Our family stories include my great great grandmother who was a fandango dancer and hid a famous outlaw in her well, and my great grandmother Nellie Welliver nee McCaunaghay who came from Ireland, had 17 children and lived across the Nebraskan road from Buffalo Bill, who brought the kids toys. Then there was the guy William Williams who signed the declaration of independence, and the relatives who were awarded land grants in California after being loyal to someone in Mexico. Those folks paired up with some of the indigenous folks whose land they were “granted” and spawned the fandango dancer. Unfortunately, when the white settlers came in, they forced the “California Mexicans” off their land, and even chased them out of Fresno, and into a little town called Hornitos, which is where Ghiradelli of the chocolate fame, got his start. He, being Italian, was also considered too brown for Fresno. If ever you wonder why Ghiradelli put so much wax in his chocolate, go to Hornitos (“little oven”) in the Summer some time. We also have some German and maybe a little Welsh &/or Alsatian in our genes.
So when someone “asks me what are you”? I never know how to answer. I used to choose a label of “California Mexican” as much of our family’s cooking and Catholic culture came down through my paternal grandmother, Adelita Welliver. Apparently, her Irish boxer/blacksmith, reported car bumper inventor, and eventual plumber/lineman for the county husband Creed, loved California Mexican cuisine. But, I’m extremely white to be claiming to be Mexican, even though Annabelle Williams learned to cook beans, rice and enchiladas as well as her mother-in-law Adelita.
Labels, they are a place which so many of us get stuck in. Much political controversy arises from what label someone chooses. But do they really define us? Especially as we move through the chapters of our lives? I could choose “lesbian” as a label. It certainly shaped important aspects of my experience in a bigoted Catholic family. However, I felt that was more because of the labels my siblings chose to wear. I don’t think it says much about me other than the gender of my partner, even though one of my earliest memories is of the aforementioned Creed saying something like “you’re going to have to be a nun, no man will ever put up with you”-I guess I had a bit of an independent attitude even at 5 years of age. But, I never felt like I wanted to be part of the lesbian scene, and at times felt it was confusing with rules I wasn’t familiar with.
Hippie is probably the label I am most comfortable with, or maybe “holistic science commie hippie witch eco-naturalist creation spirituality celebrant doctor”. Yeah I think that fits, for the moment.
I recognize that it’s a privilege not to think about my labels. Dear Representative Elijah Cummings, who passed away the week that I’m writing this, had to think about his labels everyday. He once told a story about the time he was able to afford to buy a nice car, an achievement in any young person’s life of his generation. Except that as a young black man, he was stopped by the police every week, because they saw a young black man driving a nice car. I suppose, to a great extent, it’s about how those labels are interpreted, and how static or dynamic those interpretations are, both from person looking out and the person looking in.
Looking at our labels is useful because it gives us insight about how we view ourselves and how others may choose to view us. It gives greater understanding to how and why we move about in life the way that we do. It gives us an opportunity to look at the longevity and usefulness of certain labels. They can provide an understanding of the context of our lives, and what is our true self-image vs an adopted self-image.
Also, maybe a greater understanding of why others may treat us the way that they do, so that we don’t have to take things as personally. It’s not about me, it’s about the way they view the meaning of the label they slapped on me. This is how I survived my bigoted Catholic (notice the labels I use for them) siblings ostracizing my partner and me from family functions.
What are your chosen labels? What labels do you see others sticking on to you? What is the meaning of those labels for you and for the way others interact with you? Who are you?