurements and clothing preferences, she was able to translate particular U.S. fashion trends to appeal to a fastidious Mexican clientele. She was also the women’s restroom attendant at the Hipódromo y Galgodromo de Ciudad Juárez, the horse and greyhound race track. In this role, which I had the fortune of observing on occasion, I learned the value of menial work and honorable work, privilege and thoughtfulness. To date my grandmother, years after her death, reminds me to wipe down the sink area and pick up the paper trash in public restrooms. She took advantage of this job to notice the latest fashion trends the Americanas were styling, what body shapes were complemented, and the season’s color palette. Beautifully smart and resourceful woman.

There is a difference between staring and people-watching, to the like of active listening. People-watching is a way of observing and responding to another person that improves cultural awareness and understanding. Often when people talk to each other, they don’t listen or watch attentively, frequently distracted, half listening, half thinking about something else, or focusing on their smart devices. I’m a people-watcher, fascinated by the Other. Living on the border influenced my identity through the experiences of a diverse culture, a culture blended by a multitude of Others. This is what makes my work knowledgeable and meaningful, created by a unique border identity.

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Chief Culturist at Sententia Vera, LLC | Cultural Bilingual Communication | Mothering 5 Bicultural Souls

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