I was 17 when I had to choose who I was going to be for the rest of my life. In late 1990 I applied for college as an American Indian named Brando Skyhorse, using the identity my mother created for me when I was 3, after my Mexican biological father abandoned us. Born Maria Teresa, she abandoned her own Mexican identity at the same time and reinvented herself as Running Deer Skyhorse.
I’d known I was a Mexican named Brando Ulloa since I was about 12 or 13, but I lied on my applications because being an Indian was who my mother wanted me to be. She embraced her Indianness and expected me to do the same. My mother had borderline personality disorder and was not a woman you disagreed with.
To her, we weren’t acting. We were American Indians.
On my college applications I wrote essays about living as an American Indian in Los Angeles.
I knew biologically I wasn’t American Indian. But I wasn’t sure I was Mexican, either. My mother was a fantastic liar who’d say my father was an American Indian on Tuesday, “maybe” a Mexican on Wednesday, and a “none of your goddamned business” every other day of the week. We were on stepfather number four in 1990 (there’d be five total) and even he didn’t know we weren’t American Indians. What basic understanding of Mexicanness I had was through my grandmother. She snuck in bits and pieces of Spanish and cultura in our daily conversations, as if she were hiding broccoli in a slice of pastel de tres leches. That’s how I learned that payaso meant clown, as in, “Your stepfather’s a drunken payaso.” That’s how I learned about the Zoot Suit riots, Chavez Ravine, and the 1968 Chicano student walkouts in East L.A. Her history—our history—stuck, but little else did. Our family didn’t “present” ourselves in ways my Mexican friends did: Catholic church on Sunday, big family dinners at an ancient table instead of TV trays in front of separate TVs, celebrating Las Posadas at Christmas. I knew more words in what my mother told me was Apache than I did in Spanish.
On my college applications I wrote essays about living as an American Indian in Los Angeles—As a Native American living in present-day society, I do not often fit what one person’s idea of what an Indian should look like. Some of this was true; I was a misfit in my neighborhood, struggling to dress as some kind of 1980s new-wave rock star. I matched baggy Cavariccis from Chess King with black short-sleeve Bugle Boy bowling shirts from Gerry’s, the old man’s clothing store down the block on Sunset. I could never get my face right, though. Eyeliner and bright red lipstick weren’t a great match for brown skin.
Being Indian became an important point when I applied to top-tier schools. Several friends said that, regardless of my excellent grades and strong scores (even 25 years later I feel the need to validate my performance), my American Indian name would guarantee I’d rise to the top of the affirmative action pool. Of course, I’d have likely been evaluated a similar way had I applied with my Mexican American last name, Ulloa, or if I had been rich and used my family connections. My undergraduate adviser, who also didn’t know I wasn’t Indian, later confirmed, “Affirmative action, nepotism, money: it’s all the same. Everyone uses whatever they have to get in.”
I was accepted several places, including Dartmouth, which sent me round-trip tickets to visit the campus. Dartmouth’s 1769 charter mandated a school “for the education and instruction of Youth of the Indian Tribes in this Land.” This meant Dartmouth made recruiting American Indians an active priority. I didn’t know this when I applied, but suspected, after three insistent phone calls, that the little race box I’d checked, and subsequently corroborated with stories I told in my college interview and my college essays, had been the deciding factor in my acceptance.
How could I take something that didn’t belong to me? I stared at the dollar value of the plane tickets—over $1,000—and imagined that money in a sack with a dollar sign on it as something I’d swiped, and stalled about visiting the campus. My counselors and teachers didn’t understand. Why decide before seeing the place for myself? Was it the distance, New Hampshire being so far from L.A.? Maybe I was afraid to fly?
None of the school adults knew I wasn’t Indian. Some of my friends knew I was Mexican but didn’t understand why I was conflicted. “You have an Indian name and an Indian stepdad. You’re more Indian than anyone I’ve ever met.”
Stepdad number four said, “Nobody gives us white men anything for just being white! Appreciate it!” (He’d skip town a month later, outrunning an embezzlement charge at the chain restaurant he managed.)
My Asian girlfriend said, “Just take the trip and see what it’s like.” She knew I was Mexican too because she’d dumped me six weeks into our relationship when I told her I wasn’t Indian. “Chinese can’t be with Mexicans. Whites are okay. Indians are rare, so they don’t count with my parents. Blacks and Mexicans—uh-uh.” In Echo Park, it felt natural for Mexicans and Asians to distrust one another, not the economic system that made them fight for the same immigrant table scraps.
We reconciled our breakup two days later. This was her attempt to be supportive.
“Quit being so honest,” my mother said. “Are you my son or not? Nobody’s as good as you’re pretending to be. Take the trip. Someone wants to give you something and you’re making them feel bad by refusing. Haven’t I taught you anything about white people?”
Given my family’s subsistence on welfare and SSI, I would have received a complete financial-aid package. For four years, I wouldn’t have any monetary need at Dartmouth College.
All I had to do was say yes.
I wrapped the tickets in several sheets of aluminum foil and, early one morning, mailed them back without any accompanying letter or explanation. Those tickets belonged to someone else. Someone I knew I wasn’t.
‘Passing’ is when someone tries to get something tangible to improve their daily quality of life by occupying a space meant for someone else.
I couldn’t admit to everyone I wasn’t that person, though. I’d applied as an American Indian to other schools, including Stanford, which is where I went instead. Unable to acknowledge I was Mexican to everyone, I continued passing as an American Indian. It was a temporary hedge that was in actuality a worst-case scenario. Being a Mexican became a guarded secret that I’d have to twist and contort myself around. My lack of a birth certificate or a Social Security card with my name on it meant I couldn’t get a driver’s license or open a bank account to cash work or financial-aid checks.
“Look in the backs of these,” my mother said, and gave me a stack of Official Detective true-crime magazines. “You can buy fake IDs in any name you want.”
My mother told me I was dumb for not taking the Dartmouth trip and I believed her. That decision led to me choosing a school much closer to her and her BPD-fueled abuse. In New Hampshire, I could have cut the dysfunctional tether that kept us together by telling her I couldn’t afford to fly back over breaks throughout the year. Maybe I could have become who I wanted to be sooner, something that wasn’t possible at a college just a seven-hour drive from Echo Park on a single highway.
It took me years before I forgave myself for telling the truth. Which is why I want to tell the truth now, about how I passed—and how people passed me off—as an American Indian. I hesitated to share what’s here for years because I thought I’d be called a fraud, a thief, a liar, and given how often my mother and grandmother abused me, why give their voices any help?
In 2014, Bennington College, where I taught a course on passing, introduced a supplemental undergraduate application process called “dimensional admissions.” The process lets students decide what an admissions committee will review in their application portfolio. “A successful Dimensional Application demonstrates,” among other things, “a capacity to design an inquiry, create and revise work; a tolerance for ambiguity, self-direction, self-reflection, and self-restraint.”
These qualities, essential for collegiate success, are also the survival skills I needed as a Mexican American, passing as an American Indian, to gradually accept who—and what—I really am.
‘Passing” is when someone tries to get something tangible to improve their daily quality of life by occupying a space meant for someone else. How does passing work? You start by identifying the prospects. That is, what space do you have now, what space would it be preferable for you to occupy instead, and why?
I was 3 when my Mexican American mother, Maria Teresa, was abandoned by my Mexican biological father, Candido Ulloa. She had been about the same age when her Mexican father, Tomás, abandoned her. My mother grew up speaking basic Spanish but made no effort to learn more. Her childhood was no different than that of many Latino children whose parents want them to assimilate and know that the cost of being a “real” American is sacrificing as much of your identity and language as possible. The goal is to blend in, not to call attention to yourself, for a lot of reasons. You could arouse the suspicion of a police officer looking for random brown people to stop. You could draw the ire of an angry white person who imagines you’ve wronged them in some way and, if you’re lucky, decides only to shout at you. “La Migra!” maybe, or “Go back to Mexico!” in a state that was once part of Mexico.
Maria was a wife without a husband, with a child who had no father. We were brown, poor, a pair of clichéd statistics. We were nothing.
If you’re nothing, the goal is for you to become something. If that isn’t possible—and she felt it wasn’t for Mexicans in Los Angeles during the 1970s—the next step is to become someone else. My mother’s skin was too dusky, her cheekbones too pointed, to pass as white. Who else, then?
From the late 1960s to the mid-1970s there was a heightened media awareness of Indian activism fueled in large part by the American Indian Movement. AIM led a series of high-profile “takeovers” in this period, of Alcatraz prison, the Bureau of Indian Affairs building in Washington, D.C., and the town of Wounded Knee, South Dakota. At the 1973 Academy Awards, Marlon Brando sent the Native American activist Sacheen Littlefeather onstage in his place to refuse his Best Actor Oscar as a means of protesting Hollywood’s denigration of American Indians and their culture.
Five months later, I was born Brando Ulloa. I might have stayed that way but, a year later, a cab driver was murdered at an Indian camp in Ventura, California. The suspects were Paul Skyhorse Durant, a 29-year-old Chippewa Indian, and Richard Mohawk. The Skyhorse/Mohawk trial—what a name for a political ticket!—dragged on for over three years before ending in acquittals and became L.A.’s highest-profile murder case in the 1970s. During the trial, Candido left and my mother initiated a correspondence with Durant. He was married with children but her enclosed pictures earned her a spot on his visitors’ list.
Stephen King says that a good story happens when “two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun.”
My mother wanted her own Paul Skyhorse. She wanted to be a Skyhorse too. That wasn’t possible with Durant, so she corresponded via a classified singles ad with an American Indian inmate named Paul Martin Henry Johnson, incarcerated in Illinois for armed robbery. Over a period of several months and many exchanged letters, Paul Johnson emerged as “Paul Skyhorse Johnson.” That was how he introduced himself when I met him inside a prison. Paul Skyhorse Johnson. Your father. I was 5 years old.
With Paul’s Indianness, she had something she craved more than acceptance into a community. She had authenticity. She had a name.
Running Deer Skyhorse, a name she created, was Somebody. Brando Skyhorse, the son of an imprisoned American Indian chief, was Someone.
Passing requires a knowing decision about hiding or omitting one’s background to obtain acceptance into a community. This is performance.
There were three important aspects to our passing act. It was the 1980s, so, of course, hair was an important tool. Hair could make gawky suburban white boys into rock stars. It could also make ordinary Mexicans into fetishized American Indians.
Running Deer grew her hair midway to her waist, dying it an unnatural fire-truck red. It was a color also unnatural for American Indians. I’d go an entire school year without a haircut because long hair was “an important part of my heritage.”
Second: props, an important part of my passing heritage. Running Deer bought me child’s-size T-shirts with pictures of Geronimo and Crazy Horse on them, superimposed over slogans like first come, last served. She prepped me on how to respond if any white administrators tried to make me change my clothes.
“Walk away. Run if you have to. Tell them I’ll call your father who’ll then call his AIM brothers. Don’t let any motherfucker touch you.”
My mother had several chests of southwestern jewelry bought from J. C. Penney and the Wild West Ghost Town section at Knott’s Berry Farm. She’d walk into a jewelry store wearing a squash blossom necklace, rub turquoise pieces between her fingers, and proclaim to anyone in earshot that, just by touching them, she knew which had been made by an actual “skin” and which were fakes.
Not talking about race isn’t an option any person of color in this country has ever had, in particular if it’s not clear what race you are.
Last, language. “Skins” were Indians, “pilgrims” were white people, cops were “pigs,” women were “squaws” (a word some Indians find offensive), and “apples” were Hollywood Indians who, while red on the outside, were “white” on the inside. It was one of her favorite words to insult me with. What did it matter if neither of us was red at all? We looked Indian, talked Indian, even listened to Indian music! My mother spun Redbone, Buffy Sainte-Marie, and, on repeat, XIT’s Plight of the Redman, a 1972 Motown album that mixed “Native drumming and singing in the Navajo language” with guitar rock and spoken word. Her favorite track, “End,” has a spoken word speech by Mac Suazo. His voice, first as calm as a PBS narrator’s, rises to a fiery crescendo. My mother stomped her feet in time with the drums and screamed Mac’s lyrics every day like a call to prayer: We must now manage our own affairs and control our own lives and through it all / Remain to be / The True American!
Remember, we weren’t playing Indians. We were playing caricatures of Indians. My mother passed as an Indian because, I think, she hated the idea of being no one, which to her meant being like everyone else in Echo Park. If I am generous, I want to believe she hated the thought that this would be my future too. She never worried about being found out, because she reasoned we were as close as most people would come to real Indians, anyway. She was right.
A successful performance requires an engaged audience, or gatekeepers. These gatekeepers view either the passer’s passive display (i.e., mistaken identity: Boy, I could tell you’re Indian by the way you stood there and didn’t say anything!) or active (modified behavior) display of a particular background.
My mother and I couldn’t have passed without help. By that, I mean we couldn’t have passed as American Indians without white people acknowledging us as American Indians. Our caricatures were almost accepted at face value without any challenge. White people allowed us to pass—to become a “someone”—in our tacky costumes because the opportunity to say, “I met a real Indian today!” was irresistible to them. Our brown skin helped, I’m sure, but their story of meeting an Indian let them become someone too.
Passing usually requires acknowledgment from the group one wants to pass into—for instance, light-skinned African Americans successfully pass as white only when white gatekeepers mistake them for white—but there weren’t (aren’t) enough Indians around in Los Angeles to make this possible for us. While two of my five stepdads were Indian, you’d be astonished at how uninterested my mother was in meeting actual Indians elsewhere. She’d never gone to a regional powwow, visited an Indian reservation, or volunteered at the Indian Center in downtown Los Angeles. She’d read a few books, gone to a couple of museums, seen some PBS documentaries, but aside from pretending to be a paralegal assisting AIM in filing appeals for “railroaded brothers,” there was little engagement.
Passing requires a decision about hiding or omitting one’s background to obtain acceptance into a community. Community with Indians wasn’t what she was after for herself or her son. Instead, community with white people was what interested her, what she excelled in, and what she trained me for, her “little big Indian chief.”
Performance for white people equaled rewards for us.
When someone successfully passes, they can occupy a new space in a “silent” or “loud” way. When biracial women passed as white during Jim Crow, or when, during World War II, thousands of Jews attempted to pass as French in Le Chambon-sur-Lignon with the help of its townspeople, their invisibility—their silence—protected them from prejudice, discrimination, and death. If someone passes loud (my mother, for example, and maybe Rachel Dolezal too), then the act of camouflage isn’t survival, but a means to shed one’s perceived invisibility, their nonexistence, so they can be seen, and their voice be heard.
Cul-de-sac conversations with white social workers, jewelry store salesmen—any conversation where some kind of transaction was required—blossomed into hour-long improv sessions once my mother revealed she and I were Indians. People didn’t want to let her and her Indianness go.
How important was this ability in our day-to-day life? From the mid-1970s until the early 1980s, my mother and I traveled by bus, train, and plane to eleven different states. Five almost-legal marriages mean you have to meet a lot of potential suitors. My mother was a terrible planner, so each of these trips involved dramas, detours, late-night evacuations or early-morning cab rides through empty town centers or deserted Main Streets. Many times we escaped potential calamity or injury because someone made a split-second decision to help “an Indian mother and her child get back to the reservation.”
Now, I’m not saying that we’d bilked trusting white people out of millions of dollars in a multistate, multidecade crime spree and buried our ill-gotten gains in a series of duffel bags in a cornfield. I never met a white person whose generosity couldn’t be snapped back in your face, hard, if they felt you had somehow made them feel foolish, which is why my mother left places fast. It’s also possible—in fact, probable—that had my mother relied on her charm, beauty, and vivacious attitude, instead of a stolen name and culture, we’d have gotten the same treatment and had the same experiences. In the moment, though, it did seem there wasn’t a single interaction where we needed something, or something urgent, from someone that couldn’t happen just a little bit easier once we became Indians to them.
Brando Skyhorse? That’s beautiful.
I was far more visible as Brando Skyhorse than I’d have ever been as a Mexican boy named Ulloa. I hear from others how beautiful my name is at least once a day, every day. Today, it’s hotel reservation agents, bank tellers, waiters swiping my credit card, but back then it was white women stroking my shoulder-length hair without permission and asking me questions like, “Do you miss your reservation?”
I could shrug offensive curiosity off with a smile. Kids were a tougher problem. They’re better at spotting a con than adults are. To them, I was a sissy girl faggot calling attention to himself when he didn’t have to. They somehow suspected, knew in their gut, my name was a way to get undeserved positive attention from grown-ups. It was a cheat, and kids hate cheaters.
As Indians, we had stories. My mother took an incomplete assortment of modern American Indian history and put it in a blender with her own backstory. Running Deer had run guns—that’s how she got her name—at Pine Ridge during the Wounded Knee ’73 occupation by posing as a lawyer. She borrowed convicted murderer Leonard Peltier’s narrative and upgraded Paul Skyhorse Johnson’s actual crime of armed robbery, as if it needed upgrading, to double homicide of two FBI agents. Retaliation for an FBI shootout at his house, where his mother, Penny, was murdered on Mother’s Day. I was the son not just of an Indian but of a chief, for god’s sake! Of course, she had problems raising a chief’s son. Like any spoiled, ungrateful child, I too was seduced by the white man’s ways of Transformers and video games, but in a vision she had with a medicine man, he saw an eagle fly over my head three times.
“You will walk away from your people,” she said earnestly. “Then you will return to the Indian people and help them. You will become who you are.”
From Indians, we didn’t hear stories at all. Stepfather number two, an Aleut Indian born on St. George Island, Alaska, moved into our house when I was 9. He was an inveterate con man and equal opportunity thief. Robert stole a van from the Indian Center and money out of my birthday cards and piggy bank. I asked him what it was like to be an Indian.
“I don’t wanna talk about that,” he said. “No Indian wants to talk about that. That’s how you know you got a real Indian. Only Cherokees and white women wanna talk about being Indian.”
Before stepfather number two even left, my mother had Paul Skyhorse Johnson queued up to move in with us when he was released from prison. Stepfather number two had a long criminal record, so she figured it was a safe bet he’d flee or get caught for new crimes before long. She was right; he fled about a year before Paul was released. My mother must have figured it was a good time to tell me the truth.
I was 12 or 13 when, after bugging my mother for months, I learned my biological Indian “father” Paul Skyhorse Johnson was, in fact, stepfather number three. There wasn’t a singular aha! moment, just a gradual acceptance of a different view, like a sunrise over a deep valley. It was a view deferred, though; when Paul moved in, he treated me as his biological son, and on nights my mother sent me out to retrieve him from a long, aching night at the bar, told me I was an Indian too.
“We’re White Mountain Apaches,” he’d slur. “The only tribe that didn’t sign a peace treaty with the white man.”
For my seventh-grade Young Authors’ Project, he ghost-wrote under my name an AIM manifesto called “The Shame of America.” He had no problem with these inconsistent positions, so, my mother reasoned, why should I?
I had problems, though. Why were we doing this? Why couldn’t I just be a Mexican? Was it that awful? I felt I was lying every day to everyone I met. I was a con man just like my stepfathers. No one understood. Not my best friend, a Mexican who, ironically, was a musical Anglophile whom I never heard speak Spanish, or my Asian girlfriend, who preferred my mother’s fictional story of who we were.
By denying my authentic self I staggered into depression and came out holding a shitload of Depeche Mode, Cure, and Morrissey albums. Whatever empathetic gains my mother and I received from passing were emotional or psychological. Insignificant, or indiscernible, to a teenager, but don’t underestimate how much currency that has in a lower-middle-class neighborhood to an adult. Indianness gratified and stoked my mother’s extraordinary ego. That ego forgave her when her remedial Spanish stumbled out in Mexican restaurants in the white parts of town. She spoke Spanish the way a white actress pronounced the words in a Hollywood “Latin lover” romance movie. My mother sounded as if she was pretending to be Mexican. Not a surprise, since that’s what she did during work hours too. For many years my mother was a phone-sex operator. Over several months she had a client who asked to speak to a Latina. So my mother, who identified as Indian to her coworkers and callers, pretended the part in a true Victor/Victoria deception. That is, my mother was a Latina, pretending to be an Indian, pretending to be a Latina.
It had a different effect on me. Whatever gains one is bequeathed or accepts from passing as a member of another group comes with a separation or disconnection from one’s original identity or self. No small gain occurs in passing without a more substantial accompanying loss. I gained a fake American Indian identity, but I lost my actual Mexican American self.
In college, I hid from both the Chicano and American Indian student unions, unable—or maybe ashamed—to connect with either group. “We heard you were kind of a radical,” a young Indian girl said to me in an outreach phone call freshman year. I told her I didn’t let my race define me nor did I want to limit myself to “just meeting people like me.” How radical was I to “stand up” to an Indian Stanford student who worked her ass off to become part of a student population whose percentages are displayed in decimal points?
I decided I wouldn’t talk about race at all during and after college. During college was easy; in the early 1990s, nobody wanted to talk about race on my college campus. After college was tougher. I made this decision with a name like Brando Skyhorse and an appearance that’s gotten me mistaken for Indian American, Sri Lankan, Afghan, and Turkish. It was not a very smart decision.
I didn’t want to lie about who I was anymore, but I’d learn people wouldn’t accept a simple one- or two-word answer about who I was, either. Not talking about race isn’t an option any person of color in this country has ever had, in particular if it’s not clear what race you are. If it’s clear what race you are, you just get skipped an interrogation level. It’s always your responsibility to address your race’s stereotypes to ensure whoever’s asking that you aren’t like what they’ve heard. Be assured whatever they’ve heard is bad and you’ll be asked to answer for it. Political correctness? Not in my reality. Political correctness never kept a racist from calling me a racist name. It’s never kept anyone at a bar from dehumanizing me because I’m not their nostalgic ideal of an “American.” It’s never saved me from being reminded I’m an “Other.” Political correctness isn’t about depriving someone of their freedom. It’s about giving someone the same inalienable rights that all “real Americans” have—the right to not be hassled, insulted, or assaulted because someone thinks they’re different. In other words, it’s about protecting an American’s most cherished freedom: the right to be left alone.
Drink more than two beers in a bar and you’ll hear PC sound its bugle retreat: I don’t mean to be racist, but . . .
Here’s how it works. I order a beer, start a tab. The bartender notices the name on the card. “Brando Skyhorse?” making my name a question. It’s been a question my entire life.
I order a second beer. Bartender remembers my name, makes an innocuous comment. Buzzed single white guy at the bar strikes up a conversation. If I’m lucky, I get a one-sentence lead-in about sports or politics. Most times, though, it’s a straight shot to Whitetopia.
“The government fucked you over, just like it’s fucked me and every hardworking white man I know that can’t get a job.” Mexicans, as it turns out, are dumb overbreeders who rape white women and their own bastard children, steal American jobs yet sap our vital resources through their excessive laziness and pot smoking, sneaking like rats into our country, onto land that was theirs as recently as 1848. Whites can refight a war that ended less than twenty years later, fly the Confederate flag, and call it pride and heritage. Mexicans are part of a massive Aztlan conspiracy to reconquer the Southwest, refighting the Mexican-American War as lawbreaking illegals that should be sent home.
Then I spring the trap. “I’m Mexican,” I say.
“I’m not talking about you, amigo! You, you’re all right. I can talk to you.”
That’s what it’s all about, really. Giving angry white men a safe space to be racist, where no one will call them racist.
That exchange is what happens on a good night. If it’s unclear to someone what race I am, I’m treated to a series of interrogative questions, each more invasive, until it’s clear what stereotype best suits them. Every month or so, when I don’t immediately explain my name and reveal my ethnic background—the POC version of name, rank, serial number—I have some version of this conversation. Here’s this month’s latest variation:
“So, where are you from?” he asks.
“I live here in town.”
“No, I mean, where are you from before here?”
“Vermont? No, where are your parents from?”
“I mean, before Los Angeles?”
“They always lived there.”
“Why are you being so difficult? What are you?!?”
How I miss the gentle white touch of my long hair.
Continuing to pass as an Indian after college led to more absurd situations. In New York I was invited to a special publication dinner celebrating American Indian author Sherman Alexie. My well-intentioned boss sat me next to Sherman for no other apparent reason but, Hey, let’s sit the two Indians together! Sherman asked me what my tribe was. I told him what tribe my Indian “father” told me he was, White Mountain Apache. Then a little joke to deflect from the conversation I didn’t want to have. My mother, I told him, wanted to name me Pacino. (True!) Later, he signed a copy of his book to me “Pacino Alexie.”
I stayed in the “passing closet.” With each small step I’d tried to take revealing the truth, there was always someone there eager to help me back in. It was safer in there, and so much easier to relapse into a rehearsed story when everyone I met told me what I did wasn’t even really lying. Why?
Take it easy, will ya? Besides, Mexicans are practically Indians anyway!
Conciliation is one-sided. That is, a person who’s passed from one group to another is comfortable with who they are. Reconciliation is the restoration of friendly relations with the community the passer originally left.
I’ve been “out” about being Mexican for about eight years. My Mexican unveiling and acceptance was a slow, gradual process. There wasn’t a single moment, no simple update change on Facebook, no Aztlan eagle flying over my head three times. I still don’t have a basic one- or two-word answer when someone asks me what I am. It just became easier to say in a rehearsed voice: “I’m a Mexican who has an American Indian last name.”
I thought about flight, about entering a plane one person and in that flight becoming someone else.
Sometimes that leads to more questions. Should the Washington Redskins change their name? Sure—but aha! How can you tell them to change their name when you’re guilty of the same cultural appropriation as Redskins team owner Dan Snyder?
What would you say to Donald Trump? Adios, muchacho! But aha! How can you stand up for “your people” when you’re hiding behind an American Indian creation? Why not just change back to Ulloa? (Anyone who’s been abandoned by their father knows better than to ask me this.)
A couple of years ago in Brooklyn, in a bar in gentrifying Bushwick, I ran into a group of young twentysomething white women dressed in faux Indian headdresses and face paint on Thanksgiving. A friend of mine from Atlanta was appalled and said, “You’d never see something like that in Georgia.” I approached the woman with the tallest feathers and asked, “What tribe are you?”
She replied, “Cherokee.”
“Oh, what part of the country are you from?”
“This is an art project,” she said.
A friend of hers chipped in, “Why are you being so aggressive about this?”
I told them, “You’re in a fake headdress and face paint on Thanksgiving. Do you wear blackface on Martin Luther King Day?” Pay no attention, of course, to the Mexican behind the Indian name.
I had a Facebook conversation with an American Indian Ph.D. candidate at University of Chicago who friended me after my memoir was published. Our discussion stemmed from Dartmouth’s decision to appoint a self-described American Indian from the Delaware tribe to head its Native American Program. She wasn’t Indian; her grandfather descended from Irish immigrants. The resultant attention led to her removal. What did I think about this?
I thought about a round-trip plane ticket to Dartmouth, wrapped in aluminum foil. I thought about flight, about entering a plane one person and in that flight becoming someone else, emerging on fresh New Hampshire snow as a confident Mexican, even at the risk of losing his scholarship because he was the wrong kind of person of color. And I thought about a Silly Symphony cartoon I saw many times as a child, The Flying Mouse. In it, a mouse saves a butterfly about to be eaten by a spider. The butterfly transforms into a spectacular Aryan blue fairy who grants the mouse a wish.
“I want to fly!” he says.
“A mouse was never meant to fly,” she replies, but gives him a large pair of bat wings. The mouse flies over his brothers and mother who, spotting his batwing silhouette on the ground, race to their home inside a pumpkin. Running into a dark, sinister wood, the mouse meets a large bat.
“Hello there, brother!” the bat says and laughs. The black bat has large, bright, jaundiced eyes, stands twice the mouse’s size, and flaps his wings like a vampire cape.
“I’m not your brother,” he says, afraid. “I’m a mouse!”
“No mouse can fly,” the bat says, and snaps one of his mouse-bat wings in the mouse’s face. “So if you ain’t a bat”—and here the bat laughs at the mouse—“you’re nothin’.”
The mouse cries, his lesson learned, and the fairy disappears his wings. “Be yourself,” she says, “and life will smile on you.”
But the bat and the fairy were wrong. The mouse wasn’t a “nothing.” His dream to fly was about him being himself.
Native appropriation is my mother’s legacy to me and something I try to make sense of every day. You could say she was just another thief on a very long list of people who take without asking, appropriate without acknowledgment, and act as if good intentions supersede bad behavior. Or you could say that her dream was to be herself. I know she wanted to be Native, and when I confirmed her Mexican identity with friends and one of my stepfathers, they almost couldn’t—wouldn’t—
accept that she wasn’t. My mother thought belief trumped truth. She lived her life with a pair of bat wings only I could see. I’m sure she’d say it was the only honest way to live.
Many years after my mother’s death, I visited my first reservation, arranged by a nun I met during a Ucross Foundation writer’s residency in Wyoming. I had Indian tacos on the Crow reservation in Montana, and then bought ceremonial sweetgrass at the Little Bighorn Battlefield Visitor Center gift store. There were many books about Indian history, and a video outlining Custer’s Last Stand looped on a loud television. Every few minutes reenactment screams from Indian braves filled the store. Was this my mother’s version of heaven?
Across the road from the store was an Indian memorial fire pit, used by Indian elders for religious ceremonies. My mother would have wanted me to burn the sweetgrass there. Instead I took it back to my writer’s residency and, that night, threw it into an open fire pit. Under a bright starry black Wyoming sea of a sky, I breathed in the smell of burning sweetgrass and prayed to her idea of the Great Spirit. As a Mexican boy from Echo Park with an “Indian” name, I wanted to see my mother safely home.
William Faulkner wrote, “I am telling the same story over and over, which is myself and the world.” Passing is both “myself” and “my world.” This, at last, makes sense to me. Does it to you?
Excerpted with permission from We Wear the Mask: 15 True Stories of Passing in America, edited by Brando Skyhorse and Lisa Page (Beacon Press, 2017), in which this essay is titled “College Application Essay #2.”