We’ve moved to the den, as Evelyn calls it. We both have paper and pens, highlighters, caffeine, and ponytails. The doorbell rings. I help Evelyn plate delivery food.
“My favorite Mexican food in the state,” she says. “Maybe in the entire United States!”
“This does not look like the taco shack at home.”
“You are homeless, now, remember? And, no. Taco shacks cannot compare to real Mexican food. My grandmother makes the best food you could dream of tasting. No Tex-Mex.”
“Your grandmother is from Mexico?”
“Is your whole family from Mexico?” I think better of it and add, “You don’t have to answer that.”
“We are plotting your imminent disappearance. I think we are past niceties.” She hands me a heaping plate full of food. “I was born in Mexico, to parents born in Mexico, and so forth. When I was two, I moved with my parents, sisters, and grandmother to the United States. My father said we needed to move as far north as possible to rid me and my sisters of our accents. At least, that’s how the story goes. Every eighteen months, we moved a little further east and a north until we came to Maine.”
“Wow,” I say. “Is your family still in Maine?”
“Indeed. I moved here for college and stayed.”
“You speak perfect English. I never would have known.” I wish to retract the words, but they’re out now.
“My father is so proud.” Evelyn chews a bite before continuing. I want to know more and hope she’ll divulge what makes her father proud. We eat in silence for a bit, then Evelyn gets wine and glasses.
“We all learned English, even my grandmother. In the home, we lived much as we had in Mexico, but everywhere else we pretended we were white Americans. My older sisters still have trouble with their accents, but a stranger might not notice. My younger sister and I learned English as a first language. We were forbidden from learning Spanish until high school. My dad thought that would call the least attention to our roots.”
“That’s fascinating. So no one in your life knows your heritage?”
Evelyn laughs. “Who in your life knows your heritage?”
“I don’t- I mean, there’s not much to know.”
“My parents raised me to be an educated woman. They positioned me to pass as a white, educated woman. And they still knew that was no guarantee. I would need to finish the package with a man who could provide for me.”
“I’ve never heard anything like that.”
“You have seen some version many times, you simply didn’t recognize it. You have never needed to pass for white, have you?”
“Obviously. I just thought we were past all that.”
“What? Please tell me you’re kidding.”
“I mean, I know, obviously, that racism and sexism exists. I just thought, I don’t know, that it was a fringe occurrence.”
“Fringe occurrence,” Evelyn repeats. “You are about to be in the throes of every unprivileged social condition you can imagine, and it will still be easier for you than it might be for a woman of color. Racism is not a fringe occurrence any more than rain is a fringe occurrence.”
“I said that wrong, maybe. I thought that sex and race were more of an issue in isolated, direct threats, rather than systemically.”
“You’ve never experienced sexist behavior?” Evelyn eats with enthusiasm but also attends the conversation. I feel like I should be able to do both, too, but I’m not so coordinated.
“No. Not directly.”
“You’ve never been told you throw like a girl or that you cannot have a certain job because you are a girl?”
“I mean, maybe. But it wasn’t personal.”
“It was systemic,” she says.
“So, have you experienced racism? Did you father’s plan work?”
“Yes, I’ve known racism, even though his plan mostly worked. When I play the part my father honed for me, I experience a deep racism born of my own indescribable needs, those of my father, and those of a society that would reward such behavior. I’ve often wished I’d grown up as a Mexican in Mexico or in America. I think I wouldn’t wonder how much of my life was really mine to live.”
“Did your husband know your heritage?” I dig into my food.
“Of course. My family is proud of its origins but my father has ever been pragmatic. So any time my sisters or I were serious about a relationship, the day came when they were invited into our little secret circle. For our part, my sisters and I felt that treating us differently inside the circle was a deal breaker. Over the years, there were definitely some burned bridges when people found out. Mainly, I think people didn’t care for our decision to live bifurcated lives. If we’d been open about our heritage, maybe it would’ve made a difference. We just can’t know.
“My youngest sister hated everything about our American lives. She returned to Mexico after college.
“My husband and I visited my relatives living in Mexico. He learned to cook authentically from my grandmother during trips to Maine. My father believed I needed to complete my so-called package by marrying a white man, but I knew I needed to complete my life with a man who loved me. Luckily, we both got what we wanted. It might just have well worked out that one of us was sorely disappointed.”
We finish dinner over paper layouts of the days to come. Questions stir in my head, but none of them seem appropriate. Even as I realize that’s part of the problem, I cannot bring myself to ask any more of Evelyn.
I have a feeling I’ll be living this a lot in the time to come, this feeling of utter awe that life works differently than I ever considered it might. And I can’t help but feel poorly equipped to adapt.