itsct: The Ghost Town in Me

The Ghost Town in Me

by Leslie Contreras Schwartz

I live in Houston, which has become one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the country. We are a minority-majority city. I grew up in Houston, and it is a strange creature in terms of its neighborhoods; there are no zoning ordinances so people of different classes and income levels can live in close proximity. It is not unusual to see a low-income apartment complex down the street half a mile away from an upper-middle-class neighborhood. The only buffers are fast food joints, grocery stores, and massage parlors. Now people of different races other than white often displace each other. That said, gentrification from the white and wealthy communities still happens.

As a third-generation Mexican American, who does not know Spanish and grew up in a largely Black, Latino, and Vietnamese community, I am more concerned with the other definition of gentrification, one not defined by physical locale, but the definition of a person becoming “refined or dignified,” into a more assimilated version.

My parents and my paternal grandparents grew up in Houston, and knew first-hand the seething hatred the white community had for Latinos and how it could block even the most hard working and compliant from advancing socially and economically. My grandfather was one of the first Mexican Americans to earn a degree from the University of Houston as an engineer. Yet he was past his forties when he was finally given a chance to advance beyond a draftsman; he hated the nickname he was given by his boss, “Chief,” meant to refer to his dark skin and his indigenous appearance. He still raised a family of eight and sent most of them to private school and helped many of them attend college. My grandparents were eventually lucky enough to be able to afford a house in a middle-class, mostly Italian neighborhood, but were told for the first house they wanted that they “did not sell to Mexicans.”

They were able to buy a different house in the same neighborhood, and while my dad and his siblings grew up in a culturally Latino home, they tried to hide their ethncitiy to some extent or, at least, not overtly bring attetion to it. Spanish was still heard around them spoken by relatives, Mexican food a staple on the table with large family gatherings, and the the kind of Catholicism specific to Mexican culture, with its favorite saints and the ever-present la Virgen de Guadalupe, was observed.

Outside the home, my father felt the pain of racism even though his parents had deliberately taught them only English, in the hopes that they would be more accepted in American culture. He remembers being traumatized as a child when his teacher told him his hands were “too dirty” and kept sending him back to the restroom to wash, when she was really referring to his skin color. His white classmates would not let him inside their houses during the summer and he was told to wait in the garage when everyone else went in for lunch.

My mother knew only Spanish until she was in the fourth grade. She was adopted by a woman who died barely speaking English, though she herself was born in Houston. They lived in the Latino part of town, so as a child, my mother had no need to learn English. She didn't even know what her ethnicity was until she went into a white restroom at a department store and was run out by a saleslady. There was a large Latino student community at her Catholic school, and she was not the only one who suffered its horrors for speaking Spanish, although she remembers being singled out for her defiance. My mother's early schooldays were spent with her face against the blackboard, inside a chalked-circle, the “stupid” circle, made as a punishment by the nuns that taught her. The crime: speaking Spanish, the only language she knew. She learned English by watching shows like “I Love Lucy.” Then after she mastered the language, speaking Spanish to a Latino friend was dangerous. On the playground, a white boy threw her off a merry-go-round when he heard her speaking Spanish to a friend. She broke her ribs from the fall. Did she then decide that if she had children she would try to spare them this experience, hopefully, by withholding her native tongue from them?

My parents raised us, as much as they could, by teaching us to circumvent discrimination and prejudice with a drive that was so unstoppable that no doors could be closed to us—for any reason. How? Through education and perfect English; reading everything I could get my hands on in the English “canon,” or understanding and practicing what I consider a reserved mannerism and hyper-self-control in public interaction that I have found myself associating with white Americans. I have three siblings and other people are often confused by why we don't speak Spanish. I understand some of it when spoken to, and even went so far as to study the language in Merida, Yucatan, but it still feels unnatural to me.

I didn't know the ramifications of that loss until I moved across the city to attend college. Taking the street roads, I watched the city change from neighborhoods surrounded by long stretches of concrete, pitiful yellowing grass, puny stick-figure trees, dollar stores, run-down businesses andapartment complexes with brown and black people walking down the streets in front of them, to this: tree-lined, heavily shaded neighborhoods with hundred-year-old oak trees, topiary bushes in the shapes of animals and cultivated gardens. The few people in sight were either jogging or walking a baby in an expensive-looking stroller. It was like a different city, full of white people everywhere I looked. I had hardly ever seen so many white people in one space.

My first day I walked through the carefully laid out campus and tried not to stare. I felt like an imposter. Months before I used to walk through the doors of my high school, the trashcans turned over and used as the morning crew's drumsets while a crowd break-danced or stomped nearby. Maybe there was a fight in the entrance where someone was pulling out another girl's weave or her “real” hair, where people watched for a while and either rooted for someone or rolled their eyes. In the bathroom, maybe there was a group of Latina drill team girls perfecting each other's braids and makeup, while the Black girls and Vietnamese girls waited impatiently for a chance to use the mirror. There was a messiness in this world, but one where I understood the conventions, a distinction between “white” Latinas and “authentic” ones; bright versus “Black” Blacks; fresh-off-the-boat Asians versus American ones. I knew how to talk, to interact, what kind of language to use, the appropriate content of my conversation or body language and how to fit in with different groups.

But suddenly, I felt culturally and socially stupid. I saw Latinos but when I tried to befriend them, many of them were from the valley, or from Mexico, where Spanish was the common, everyday language.  I was more like the other white students. Yet when I approached white students, often the first question asked was “What are you?,” sometimes followed by a stream of guesses. I often didn't understand their cultural and literary references, and quickly understood all the reading I had done, was proud of staying up until 3 a.m. to devour, was paltry compared to even their middle school educations.

There was a neighborhood close by the campus, known as the Montrose area, that inspired me for its volatility, its elusiveness to be defined by any cultural or economic group. For decades it had been known as a haven for gay people, trans folks, immigrants, people of all ethnicities, eccentrics and artists. At night, throngs of homeless teenagers, gay men and women, party goers, and artist-types walked the streets. There was no language that needed to be known, no central cultural norm. Its cultural norm was not having one and I loved it. By the time I went to college, in 1998, some of that vitality was going away by the wealthy moving into newly erected complexes to bask in the artistic and avant-garde lives around them, without, of course, participating; essentially, they were culture vultures.

I transferred to a prestigious college my sophomore year not far from the school I entered as a freshman. The cultural and social gap between the other students and I widened. I had few friends and was married to my studies. I couldn't name the feeling then, but I now know that I was feeling the cost of a loss of identity, the trauma of my parents and grandparents feeling forced to sanitize their children of culture for the sake of their survival. I was left with a ghost-like feeling, an identity based more on a void than one in which I could hold onto.

Today, twenty years later, the Montrose neighborhood is now a ghost of its former self. The throngs of people roaming the streets at night have mostly vanished, everything sanitized, too. It was a safe space for many people, in many ways similar to the volatile, chaotic yet familiar community I grew up in. And the more I have transformed over the years, earning a graduate degree, attending graduate schools, I feel that difference, that movement away from the ancestors who made my family what they are today: blacksmiths, laborers, housewives, many of whom did not finish school. Like people who have been forced to move because they can no longer afford their homes due to gentrification, I have lost something of myself in my assimilation. I want that lilt, the accent, the idioms that can't be translated directly to English.

Sometimes, when I am talking to my family in our own colloquial speech, there is a hint of what I think is my mother's special way of speaking English. When in informal situations, I find myself using reflexive pronouns when none are actually needed in English, like I am translating from Spanish. And even though I feel like it is difficult for me to understand Spanish sometimes, I'll be at the grocery store and understand perfectly what a mother is whispering to her child. I know there are parts of me, my family, and my culture that can essentially never be erased or altered within my identity. I am still discovering what those things are, and it is with a longing that I look for it.




Leslie Contreras Schwartz grew up in Houston, Texas, where she currently lives and works as a teacher and editor. Her first collection of poems, Fuego, was published by Saint Julian Press in March 2016. Her poetry has appeared in Hermeneutic Chaos, Storyscape Literary Journal, Rust + Moth, and is forthcoming in Tinderbox Literary Journal, The Collagist and Glass: A Journal of Poetry. Her personal essays have appeared in the Houston Chronicle, The Toast, and Dame Magazine. She holds an MFA in poetry from Warren Wilson College and a BA in English from Rice University. 

Dawn Wu