Pocho. The first time I remember hearing the word I had misheard it. Pancho? Or maybe Poncho? Spoken between two family friends it hardly seemed significant. It took another adult repeating it for me to recognize something important. My ears perked up. Sitting near a table filled by grey-haired men, one of them made a joke. Another stood up and said it: pocho. The men practically lost their seats. As if they had suffered years deprived of humor, their cackle was bright and bursting at the seams. We worried we might have to remind them to breathe. The same speaker kept the mood going by repeating himself. Pocho. Pocho. Pocho.
I have no idea what brought the word out. The moment is too far gone in the memories of the family I still have. I like to assume the joke was an act of reclamation. After all, this was a period of examination, when certain Mexican-Americans in California wanted to use the word to signal a new phase of self-identification. To be “pocho” was to admit how far one’s Mexican heritage extended to the past and how much American influence interrupted the culture, traditions, and rituals as they existed back in Mexico. It was a celebration of where one came from but also where one was at in the present. To be “pocho” was a joy.
Of course, as it was used, and as it is still used by some, calling someone a pocho signals disappointment. Launched against Mexican-Americans as an epithet to mock assimilation, the term can summon the worst feelings of belonging to a diasporic community. Being a pocho is painful. It can make one feel inauthentic, untrue to their heritage and ancestral history. It marks one a sellout and a fake.
Pocho. It appears just once in “Theresa.” Yet, when I first sat down to write the story it was driving each page. What would one do to overcome this insult? What does it take for one to celebrate and to revel in their diaspora and disconnection?
To tackle such questions, I had to write about Mexico, and I had to write about a character who was reckoning with his own sense of home and heritage. The narrator, Alex, is a language instructor who has lived in Mexico for almost a decade. He teaches English, winds up in locations designed to attract American tourists, and hears from a friend how it is time to leave the country. As the narrator lives his life, the Mexico he navigates is both a mythical homeland and a place where violence haunts each corner. Everything seems to warn him to return to the United States. But then the word appears.
He hears it used to describe him—pocho. On the surface, Alex can hardly be said to react. However, what follows is a struggle between leaving and staying.
In the end, he makes his choice.
I did my best to create a story that dealt with the different sides of pochismo, the dreams and losses built into the identity, and the frustrations and hopes many Mexican-Americans who grow up in the United States experience. Where does one belong? What defines belonging and unbelonging? Who gets to define it? In some sense, these questions never leave a person, just recess and remerge at different moments.
In an attempt to capture this dilemma, I revisited favorites who understood the interlinked nature of memory, time, and diaspora. I reread Roberto Bolaño’s fiction to better understand how longing can influence a life; Mariana Enríquez’s “The Intoxicated Years” for its study of loss; Valeria Luiselli’s funny and strange Faces in the Crowd; and Jhumpa Lahiri’s interrogation of heritage and community in “Interpreter of Maladies.” In addition, there was Stuart Hall’s poetic writing on diaspora and its potential for social change that inspired me to the story’s end.
I am unconvinced I came close to these efforts, but I know trying is important and that trying is a powerful response to tackling emotions and crises of uncertainty. Along the way, I thought about all those separated from what they consider home. Above all, I hope I show in “Theresa” that questions and concerns about identity are universal and valid.