¡hola papi!

‘I’m Ashamed of Where I Come From’

Illustration: Pedro Nekoi

I’m writing from a nowhere town in a nowhere country. As you may know, growing up in a conservative place can be challenging for a young queer. You can either loathe yourself in the closet or potentially lose everyone you care about by coming out. I see it happen all the time.

It makes it hard to be proud of where I’m from. I dislike the culture here that has shunned people like me and forced them to think they don’t deserve happiness. Even those who have accepted themselves still don’t think they deserve the same rights as their cis, straight counterparts. 

On the other hand, I read the way you talk about how much you love your culture, your abuela’s chicken soup, and I can’t help but feel jealous. I feel like I was robbed of the opportunity to truly appreciate all the nice, sweet things that my culture has to offer.

I do love some aspects of my culture, but is it even possible to divorce these lovable parts from the bad parts? Am I a hypocrite, or am I just overthinking myself into a migraine? What am I supposed to feel? Help?

Signed,
Cultural Critic

Hey there, CC!

Ah, yes, the burden of lugging around an origin story you didn’t choose. I know it well. If I had it my way, I’d be the last of a secret clan of brujas hailing from a remote cave in Chihuahua with a latent ability to shape-shift. Instead, I am a mentally ill homosexual from ruby-red Oklahoma making a C+ in “being Mexican.” Couldn’t I at least have been born in, like, San Diego or something? I’ve never been, but it sounds nice.

I think a lot of people feel this way, CC. Whether you’re talking about a region, a country, a landscape, a culture, or even just a family, it’s natural to feel unsatisfied with what you’ve inherited. It is, after all, what you see every day, the very water you’re swimming in, like an unimpressed little fish.

Growing up in the Great Plains, I had plenty of time to dream of being somewhere else. I was jealous of my classmates who’d inherited cultures I saw as beautiful and fascinating. I was jealous of people who lived in California or New York, somewhere with tall buildings and exotic burger chains within walking distance. What was In-N-Out, and why didn’t God allow me one?

It was something akin to wanderlust, only I wanted to travel to a different self, a different story, a different me. I wanted to take the dull facts of my life and rearrange them into something better, something more colorful. Only I couldn’t do that, not without stretching the truth of myself. And honestly, that’s not a healthy thing to do. So, where does that leave us?

The truth is, I never really learned to be “proud” of my roots, especially when it comes to where I’m from. I’m not super proud of Oklahoma, its politics, its frankly genocidal history, or even the Goodyear blimp I painted on a mural there in high school. Sure, there are things I like about it: the way the sky opens wide when I step out of the airport; the coyotes I hear at night when I’m at my parents’ house; the tornadoes; the mountains; the winking way people talk about the volatility of the weather. Reba is from here!

But those things are not “literally me,” as the kids say, and so expressing pride in them feels a bit like a lie, or at least like pretending. These are things I was handed, things the cosmic lottery dropped in my lap. They don’t make me feel proud all on their own. They would carry on quite expertly without me.

No, what I think I’m proud of, CC, is the equation — the myriad chemical reactions between “me” and “where I’m from” that exploded and settled into what I now recognize as myself.

We don’t choose where we’re dropped on earth. We don’t get to pick who raised us or what culture we inherit. But what we make of it, what we build around it, how we move over and under and through it, those things conspire to create us. The things about my home that I embrace and the things I reject and criticize form a unique design. I think I exist there.

When I look at my family’s history, I don’t really look first at the big, flashy things that might catch people’s eye — sombreros, fighters in a revolution, sugar skulls and all that. Yeah, that stuff is pretty cool, but it’s not what I see first. What I see first are human beings who did exactly what I’m doing: navigating a time, an environment, a life. Of that, yes, I am proud.

All this is to say, CC, that of course you will find things to love and hate about where you’re from, the culture you inherited, and the social constructs that demand your participation. I would never tell you how you should feel about it, nor would I feel comfortable in telling you how to process your country’s views on LGBTQ people. As a rural gay Mexican, I very much get it.

What I’ll say instead is that those things don’t define you. Your relationship to them does. And so, in the ongoing conversation between you and the world around you, I hope you find space to both appreciate and criticize, laugh at some things and roll your eyes at others, talk some shit and brag a little.

That’s life. That’s you.

Listen to Mewtwo. 

Con mucho amor,
Papi

Originally published on April 20, 2021.

This column first ran in John Paul Brammer’s Hola Papi newsletter, which you can subscribe to on Substack. Purchase JP Brammer’s book Hola Papi: How to Come Out in a Walmart Parking Lot and Other Life Lessonshere.

‘I’m Ashamed of Where I Come From’