Divorce Hits a Hyphen
“Tell mom that you love her but don’t tell her that I told you to say that.”
“Have you talked to dad recently?”
After a mutual reluctance, after a 33 year union lacking any measure of communication, after perfectly good white ceramic plates have been tossed in the garbage because putting random things in the trash was an iconic form of protest for my dad, after five hyphenated children, after contending with historic disapproval from a historically pedophilic Church, predictably, my parents divorced.
One says “separated,” the other says something similar. Now that these two people who made and parented me are apart, a dialogue on my own identity has forcibly reemerged. Most existentially upsetting, but not surprising, my parents changed their last names. One keeps a Swiss name, “Zahner,” that roughly means dentist. The other, who was born in Veracruz, Mexico and is racially Mexican, keeps “Lahud,” a name with Lebanese origins. What kept my parents together, exemplified by the small but strong hyphen between their last names, was their commitment to their children and, I believe, a sense of religious shame associated with annulment. Still, this was not strong enough to hold two different people from two different cultures together forever. The hyphen disappeared as they went their separate ways.
So where does that leave me as the hyphen?
As the product of a mixed-race marriage, the dissolution of my parents’ relationship has given me eyes to see how popular US conceptions of race are resistant to people existing as anything between binaries. Coping with my parents’ divorce, and my own identity, is the work of choosing both and being confused, resisting the idea that I can comfortably exist on one side of things and believing in the possibility of belonging in two separate spaces.
Suddenly I am aware of things that I can only do half of. Puedo entender la mayoría of what my dad writes in Spanish, yet I speak with the proficiency and accuracy of a toddler with a speech impediment. I can only partially understand who my parents are now that they don’t live together. They have become two people, two separate nation-states, two entities I will always support in diplomacy. I have come to believe that I am simultaneously two people and, also, a disillusioned half-person.
My position in my parents’ divorce is further complicated by how little the American government values my father’s racial identity and immigrant status. White America has been the gold standard of identity in this country. Because of this, I want to be, and am, brown.
Last Friday, the President of the United States declared a national emergency in order to obtain funds to build a barrier between “us” and “them.” “Us” consists of the many, the proud, the White. “They” is made up of violent rapists, murders, drug runners, and, most worrisome, “bad hombres.” The anti-immigrant stance of the Trump administration has pushed me toward further pride in my father and pride in being both American and Mexican.
So I tend to represent “Lahud” above “Zahner” as a form of defiance, to show that I will side with those whom the American government does not respect, to show that I embrace my “ethnic” status. Yet, I am not actually Brown and I am not actually Mexican, as much as I yearn to be so.
Whenever I have worked in food service and a Spanish speaking group comes in, I have found myself vaguely hoping that they will speak Spanish to me. I want to think that they will recognize me and start a lively conversation. We will use slang, laugh, and have a great time in front of my white co-workers who will look on in envy and mild bewilderment.
Obviously, this has not happened because, just as I am read as Brown by White folk, I am read as White by Brown folk. Just as I hope that they recognize me as one of their own, I am also afraid. Afraid that if they really do speak to me in Spanish, I will be exposed as an impostor, as a coconut. I will tell myself my hair isn’t Mexican enough. It sits straight and floppy when it should be straight and spiky. My skin isn’t Brown enough. I am jealous of melanin blessed Mexican-Americans; my skin (mixed with the cold), is too white to be consistently read as Brown by other Brown people. I feel like the “after” photo of a student at an American Indian boarding school.
Despite being born in Oakland, California, a city with a cultural diversity and energy that I would like to claim, I grew up in Bellingham, Washington: a city that is 83% white. My mom is white and, to put genes aside, my mom raised me. Whatever she is culturally, I am as well. And I am proud to be my mother’s son. She is the sort of person that will say hi to people on a trail and not be offended when they don’t return her wave. She will continue to smile.
No matter what I want to be, or how I want to present myself, I will always be the product of my parents. Even though, in terms of apellido, they are not me. They made me physically, emotionally, socially and mentally. I know that I am them. But now that they don’t, and will never, exist as they did before, it is as if my manufacturers went out of business and I am product left to wonder what in the world is going on. My parents are divorced and I am only left with:
“I didn’t want things to end up like this.”
“Have you talked to mom recently?”
As I think about my own situation, I can’t help but think about those who are most affected by the Trump administration’s aggressive stance toward DACA. While my parents’ divorce gives me reason to consider the peculiarity of Brown Mexican and White American identity, I do not live with the threat of deportation. The Dreamers, and my dad, and my uncle, and my cousin, and my aunt are all Americans because they have lived in this shared space that we call the United States.
About the author: Charlie Lahud-Zahner is a Junior studying Cultural Studies and Creative Writing at Seattle Pacific University. He is currently re-listening to Tyler the Creator’s Flower Boy and trying to make the perfect egg sandwich.