The Option to Forget

The Option to Forget


Your skin is an anthology, a catalogue, an encyclopedia. It is an account of a bygone era, one marked by tragedy and massacre. Family and strangers alike compliment its sallow hue, all while overlooking the devastation and destruction that courses within the violet veins that flash through its transparency. Your body contains a nation’s trauma, passed down from generation to generation for centuries. Nothing about you is as it should be. Your skin is not that of someone from that part of the world, no—you burn and blister too easily. Your hair is not the right color or texture, no—perched on your head is the chapeau of a foreigner. Your eyes, your nose, your jaw, your stature, your frame—it’s all wrong. You ask yourself how you can stake a claim to Mexicaness, and do so with pride, while resembling most closely those who came five hundred years before to poison the land and exploit its people.

You cannot say these ponderings stir feelings of guilt, you know that to be unproductive, but you must simply acknowledge the truth of the matter—your veins flow with something bitter, something that has cursed you with memory. Forgetting is not an option. The scars of history are pressed into your being. Your existence is a reminder of a dark chapter of colonial violence; it is an insignia of conquest and bloodshed.


Your parents took an ancestry DNA test and the results came back in the way that they almost always do for Mestizos, both around 50 percent indigenous and 50 percent European. It was no surprise, but it made you question how it could be that you and your siblings shared all the same ancestors and yet looked so different. Well, maybe not so different, but different in a way that others have always pointed out and praised you for. You all wear variations of the same face with the same sweeping nose and the same downturned eyes. The only dissimilarity between you and them is that they bear manes of obsidian hair and perhaps that they tan when you burn. To the world it seems, these are no minor differences.

You can disguise your background when it is not convenient or safe. For your sister and brother, it is something that can never be removed or concealed. In your everyday life, you can go unbothered, hide in plain sight, but they stand out, they have no other option but to face the prejudices of anyone they encounter. Their appearance is an invitation for strangers to question where they are from, no really from, and then demand that they return there when they are not pleased with the response.

You and your sister speak with the same tongue. Raised in the same Spanish-speaking home, having attended the same English-speaking schools for the same amount of time; your ways with words are just the same. Sometimes you fumble over your words, or you must grasp for one you seldom use in English. People assume nothing, except maybe that you are tired. Sometimes she fumbles over her words too. People assume everything. They create a fantastical narrative about her recent immigration, or her adolescence spent on a dusty ranch south of the border. They proceed to question how long she has been in the country.

For your brother and sister and all those who bear a resemblance, forgetting is not an option. They wear their histories pressed into their beings. Their existence is a reminder, to themselves and others, an insignia of the land and people from which they descend.


“Sofia, ¿por qué ya no hablas español en la escuela? Las otras niñas mexicanas quieren jugar contigo.” Your mother asked you this softly, with genuine curiosity. You were in preschool. You don’t remember how you responded, you probably just shrugged innocently or said something about being American.

You don’t remember at what point, but before you were old enough to read, you had decided to reject Spanish, to expel it from your body. No one had forced you. You simply knew that to be American was to speak English. You had heard your mother and father berated enough times to know this, to internalize it.

So, you stopped speaking Spanish. It was your choice, a choice of far greater significance than you could understand at that age. You stayed true to this decision for years to follow, finding the commitment easier as time went on and your mind evicted more of the language. Slowly, your mouth began to forget it entirely, forget the right way to move your tongue, forget how to shape your lips properly. You spoke it rarely, poorly, and only when you had to, mostly with older relatives and your father so as not to be rude. When you did, it felt as if you were holding a foreign object in your mouth. Misshapen and vile, it obstructed your tongue from reaching the right places and your words came out confused and stifled. You cringed at the sound of your voice blundering clumsily through conversations.

Because your parents never stopped speaking to you in Spanish, your ear never grew unaccustomed to it the way that your mouth had. You had the ear of a Spanish-speaker and the mouth of a gringa. What an unnatural affliction, a painful disconnect in the body. You often wished to have ears that matched the incompetence of your mouth. That way you could remain blissfully ignorant to your errors and mispronunciations the way Americans did—butchering a language with a proud smile, expecting praise just for trying.

You came to regret this decision deeply, spending years of your adolescent life reteaching your mouth the tongue in which it had spoken its first words. It was rather uncomplicated to regain the language. Despite your childhood efforts, your body had never fully surrendered Spanish. It had never stopped stubbornly grasping at what was left, whispering over and over in a rhythmic pulsing, that forgetting was not an option, forgetting was not an option, forgetting was not an option.

You found it comparatively more difficult to force your tight-fisted body to let go of the ideology that had led you to reject the language in the first place.

You must admit, however, that one remnant remains from this period in your life: your mother speaks to you in Spanish, and you respond to her in English. That is how you converse with her, each in her respective language. You can hardly remember a time before you guys shared this receptive bilingual dynamic. You had never thought it abnormal or anomalous as a kid. It was not until you became much older that you realized that perked ears and judgmental eyes followed your conversations in public.

While you had come to expect certain comments or glares from older white Americans directed at your mother, you began to realize that Latinos too met your gaze with judgment. In these moments, you always felt like stopping them and frantically explaining that they had it all wrong and that you could actually speak Spanish and you were actually Mexican, and you were not a pocha like you knew they had assumed, that it was just a habit between you and your mother. You wanted, needed, to assert that you had changed, that you were not the same little girl that had shrugged and said something about being American. For a time, you figured you could simply begin responding to your mother in Spanish. That would be easy enough . . . but you shortly realized that this meant trading in the stony glances from Latinos for the hateful glares of white Americans. As much as their occasional glares brought you great shame, at least you felt certain that the Latinos would never harm you over the language that you spoke. 


Your mother, she brought a lot of things with her to the United States, her belongings, her recipes, her memories, but not her name. She kept it for a while because it was the name of her mother’s mother who she loved dearly: Maria Concepcion Estrada Lozano, but she found it was unsuitable in this new land. The people here looked at it as if it were a tongue twister, not daring to attempt it and fumbling carelessly through it when they had to. On paperwork, it had too many characters and never fit neatly into the box labeled “name”. This meant that things like her debit card would display a redacted, incomplete version, often “Ma Concepcion Ibarra.” Sometimes this would happen back home too, the “Ma” thing, but it wasn’t such a bother because everyone knew that it was short for “Maria.” Here, nobody knew.

After a decade of having her name butchered, she began the process of naturalization. She decided that when she became a citizen, she would have her name changed. She would tell you that there wasn’t much to it, she just wanted to stop giving others such a hard time. She was never one to draw attention to herself, so it made sense to you that she didn’t like being the source of such a constant struggle at the doctors or the bank or anywhere else that a name was required. She wanted to blend in and make people’s lives easier. You and your sister were vehemently against the idea, but what could a “Sofia” or a “Diana” or an “Ana” know about having a difficult name, about squashing the last of your matrilineal inheritance for a semblance of belonging, about choosing to forget . . . She had made it infinitely easier for you to live in the United States so that you would never have to know.

When the time came, she swapped out her grandmother’s name for the much shorter “Mariana Ibarra.” People still get it wrong sometimes and she has grown quite used to responding to “Marina” or “Mariane.” She tells you that it doesn’t perturb her all that much, but you notice that she has started telling baristas and hostesses to put down “Sofia” or “Diana” or “Ana.”

For all that she has stomached over the issue of names, you avoid telling her about the fact that, here, people mistreat your name, unnerved by its magnitude. You dare not tell her that people scrutinize its four parts and deem it excessive for carrying the surnames of both parents. You prefer not tell her that is why you removed half of it, including her last name, and started to go by “Sofia Felix” in grade school. Even now, as you endure your college classmates’ snide comments whilst working on group projects, you prefer to stay silent.


It is going to be your grandmother’s first time in New York.

You made mole negro to prepare your space. You wanted its sweet and spicy aroma to fill your apartment and pour into the world from your third-story windows. Her journey would be long so you figured she would be hungry. You called your mom to ask her how much chocolate you should add, but you still weren’t able to get her recipe quite right, not sweet enough. It was your first time making mole by yourself, but you had seen her do it numerous times throughout your childhood. You had never taken note of the texture of the sauce before it is cooked down. The spices were gritty, floating about like sediment. They made the sauce thick and coarse. You thought it resembled the earth, it resembled mud—how fitting.

With the mole cooking on your stove, you began decorating your table. You wanted your grandma to feel at home, so you set out a rosary made of glass beads and your favorite candle. You arranged a vase of vibrant cempasuchiles, their strong earthy aroma meeting your nose. You remembered she always had quite the sweet tooth, so you brought some galletas marias out of your pantry and served her a glass of water because they are rather dry and you thought she might be parched. You filled a plate with mole and rice and set it out for her. You hoped she wouldn’t mind the small accidental deviation from her original recipe. You sat down in front of what you had prepared, your head in a homey aromatic cloud of spices and chocolate and flowers. It threatened to lull you to sleep, but you forced yourself awake because she was soon to arrive. You could feel her approaching your door, or maybe your window.

Finally, you lit the candle and put out her tiny 2×2 passport photo—it was the only one you had. You planted a kiss on her miniature forehead and whispered “hola madre,” not sure what to expect, not really expecting anything in particular. You held your breath as you watched the small flame begin to flicker and dance—waving at you in a fluid gesture. You let out a sigh of relief and thought to yourself forgetting is not an option.

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