by Rashaan Meneses
“For some of us, language is a homeland…”
– Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera
We live where the fog used to gather every morning, curtaining the streets and freeways in a misty haze. Hemmed in by a ridge of steep hills, studded with redwoods, bay laurels, and blue-gum eucalyptus. The ocean to our west rules our days and nights, governs our seasons with atmospheric rivers and dreaded dry spells. We’ve learned to live under constant clouds. Conjured by the angle of the sun, of warm air rising over cold, of plenteous and gelid waters hauled up from the bottom of that fierce ocean, its breath liquefied into stratus shapes. Our city sits directly across from where the ocean and bay collide. At our horizon, the Golden Gate Bridge arcs over a roiling strait. To our east, minor ridges of the Pacific Coast Range, otherwise known as the Berkeley and Oakland hills, trap us in a fog shadow. The later the season, the deeper the shadow.
We are three, with myself, my partner of twenty-two years, and our four-year-old son. Together we carve a life along this not-quite-new but still somewhat foreign coastline. Sixteen years ago, my partner and I migrated from Southern California, where the sky burns bright and sears the mesas and valleys. We settled into this cold and windy north while our parents and most of our siblings remain hundreds of miles away. Since our son was born, the distance between him and his grandparents is keenly felt with every illness, every holiday, and even in the day-to-day passing of time as he grows from infant to toddler and toddler to kid. I wonder if our family fate depends on migration. We seem to keep leaving our loved ones behind. Home, not quite where the heart is. Like many in this country, home is a compromise, a pact we’ve made, sacrificing our past selves to secure a greater future.
My family on both my mother and father’s side each arrived from someplace else. My paternal grandfather and maternal grandparents traveled the Pacific, sailing clear across an ocean, leaving their loved ones behind in the Philippines. My paternal grandmother’s family trekked through desert and mountains, swapping one dusty homeland in Zacatecas, Mexico, to make new in another dusty sun-struck basin in Sacramento, California. When I was three and my brother two, our parents said goodbye to their own families and birthplaces in the San Joaquin and Sacramento Valleys. Settling as strangers at the southern border of the state, my parents started over, five hundred miles away from their mothers, their fathers, their brothers and sisters.
We are all nomads here.
Either forced from our ancestral homes or fixing for better breaks, each leaving behind pieces of heart and soul to feed the body and tend to kin. Displaced. Dispossessed. Estranged. Reinvented. Assimilated. Sacrificing the familiar to be marked exotic not just by others, but also turning stranger to family, and foreign to self.
My earliest memory is of the delta, a vast unending valley that stretches hundreds of miles north and south. I remember rain and eucalyptus. Steam rising from the street. Grittiness cut with menthol. An early autumn shower. Not more than three years old, I stood next to my mother or father as they checked the mail outside our house. I remember a whitened gray sky above and the eucalyptus. Their scent, something citrus, near mint, and pure antiseptic, forever stamped as memory, as home.
According to my parents, my very first word was “tree” — or “t-wee,” as they like to tell it. There is a picture of me among their albums. My brown baby self, fitted in a white lacy dress trimmed with pink ribbon that my maternal grandma made. I am pointing up, toward a cluster of trees nearby. I imagine that this photo captures the moment I first spoke the only language I’ve ever really known.
If language is identity, if language is a homeland, I always end up border-checking myself. My grandparents on both sides of the family refused their children the languages of their homeland. A distinct and uncrossable border started in the mind and checked at the mouth. Not one of my paternal grandmother’s five daughters, nor either of her sons, including my father, were taught Spanish. Born in an era when teachers and nuns were quick with the ruler, children were shamed for speaking anything other than English. My mother used to be able to understand her parents’ language, Visayan, but they chose to protect her and her sister and brother by keeping their words to themselves. They didn’t want their kids marred by accents. They didn’t want to see them punished or bullied for simply speaking as who they were. Hoping to ease the burden of brown skin, my family severed many of their remaining ties to the cultures and traditions they left behind, sacrificing the deepest, most intimate parts of what makes us who we are. In this country, the price of citizenship is nothing less than a body for labor, and the cost for belonging is something more than a piece of the soul.
My childhood and early adult years were spent in the two-season borderland of San Diego, and later Los Angeles. In these southern climes, the heat claws into you. Save for one or two months out of the year when the skies finally pour open and rain washes the air clean, most days the sun crisps everything under its rule. The only salvation is the cool breath of sea.
In Berkeley, four seasons can cycle through three or four times in a single day. Mornings blanketed by a dense marine layer. The heavy mist may lift only to recapture the city later in the day, or eventually be swallowed up by a warm and forgiving sun. Most afternoons, the ocean rises. Offshore gusts storm the land, throttling tree branches, knocking open gates, tearing at anything loose and fragile. Night quiets before the sea takes over again, casting dew or ice to frost roofs and windshields, turning grass into glazed sheaths. This place my small family calls home still surprises me. I have yet to fully appreciate the weather and all its changing states. In many ways, this new home is a completely different kind of California than the state that ordered my sense of self when I first became conscious of place, of land, of identity, and of belonging.
For most my life, eucalypts have followed me up and down this state. Silver-dollared, blue-gummed, red, yellow, or white-budded, their towering tops, slender long limbs, their shedding torsos, and their scatter of button seeds have always signified a sense of origin, whether our family lived near the American River in the Sacramento valley or edged on the heat-stroked border in east San Diego. As kids, my brother, our friends, and I would spend hours in blue-gum groves, playing hide and seek, tramping through knee-deep leaf and bark litter, reading the names of past kids and teens who knived their lives and loves onto the trunks.
When my parents bought a house on the borderland hills of east San Diego, a lone eucalyptus stood perfectly framed outside my bedroom window. Unlike the eucalyptus groves overtaking the hillside just a few yards east of our house or the stand on the street below where the birds chattered by the dozens, this eucalyptus grew singular, solitary. Its branches stretched to the sky. Its trunk grooved and rippled. Leaves drooped in jewel-like clusters — thin, elongated tear drops, almost shining in marine teal. Before the tree was chain-sawed into a stump, as was the fate of many eucalypts in the neighborhood, this tree, over the years, rose twice as high as our two-storied house, maybe even taller, and came to serve as trusted sentry overlooking the valley from the ledge where our family home sits.
From childhood through adolescence and well into my teens, eucalypts were a gateway to the natural world, a refuge for the wild. You can’t escape them in Southern California. More plentiful than the canary palm or the Mexican fan palm, too often eucalypts blur into the background. They shade nearly every park, green countless hillsides, and line streets and pathways of businesses, school campuses, shopping malls, and parking lots. So easy to take for granted, so ubiquitous and atmospheric.
A pair of crows, mates for life I assumed, often perched on that tree outside my bedroom window. Rasping calls to one another and to their murder with their metallic caws. They’d join the rest of their group in the more dense grove of eucalypts at the bottom of our hill, where they disappeared into the shadows of the branches and leaves. Red-tailed hawks often turned the solitary tree-top to throne, surveying the valley vista that stretched beyond. On lazy weekends and after school, I’d watch wildlife flit and slip through the eucalypts of our neighborhood. I used to sit under that solitary tree. Sit and daydream. Sit and listen to music on my Walkman. Sit and contemplate the contours of its height, the stretch of its graceful limbs. From my desk in my room, I’d sketch this tree against the backdrop of the canyons and ridgeways that rose up from the valley bottom.
With their epicormic buds and their aromatics, eucalypts were imported from Australia to California to re-timber and beautify what had been deforested during and after the Gold Rush. When the Golden State was annexed to the U.S., occupiers swooped in, seizing land. What stood for millennia as oak savannas, as chaparral, as salt and freshwater marshes were soon transformed to small towns, big cities, sprawling ranches, farms, and orchards. Forests of live oak, scrub oak, Jeffrey and Coulter pines, redwoods, and willows were quickly felled for fuel and razed for development. Imported for their hardiness and bred for their beauty, species like camaldulensis, radiata, grandis, and globulus were sowed by the millions across the state and peddled by boosters as the golden crop to remake California as paradise.
The fate of eucalyptus throughout California remains tenuous, yet they remain as iconic to the state as the bright-blooming and just-as-messy lilac-heavy jacaranda, the spiky orange-blazed birds of paradise, and the soaring Canary Island Palm. Most of us here in this Golden State seem always to be just arriving, always under threat of expulsion. Many of us here aren’t native. Domestic yes, but generally of foreign descent.
When I was seven or eight years old, my paternal grandma made a rare visit from Sacramento to stay with us in San Diego, and during those few weeks of her trip, she began my lessons on the natural world. At Mission Beach, we walked the shoreline until our pant cuffs got soaked, our feet crusted with sand, and grit caught underneath our fingernails. As seagulls circled and cried above us, while the waves foamed up and curled back into the ocean, my grandma prized a perfect sand dollar from that sea strand and handed me the treasure so I could marvel over the near perfect circular disc, wonder at the five-petalled imprint and the tiny brown hairs fuzzed along the edge.
During her stay, she took me on walks around my neighborhood and I saw the houses and streets where I grew up through her eyes. My grandma taught me how to identify mustard flowers, oleanders, and bougainvillea. She shared the story of eucalypts and their arrival in California, traveling across an ocean, taking root in foreign soil, greedily adopted by industry and agriculture. An exotic transformed to a domestic, bred to serve as windbreaks for ranches and farmlands. Harvested in the hopes of tying railroad tracks and fueling homes only to warp and wither when cut. Still, the Golden State, this homeland we’ve come to claim, became defined by the eucalyptus. Like the mustard flower fields that once covered huge swaths of open spaces. Like the oleander that trims our freeways, the bougainvillea festooned on tract houses.
We tend to grow up thinking there are distinct boundaries separating the wild from the settled. We force clear distinctions between what is natural and what is human. As if humans were in essence unnatural or sub-natural, the city antithetical to something we might call Mother Earth, the mountains and deserts, a refuge from our human toils. The wilderness, so often seen as Other.
My paternal grandmother’s backyard was one of the first wildernesses I ranged. The landscape always shifting, revealing strange and surprising marvels. A dove cote. White and gray tufted feathers poking out from the mesh. A constant coo humming as background melody. A koi pond with a little red bridge arching over it. The flash of fish tails, golden or white, flecks of vermeil catching sunlight. Roses of countless colors and varieties. Peppers, eggplants, and tomatoes staked into the ground, each standing full and adroit. A greenhouse filled with seedlings, gardening tools, and stacks of empty pots waiting to be filled, eager to hold budding life. Forbidden territory, my cousins and I rarely ventured into grandma’s greenhouse, too stifling in the already suffocating heat of Sacramento summers. Underneath grandma’s kitchen window, hydrangeas ran riots of color. Their massive blooms exploded in pinks and blues. Opposite them, against the fence, calla lilies competed, spearing at the sky.
Though her backyard was carefully cultivated, tended from morning until dusk, it was as much my grandma’s domain as nature’s. I haven’t stepped foot in her backyard since she died almost a decade ago, yet a specific and distinct memory resurfaces at unexpected moments. I must have been nine or ten years old. My cousins are on the lawn roughhousing, playing a loose and haphazard football match. My aunties, uncles, and parents are in the house, where the air is cool, and the food is plenty. The sun has begun its retreat, retracting its claws. The sky dims as day gives way to evening. I stand alone at the side of the house, surrounded by my grandma’s mint, both fragrant and fetid. The first whiff, something floral and light. A summery scent weighed heavy with undertones of something vegetal, near rotting, of damp, festering undergrowth.
I remember feeling as if the mint might swallow me whole. Thick, tangled, knee-high, a jungle of verdant leaves, all pimply, serrated, and dense enough to raise a slight fear. What lurked in its tangle? I remember the strange wildness of that pocket of bushland co-created by my grandma. How she let it overrun in commune with something outside her human design. More than thirty years later, no matter where I am, the slightest whiff of fresh mint brings me back to that late afternoon. Back to a wilderness I understood as wilderness at the time, but now, in adulthood, puzzle over the collapse of deeply ingrained distinctions.
Like any one of her generation, born in the 1920s, of Mexican immigrants, surviving the Depression and then World War II, my grandma sustained her family by growing her own fruit and vegetables. She took pleasure and pride tending her roses, her calla lilies, and hydrangeas. As a native Spanish speaker, she had her own struggle learning English. She faced challenges of belonging in a country that denied her birthright because of her skin and because of her accent. Still, she made a home for her kids and her grandkids. She created a sanctuary that affirmed without doubt or hesitation that she knew exactly where she belonged. My grandma staked her territory, her domestic wilderness, with marigolds and mint.
In the most simple telling, my mother is full Filipinx. My father, half Filipinx, half Chicanx, both of them born and raised in the San Joaquin and Sacramento Valleys. According to my mother, we are Chicapinx, which makes my son, whose father is a mix of British, Polish, and Mexican, a MexiPoliBritipinx. My mother understood that language is consciousness, and, as early as I can remember, she pressed the power of naming oneself. If I had to point to what made me Chicanx, I always go back to my paternal grandma, as if she’s the touchstone, the homeland where Chicanidad rests. We are far from Atzlán, yet this state my family has called home for four generations once was Mexico, too.
If language is a homeland, then those of us of second and third generation are displaced. To be without your native languages, especially when your family is mixed race, places you in a multitude of wildernesses. I couldn’t tell you where the Filipinx ends and the Chicanx begins. My monolingual American English remains primitive. If I could go back to the homeland, which one would I choose? Visayan? Pangasinan? Tagalog? Or Spanish?
We live on Huichon Ohlone land. The latest occupiers to a place where willows, bunch grasses, and mudflats long ago covered miles and miles of shoreline. Eucalyptus green this new home of ours. In the steep hills just east of us, they continue to thrive a hundred years after their original planting. Three million blue gums, red rivers, and Monterey pines scattered across 3,000 acres of the Berkeley and Oakland hills. After the 1991 Oakland Firestorm, the eucalyptus groves remain as battlegrounds.
Still, we hike along these ridges and ravines as often as we can, knowing our four-year-old’s dedication to bug-scouting and rock hounding is barely a fraction of the endurance treks we used to scramble before he was born. This reserved wilderness has become an extension of our backyard. Steeply sloped with changing pockets of microclimates that lead to open grasses exposed to wind and sun, then tucked back into deeply dense forests of bay laurels and redwoods that strain the sunlight. Unlike my childhood, here in the Bay Area the eucalypts persist now as few and far between.
They sprout conspicuously, turning native outback into alien territory. As soon as a trail bends into their forest, the slopes change into a cacophonous jungle where shadows shift and forms shape out of the corner of your eye. Sunlight blunted, the eucalypts create their own otherworld. Birds call to one another, their cries strange and unexpected. They flit from tree to tree, too fast to track. Many take cover, camouflaged, so all you hear is their canopy chatter. Your neck strains to peek at the tree-tops. The eucalypts rival redwoods in height. Their branches constantly creak. Their leaves, an unending rustle. They moan in the wind. They shudder at their own ungainly and sprawling weight. They are always shedding, dropping seed and bud. Their leaf and bark hide the ground underneath, so you’re not always sure how steady your step is and where your foot might fall.
I often try and imagine their shrieks and howls during our Diablo wind storms and dread to think of the danger those gangly limbs could bring crashing down. The torrent of peel and blade let loose by fearsome gusts. The winds never really rest in these hills, and the eucalypts converse ceaselessly. They answer to the wind. They swish and sigh to themselves. Their wails shake the nerves and echo through the hillside. Fire survivors. As much as they can fuel an inferno, as much as the winds can strengthen flames from hell, these trees can also tame and contain those beastly Diablos.
California is defined by the rains, both in their abundance and in their long stretches of absence. In the past couple decades, longstanding and plentiful eucalyptus groves have turned into canisters of fuel for seasonal fires like Cedar, Tunnel, Witch Creek, and Woolsey. The infernos grow as our climate warms, and many remaining blue gums, silver dollars, and iron barks have been sawed to stumps and fed to chippers. The exotics have overstayed their welcome. These century old stands are regularly kept in check, eyed grimly now as thickets of fear and scorn, tinderboxes waiting to ignite.
All my life, I’ve felt an imposter. A masquerading misfit. Every now and again, acquaintances will ask if I speak Tagalog, yet, more often, Spanish catches me out. Another shopper at the grocery store, a fellow bus or BART passenger casually tries to strike conversation, and that sinking sense of inadequacy, the hollowness of inauthenticity eclipses the self. My tongue betrays my skin. A border I can’t cross binds my words. An ocean spans between myself and my family’s legacy.
There is a map of California I keep on my desktop. Drawn in Spanish, at the far-right corner, in spindly cursive script, the words read: “Audencia de Guadalajara, Nova Mexico, California.” On this map, California charts something like Italy’s boot, but the heel is turned westward, and a swath of water etched as “Mar Vermejo” cleanly separates California from the rest of the continent. Since the 1600s well into the 18th century, California was dreamed, depicted, and touted as an island. Named after a myth conjured by 16th century Spanish novelist Garci Rodriguez de Montalvo, a troop of Cortes’ men reached the Baja peninsula and found waters so promising, filled with pearls, they honored the place with the title of Montalvo’s Amazon queen, Califia.
Sometimes my mixed cultures seem to drift like islands. My Mexicanness, my Filipinoness, and my Americanness float as unmapped territories that feel, at times, disparate, demarcated. All my life I have assumed responsibility for what others have implied as a handicap, and I wonder about friends and acquaintances of German, Italian, and Welsh descent. Are they held accountable for the ties their grandparents or great grandparents severed? Does the weight of shame and disappointment bear down on them, too?
For too long my presence demands an account.
What are you?
Where are you from?
Where are your parents or grandparents from?
What they don’t know is that the first of our islanders arrived in 1587. We have been here for generations. A Spanish landing led by Pedro Unamuno brought Filipino crew to the coast of Morro Bay by way of the Golden Triangle. Some of the islanders jumped ship. Gone local. We are Californios in this sense. Mestizas and mestizos linked by ocean and conquest.
Like our parents and their parents before them, my partner and I left family and friends, swapping comfort and familiarity for opportunity. We moved from Southern California for better prospects in the north. We remake home and transplant roots, estranged and distanced from the home and roots we once knew. While we struggle to bridge the distance between my son and our families, I try and anticipate what iterations of confusion, of displacement, of loss, and of multiplicity my son may face. In what ways will he be haunted by those perpetual questions that have shadowed me? How will he answer those interrogations for himself? For his family? For others?
Now, when we visit my parents in that dry, hot borderland of San Diego, my son catches June bugs and beetles where that solitary eucalyptus once towered. While he plays in my parents’ backyard, there is no way for him to truly understand the magnitude of that solitary eucalyptus that once framed my childhood. How could he know or appreciate the grandness of that tree, with its sky-piercing height, the columnar stature that propped a dense and latticed canopy? What care could he give for the rippled and graceful network of limbs that yielded cover for mourning doves, for flycatchers, for wrens and sparrows, and for Allen’s and Anna’s hummingbirds? What beetles, woodborers, and caterpillars would he have found burrowed in its bark? My son won’t be able to witness or admire all the life sustained from root to trunk, through a web of long, slender-limbed branches, to climbing crown.
An absence is just as much of a presence.
The unmapped, unknown parts of self and place remain whether they are named or not. Whether words, knowledge, or understanding can bring them to light, terra incognita persists even if lost, abandoned, denied, stolen, or forgotten. Recently, in conversation, I shared the ache of not knowing my native languages, the ache of feeling estranged from my cultures, and a friend observed that the ache, in itself, is a kind of knowledge, a specific understanding, and an affirmation of culture, of history, and of legacy.
Since birth, I’ve been roaming this Otherworld of mixed cultures. Stumbling across rocky terrain, hoping to find footing on some trail of solid ground, but too often the land shifts, eroding or rupturing underneath me. I am blown off course by distraction, through detour, or locked from impassable routes. Language charts conflicting maps and over the years, I have come to find there are many paths to identity with no fixed destination for one specific culture or ethnicity, be it Chicanx, Filipinx, or American. I am all of these cultures in the ways I engage with the world and in the stories I have inherited and share forward.
I want to be ready when my son asks me who we are. I will tell him that when strangers question what he is and where he is from that those queries are not a reflection of our loss. We have never really been lost. The confusion is not ours but theirs, of strangers eager to fix us, to pin us where they see fit in order to orient their own identity and tally their own faulty value. I hope to steady for him a sense of confidence should he come to me wondering how we came to be, why my skin is dark, and his skin light. I want to be able to show him how he is Mexican and what makes him Filipinx. I want to follow the path my grandma led me on, a path that steered me to realize how home is as much a place as a way of understanding and engaging with the places around us. I want to be for my son what my grandma was for me. A homeland, a locus of family, of tradition, and of wisdom carried across ocean and over desert, handed down in a near-wild terrain of mint and tomatoes.
Rashaan Alexis Meneses is a past resident of The MacDowell Colony and The International Retreat for Writers at Hawthornden Castle, UK. She has received fellowships from the Jacob K. Javits Program, Well Spring Retreat in Massachusetts, Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing, and an Ancinas Scholarship for the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley, California. Her fiction and non-fiction have been featured in various journals and anthologies, including Kartika Review, Puerto Del Sol, New Letters, BorderSenses, Kurungabaa, The Coachella Review, Pembroke Magazine, Doveglion Press, and the anthology Growing Up Filipino II: More Stories for Young Adults. When she’s not writing or teaching, she’s hiking the California Coast with her family.
Featured photo courtesy of Jar.