I never liked the word half-breed. Neither did Cher when she wrote the song in 1973:
“Half-breed, that’s all I ever heard
Half-breed, how I learned to hate the word.”
I come from a bicultural family. My mother was born in Tijuana, Mexico, and my father was born in Farner, Tennessee.
Growing up, I don’t think I heard anyone using the term half and half, save for pouring it in their coffee, so I assumed I made it up—until I found out two days ago that there is a book with the same title: Half and Half.
As a kid, I was sometimes called half-breed or mixed breed. I also heard Spic-Hick, Whitican, and Half-Beaner. I do recall sometimes wishing I were one or the other.
So, what or who am I?
Does it matter?
In Tijuana, when I was a kid, we would stay with my Nana on the weekends and play with the neighborhood kids. That’s when I first heard the word “guero” (pronounced like whe-doe), which essentially meant “whitey.” I think it was directed mostly toward my brother since his skin tone was lighter than mine. It did not matter though, as we all played with each other. My siblings and I weren’t bilingual yet, but as long as you knew what a pelota (ball) was and could yell “Corale!” (run) you were good.
In the 1950s, San Diego was a sleepy little Navy town. My father, at 17, was eager to escape his traumatic life in the little mountain town of Farner during the Korean War. Farner was tucked inside the Smoky Mountains within the southern stretch of the Appalachian Mountains. It’s also next to Turtle Town and Duck Town. I’m not making this up—my dad went to Duck Town High. After his father’s death, he wanted nothing more to do with Tennessee.
Have you ever seen the movie “Deliverance?” (Insert that banjo rift here.) Farner is somewhere near the location of that movie. I had visited my grandmother in Tennessee twice before seeing that movie. And after seeing it, I thought “Holy sh*t! They could have made me squeal like a pig!”
I remember visiting my grandmother for the first time at six years old. My older brother and I went into the General Store to buy candy. My dad had encouraged us to go in by ourselves. He should have said, “Go into the lion’s den. I’m fairly sure the lions won’t eat you…whole.”
As we walked into the store, there were several old white guys sitting in rocking chairs glaring at us. I forgot to mention this was during the summer and my Mexican genes made me five times browner than my older brother. That’s incorrect—my brother doesn’t brown when in the sun; his skin turns hot pink and then peels.
I was not getting a good vibe at this store. This one old coger spoke to me in a particularly angry tone, “What’s your name boy?” I replied, “Danny Shearer.” Everyone stopped what they were doing; you could hear a pin drop.
“Who is your pappy, boy?” I replied, “Zane…Zane Shearer.” His mood seemed to brighten, “Is your gramma Hattie Lois?” When I said yes, the temperature in the room changed from ice cold to normal. Everyone in the store introduced themselves to me and my brother and I got free soda pop and candy. I did not know that “gramma” and her husband Alvin were gospel singers in what was known as the Bible Belt of Tennessee.
Ooo, my Nana is a rock star! And my savior, I thought. But why the dirty looks before they knew who she was?
It was weird and confusing growing up as a half and half. And it was normal. There were many families in San Diego that were multicultural and multiracial. Like my father, many men married women from other races and cultures after serving in the military. So being a half and half seemed acceptable, except at times when prejudice, racial supremacy, and privilege came into play.
The Chicano Federation was huge in the 60s and 70s, advocating for equality for the Latino culture. My mom didn’t agree. She and her friends complained that they, the Chicanos, had no work ethnic and just wanted to bitch, moan, and protest versus getting a job. Before the Chicanos, there were the Pachucos, who mom spent time with in the 50s. My guess is the Chicano Federation was after my mom’s time.
I was puzzled. I assumed she would be standing behind them advocating for equal rights. Was that a cultural thing or a generational thing? I guess she was instructed that Brown people should just put their heads down and focus on the work in front of them. “You complain about anything, then the white guy is going to fire you.” Of course, Cesar Chavez thought that was bullsh*t and started a protest and raised hell. Thus, significant changes occurred in the 60s and 70s.
“In my mom’s generation, she and her Latina friends did their best to be Americanized. Do what white Americans do, look the way white Americans do, and celebrate the way white Americans do. Except during Christmas and quinceañeras because you must make 200 to 500 tamales, no ifs, ands, or butts.”
No wonder there were many kids I grew up with who were unfamiliar with their minority parents’ tongue. Unless you had a grandparent living with you, English was the language of choice. We moved Nana into our home when I was 13 years old due to the rising crime in Tijuana. She split a room with my sister, and my sister is bilingual as a result. I had to wait till I was in college before I became proficient in Spanish. Proficient is a nice word meaning I kinda suck at Spanish yet I’m fairly good with Spanglish.
At 15 or 16, my mom found some pot in my pants pocket. The Mexican Catholic guilt was huge in my home and mom poured it on big time. She said, “Mijo, if your Nana finds out about this it will kill her!” A few weeks later, I was eating breakfast when Nana came up to me and said, “Mijo, you left these in your pantalones.” She handed me a dime bag of weed, my pipe, and my lighter. Of course, my heart jumped out of my chest. As she walked away, I thought, “Crap, I just killed my abuelita!” Well, she did not die, thankfully. But I got an ear full from mom the next day.
I am bothered by the current racial and cultural divide in America. I never thought racial and cultural diversity would still be so problematic in 2022. People are still being treated differently based on the color of their skin. And worse, polarizations in politics, communities, and workplaces have become so petty and ridiculous. Personally, I love to sing “America, F*ck Yeah!” but I also like to sing “Guantanamera.”
Despite the chaos, I know who I am. I am a Mexican American. I am a Half and Half. I am proud of my cultural diversity. In mi familia, we make tamales at Christmas and potato salad on the side. Odale! That’s O-da-ley. And that’s my culture.