Essays

"I Thought That All of México Was
One Big Ranch"

I was born on a ranch called Tarimoro, and for the first six years of my life, I was raised on Tarimoro and a nearby ranch called Agua Caliente; both ranches correspond to Jaripo, a nearby town. Jaripo is part of the municipality of Villamar, and Villamar is part of the state of Michoacán. What country am I writing about? Where was I born? México.

In México I spent six years of my life, until my parents decided to emigrate to the United States of America, a foreign place. As a child in the United States, when I used to think about my place of birth, I thought of the two ranches: Tarimoro and Agua Caliente. I thought that the ranches were, literally, all of México. I thought that all of México was one big ranch. No wonder an image of a ranch comes to me when my parents speak about México. This childhood image of México—the ranches of Tarimoro and Agua Caliente—is of great importance. It signifies something of great importance. What? My identity. Who I am.

How has my ethnicity as a Mexican, someone of Mexican descent born in México, influenced my identity? How do your ethnicity and the place of your birth influence your identity? Before answering this question, let’s explore what these terms mean: Identity and Ethnicity.

Identity and ethnicity have some things in common, but they differ in meaning, according to respected informational sources like the Cambridge and American Heritage dictionaries. Identity can be parallel to all the qualities of a person, including his or her background, ways of being, of thinking, and other relevant factors. However, ethnicity is just one quality or trait of a person that makes him or her to be able to affiliate or form an identity with an ethnic group. Hence, an ethnic group is a group of people who share the same background, which “includes biological and cultural capacities, skills, stances, assumptions and presuppositions” (Foldop). Of course, a person’s identity is greatly influenced by his or her cultural heritage.

Because ethnicity has several connotations, I would like to divide it into parts. An ethnic group, in general, is characterized by its region, language, religion, cuisine, customs or traditions, literature along with music, and morals and beliefs.

As I explained earlier, I was born on the Mexican ranch called Tarimoro, and was reared for the first six years of my life on Tarimoro and a nearby ranched called Agua Caliente. In México I spent six years of my life until my parents decided to emigrate to the United States of America—which, to me, as a child, was a “foreign place,” although now the United States is my home. However, in some ways the United States is still a foreign place—but then, so is México, the land of my birth. Let me explain.

Spanish is my first language, but to think of it as the dominant language has been a struggle throughout my life. When I first started school in this unknown giant place, the United States, I had difficulties relating to others, especially adults who didn’t speak Spanish and, therefore, didn’t understand what I was saying. This inability to communicate might be the first trait that caused me to think that I was different from most other Americans I encountered in my daily life, who were mostly Caucasian, and it probably led me to distinguish my physical appearance from some people’s but also relate it to other people’s: people who looked like me. I was a Spanish speaker, but I was not like all Spanish speakers I encountered. I was a Mexican-American Spanish speaker. That description became both my identity and my ethnicity.

Having different accents when speaking Spanish is a way in which Mexicans and other Latinos distinguish themselves from each other. Different accents also distinguish us when we speak English: A Michoacano and Michoacana has his or her proper accent when speaking English; and it’s not the same as a Jalisciencie or a Guatemalan or an Ecuadorian. The accent of all Spanish speakers, which comes from a specific region, is a strong characteristic that helps to distinguish different ethnic groups that appear to be the same. Therefore, the place of my birth and my accent helped to forge my identity—but so did other factors.

I was born into a culture and automatically born into a religion: Most Mexicans are Catholics. At the rite of my baptism at a church in México, as water was dropped on my forehead and as the proper phrases were said, my name officially came into a sacred existence: I was Enrique, “Henry” in English. Born into a Catholic family, I came to believe that we have a weak spiritual life here on earth and that we need the aid of the “three-person'd God” whom John Donne writes about or alludes to in many of his poems. My parents were the first to tell me that nothing can be done without the help of God, even writing this article. If I would follow their “Catholic” influence, I would have to say: “God willing, I’ll have a conclusion to this article I’m writing now.” A blessing and a prayer is needed to do whatever one plans to do, either to go for a walk, for a trip, to eat, or even to sleep. So…my identity is Mexican/American/Catholic: the “facts” of where I was born, what language I spoke, and how I spoke it, and my parents’ religion. Where am “I” in this equation? Where is the “real” Enrique—or is that (in the United States, my home since I was six)…Henry?

Of course, this topic of identity makes me wonder about many things: is it possible to distinguish the Catholic religion, which was imposed on my ancestors when they were colonized, as truly part of my culture, and thus my identity? I have to recognize that for many Mexican Americans culture and religion have become the same thing and cannot be distinguished, although some would even point out that culture continuously struggles to survive the blade of religion. Can all this mish-mash of ideas about what it means to be Mexican—my identity?—be a result of the abolishment of indigenous cultures by the conquistadores, the European conquerors from Spain who came to México? In an effort to answer this question, I muse about the history of Michoacán, the region of Michoacán where I was born.

I understand that Michoacán’s indigenous people were the Purépechas (or Tarascan), but I’m definitely sure that I don’t speak Purépecha. De facto, I’m not even able to distinguish what indigenous customs I conserve with the traditions we adopted from the Spaniards. In a way, the identities of Mexicans, Central Americans, and Latin Americans have been left without a mother and without a stepmother. I’ll explain: In the present, many of us Latinos don’t accept an identity as indigenous or as Spaniards. In a way, religion has been one of the major causes of this identity crisis that we share in most of the Spanish- or Portuguese-speaking Americas. Ironically, religion has also been the factor that unites our indigenous, Spanish, and modern way of being: We don’t think of ourselves as indigenous or as Spaniards, but most of us affirm that we are Catholics. In a way, this development explains why culture and religion are so difficult to distinguish. It is also true that México has different regions and has several ethnic groups that still exist. So, in order to have a more general view of what a Mexican person is, know that some people who live in Mexico are considered indigenous, and some members of other ethnic groups; however, the majority, as the official and “historical-result,” are called Mexicans. Both of our indigenous and Spanish roots have influenced us Latinos to be religious and to share a similar culture. It is no wonder that, as Latinos, we stick together and have pride of our particular region.

To think that the Purepechan people shaped part of my past, my cuisine Michoacana comes to mind. Thus, food is another important factor that shapes my identities and the identies of all Spanish-speaking people and people everywhere.

The way we Michoacanos cook and enjoy our meals are different other regions from México. When I was a child, my mom would daily make tortillas a mano, hand-made corn tortillas. These were sometimes made into chilaquiles—and mostly in the morning—pieces of tortillas seasoned with hot sauce; or sometimes they were made into enchiladas—an evening enjoyment—flat tortillas soaked in red sauce and perfectly folded into a taco, that are often accompanied with cabbage, tomato, cilantro, onion rings, and baked eggs. Our typical white rice, morisqueta—and this rice is not even Spanish—has always been around. We also have different types of tamales: First the type that most Americans are used to seeing, tamale made by dough and stuffed by different meats, or cheese or sauces; uchepo—mom’s favorite, I guess because everyone takes a part of the process—is a tamale made of tender fresh corn and accompanied with cream and hot sauce; corunda is a 3-D triangle-shaped tamale that is made by corn dough, and it goes with a special salad. A hot habitual drink is atole—please don’t forget pan dulce—and can be prepared with cocoa, with piloncillo, unprocessed solid sugar, or atole de grano con anis, made with corn and anis. There are two main options of desserts to choose from—and no kid can resist these: chongos, curdled milk chunks sweetened with sugar and cinnamon and buñuelos, fried flour tortillas dipped in syrup with piloncillo. What about a dish from Spain? Not surprisingly, paella is sometimes a favorite dish that my mom makes when she is in a good mood and with a great appetite. It’s a curious thing to consider that back in México, these dishes, beverages, and desserts were served on a daily basis. Today, in the United States, my family and I enjoy this carte du jour on special occasions, like anniversaries or graduations. Regularly, we eat other foods that are not solely from Michoacán, but dishes from other places of Michoacán, like chiles rellenos (stuffed chiles), or tostadas or sopes, and new American dishes like pancakes, hot dogs, sandwiches, hamburgers, salads and even French toast. As preference goes, we don’t show an inclination toward a cuisine. Actually it depends on the mood, the appetite, and the time that we have to dine. So…is our identity Mexican or American in terms of our food choices? We are Mexican American.

But do I know how to cook the food that defines me as Mexican? I don’t, and I feel ashamed of myself. I guess it’s because of gender roles in my traditional family: women are to cook and men are to go out and work. Gender roles are so inherent in our culture as Mexicans—as Latinos—that we don’t think about a possible abolishment of our cuisine and other roles for women, not just cook, because of a lack of cooking talent in our men. This gender bias extends to other areas, too. Most of the time, my mom does not have the final word when it comes to decision-making between my parents, and if a son or daughter is to speak up, he or she needs to be prepared to face the unchangeable point of view of my papá. Living in a land where gender roles are changing, where men and women receive more equal treatment (a utopian way of living), our historic gender roles are being targeted with doubts; on the other hand, my dad reinforces our traditional macho by overdoing his figure of authority. Back in Michoacán, gender roles are visible: men handled the labor that required most of the strength, farming the fields and taking care of the livestock. Women were expected to stay home to cook and to do domestic chores. Since all of the production and the gathering of goods were done by males, it’s obvious that women were subordinate to men; women were even expected to take lunch to their husbands who were in the fields at mid-day, and preparing lunch was not easy. I remember that lunch was not accepted if it was cold, and women were treated as if they were responsible for a natural phenomenon: warm food that became cold during a walk from the kitchen to the field. For someone like my dad to change his negative way of viewing women, it would take more than to live within a culture that accepts equal gender roles. Is he Mexican or American or Mexican American in regard to how he views male and female roles? He is Mexican.

However, from my point of view, women in my cultural and historical background have been the strongest factor to maintain our culture. Because of women I’m able to say that my ethnic group has a historical cuisine. It’s then ironic when women—who shape my identity by their cooking talents—are not treated equally. Of course, there are other factors that have shaped my identity, too, and one of the biggest factors was my position, as a child, as an undocumented immigrant, an “illegal alien,” for my family and I did not immigrate to the United States legally. But that’s Part 2 of this article, which you can read in the next issue of West Magazine.

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Born June 28, 1982, in Michoacán, México, Enrique Reyes came to the U.S. when he was six years old. When he was 14, he felt a calling to the Catholic priesthood, and at 17, he moved back to México, and lived in Guadalajara and México City for four years, where he studied philosophy at the Universidad Intercontinental.  After realizing that the priesthood was not his calling, Enrique came back to the States. He now tutors at West Los Angeles College and works as a computer technician and web designer for his local church. Enrique enjoys reading, writing, playing guitar, and always looking for something new to learn.

Editor’s Note: Enrique Reyes began to write this essay in an English 101 class at West several years ago. The central text of the class was Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and students in the class wrote several papers that shared some of the book’s themes, two of which are identity and values. Enrique’s teacher (the editor of this magazine), never forgot this beautiful sentence in one of Enrique’s essays: “I thought that all of México was one big ranch.”