The Guadalajara restaurant’s sidewalk marquee boasts Live Mariachis! but the band is only two older Mexican men toting battered guitars and strolling between tables, taking requests. Their black slacks are shiny from wear; one of the men is missing a few teeth.

As they approach, my two children urge me to request a song. Whether I do or not depends on how much margarita remains in my glass, and the corresponding level of my emotional barometer. But on this Friday night, in this noisy restaurant beside a jammed southern California freeway, I make my request and then spend the next several minutes working hard to keep my tears in check.

Decades earlier, I sit between my mother and grandparents at El Tapatio, where waitresses swirl between tables, bright flowers tucked behind their ears. With his fingers laced across his trim middle, my grandpa nods in time to the music playing across the room, a band of mariachi musicians decked out in sequined sombreros and espaliered jackets. At the climax of the sad ranchero, in a surge of apasionada, the singer yelps a high-pitched ay ay ayyy. At this, Grandpa closes his eyes. I pinch a clump of salt from the rim of my mom’s margarita and lick my fingers. When our waitress comes I order the cheeseburger plate, but my mother mocks my choice, wonders aloud the same question she asks when I won’t dunk my chips into the too-spicy salsa: What kind of Mexican are you?

It was a joke, a rhetorical question. But it was a phrase she repeated often, and I was an only child who puzzled over adult conversations and took everything literally. What kind was I? On my mother’s side, a third generation Mexican-American, born into a family rooted in a town east of East L.A. Yet I looked more like my white daddy; as a golden-haired toddler, strangers asked my mother if she was my nanny.

I was the kind of Mexican whose grandparents’ perfect English was dipped in the soft accents of their first language. They didn’t speak Spanish around me much, but somehow Spanish remained ever-present: in my mother’s gruff endearments when she patted my chubby pansa or griped over my wild, curly hair and called me greñuda, or sprinkled across phone lines in nightly calls between my grandmother, mom, and her sisters: see you mañana. Spanish played on favorite albums that twirled on record players, songs I learned to sing phonetically, never understanding more than a few words. Amor was for love and adonde vas for where are you going? and sabor a mi was always something my mother struggled to translate: it’s the flavor, the essence of me.

At Guadalajara’s, the viejos are playing my request, my eyes watering on cue at the familiar notes plucked from their guitars. Beneath the table, my fingernails dig red crescents into the soft underside of my arm, hard, harder. My gaze wanders to the booth behind ours, a family headed by an imposing Latino father with a brushy mustache. He reminds me of my uncle, my mother’s oldest brother who likes to throw his machismo around the room. Now his eyes meet mine, and I offer a lift of my lips, a tiny nod acknowledging—what? He doesn’t return my smile, his gaze chilly as he takes me in, a middle-aged white woman tearing up to that old song.

Again I feel it nip at me, the shame, the gap I trip over down where the hyphen sits between Mexican and American. What kind are you? One who feels the gap too acutely, who broods over it as I once brooded over my mother’s old joke. You’re not so special, I scold myself. Here in my home state, my town, even in this restaurant, I’m a dime a dozen, one of millions of fellow hyphenates. This ache of estrangement is mine alone. I court it on these Friday nights, inviting in nostalgia and loss with each request.

The song is ending. I sip my margarita, watch as my husband palms a few singles to hand over for the tip. The musicians both shut their eyes as they wail out the chorus one last time; y volver, volver: go back, go back. And always, always, I do.
Kelly Shire has essays in Entropy, Memoir Mixtapes, The Museum of Americana, and Under the Gum Tree, among several others. She’s also contributed to two recent anthologies: an essay in the Springsteen-themed Shut Down Strangers and Hot Rod Angels (Bone and Ink Press, 2019) and a short story in Palm Springs Noir , forthcoming soon from Akashic Press. When not working in a high school library, she is finishing a memoir-in-essays about road trips, music, and her Southern California family.

Photo by Mike McKniff