When my mother Dolores and my aunt Magdalena were teenagers in San Diego, all ablush and keen for social pursuits, they were turned down for membership in the Filipina Debs Club. Purportedly, they did not qualify because they were mestizas. They were part Mexican, the fault of my grandmother.
My grandmother Francisca was born in Nayarit, Mexico in a town called Acaponeta, an indigenous name whose English translation has the ring of a country-western lyric: Place near the river where the bean tangled in the reed grows. In the early 1920s, Francisca left her poetically named hamlet and immigrated to the U.S. with her three-year-old daughter Rosalva. She had earlier buried her first husband whose cheating ways were revealed when his mistress presented herself at the funeral. Years later Francisca would dispense this advice to me: Never marry a Mexican. I held onto that advice, not because I felt I should heed it, but because I thought it would make a great title for a story that my one-day-writer-self would write. But the already-writer Sandra Cisneros beat me to it. See Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories (1991).
Once settled in the U.S., Francisca nearly married an Italian. But my aunt Rosalva told me that that in the end my grandmother refused the insistent and amorous Italian because though he wanted her as his wife, he did not want the young Rosalva for a daughter. Francisca instead married my grandfather, Dionisio, a Filipino boxer from Los Baños, Philippines, himself insistent and amorous, and with the good sense not to ask that she abandon her daughter. With this union were born the mestiza daughters—four of them, plus two sons, whom Rosalva dutifully helped look after.
Marriage between a Filipino man and Mexican woman was a fairly common occurrence in Southern California during the early decades of the twentieth century. The first waves of Filipino immigration brought mostly men—laborers in agriculture and fish canneries. Due to anti-miscegenation laws and the scarcity of Filipinas owing to immigration restrictions, many Filipinos married Mexican women, producing that particular category of mestizo now popularly called Mexipino. Later, after World War II, Filipinos were allowed to immigrate with their brides. It was the offspring of these immigrants that Dolores and Magdalena were up against when they attempted to join the Filipina Debs.
The term mestizo did have a pejorative use, indicating something not pure. But in my grandmother’s native Mexico, during the colonial period the mestizos grew to dominance in numbers and eventually mestizaje became central to the identity of the Mexican. So Dolores and Magdalena and their sibs were mestizas twice over.
My mestiza mother Dolores married my Filipino father Jose who, as evidenced by his Chinese middle name Tiongkiao, was himself mestizo by the Filipino definition of “someone with non-native ancestry.”
And what of his Spanish surname Miscolta—a combination of mi (my) escolta (escort), which gives rise to curiosity about just what role my Filipino forebears played during the Spanish occupation of their land. And while the Spanish did not intermarry with the locals in the Philippines to the extent that they did in Mexico, the prevalence of Filipinos with Spanish surnames suggests a certain level of mixing it up.
All of this is to say that there is a great deal of mestizaje in our family. So what did Dolores and Magdalena do when the Filipina Debs declined them? They joined the Mestiza Debs. Here they are in all their mixed-race glory.
Dolores is in the second row, second from right; Magdalena is in the first row, center.