Growing up in Texas, Stephanie Elizondo Griest rejected the language of her mother’s Hispanic culture, adopting instead the safer and more respectable identity of her American father. In college Griest chose instead to steep herself in the Russian language, on the advice of a foreign correspondent at a high school conference for journalists, whom she had asked for the best way to get out of Corpus Christi, Texas, where she lived. His two-word response: Learn Russian.
Griest volunteered at a children’s shelter in Moscow, worked as a propaganda polisher for the Communist Party in Beijing, and performed as a belly dancer in the rhumba district of Havana. After travels in 12 countries from 1996 to 2000 Griest completed her memoir, “Around the Bloc: My Life in Moscow, Beijing, and Havana.” Now spending a year in Princeton as a fellow at Princeton University, Griest will read from both “Around the Bloc” and her upcoming memoir on Mexico, currently titled “Mexican Enough: A Story About Borders,” Thursday, February 23, at the Princeton Public Library.
It doesn’t sound like her penchant for travel came from any urge to escape her immediate family. Griest, 31, says she had a great childhood, with two wonderful parents — her mom, who headed off each morning with shoulder pads and a briefcase to her job at IBM, and her dad, the stay-at-home parent, a drummer who gave lessons and played gigs, and in the meantime made her breakfast, walked her to school, gave her an afternoon snack, and sometimes biked around town with her.
But, she adds, “I had wanderlust encoded in my DNA.” Her great, great-uncle was a hobo who saw America by riding the rails; her dad, as a musician in the traveling Navy Jazz Band, saw much of the world between ages 17 and 30; and her great-grandfather on her mother’s side was a migrant who walked on foot from Tamaulipas, Mexico, to King Ranch in south Texas.
Griest says her hometown of Corpus Christi “was a brown and white town, in every respect. The Mexicans, however, were entirely second-class citizens.” The racial divide apparent throughout Texas was most prominent in border areas like Corpus Christi and the towns around. “It gave me complexes. I never knew if I was Mexican or white.”
She learned in third grade it was better to be white. She started the year in a large class with a new teacher, and it had to be split up. All the brown kids were sent to one side of the room and the whites to the other. Griest stood alone, mid-room. The teacher looked at her and asked, “Stephanie, are you Hispanic or white?” Griest didn’t respond, but when she noticed her best friend on the Mexican side, “I ran over to the brown kids’ part of the room.”
But choosing a culture didn’t turn out to be that easy. When it was Griest’s turn to read, she read clearly and enunciated correctly. “The teacher looked at me oddly and asked whether I wanted to be with the white kids?” Griest was confused. She didn’t want to be with the “dumb kids,” so she figured, “I’m white. I have olive skin, but my father’s blue eyes,” and she chose at that moment to be “white.”
“It did something to me psychologically,” says Griest. “I never learned Spanish, because I associated it with being left behind. I was not interested in Mexican culture. I was Daddy’s girl and more interested in his family, in Kansas, and closer to them than my mother’s family.”
As a senior in high school, Griest wanted to go to college as far away as possible, which meant the University of Texas at Austin. In Austin — on a scholarship earned with the help of a high school guidance counselor who urged her to mark herself as Hispanic on her application — she saw that the other scholarship recipients were migrant workers, and as she realized the differences between their lives, she felt tremendously guilty. “They all faced discrimination and racism,” she says. “They would tell traumatic stories about being the only brown kid in the classroom.” As a result, she started asking herself hard questions: Did I steal the scholarships? Should I give up the money? Take out a loan?
When Griest headed off for a seven-month stint in Russia and then a year in China, she had no idea she was going to be writing a book. But she was an avid journal keeper. “I knew what I was witnessing in Russia was historic,” she says. “I could see the changes. Moscow in January when I arrived was different from Moscow in August.” In China, she also took notes, but in a nearly indecipherable code, for fear she might get people in trouble. But by the time she headed off to Cuba, sneaking into the country by way of Mexico with a friend who knew the ropes, she knew she would be writing about the trip.
The process of writing the book and getting it published, however, was a long haul, requiring four complete rewrites. After her return from China and Russia, she moved to Austin and began the book. She applied to jobs in India, but then her father was diagnosed with cancer, so she stayed put. After two years and two versions, says Griest, “I had it the way I wanted.” But it was rejected by many publishers, who all told her it needed to be more of a memoir. She received the bad news, all at once, in a big fat manila envelope from her agent — filled with rejection letters. The following day, however, in the midst of a bad hangover, she got an invitation to join Odyssey’s US Trek, an educational nonprofit designed to promote global awareness among youth.
The manuscript came along for the ride. Finally, one of her companions asked about it and eventually all of the trekkers read it, sometimes aloud. “They would laugh, sigh, have the right visceral reactions, and ask all these questions,” Griest says. Their enthusiasm was genuine, and she decided that maybe she could write a memoir after all.
For Griest, her decision to eventually learn Spanish was inspired by her journey through the bloc and her own struggle to understand what she saw, for example, how citizens of the bloc repeatedly defied autocratic attempts to vanquish their native cultures. She takes a sharp look at herself in the book’s epilogue:
“Meanwhile, those of us who haven’t needed to fight for our culture have often deserted it. In some ways, capitalism has done an even better job of dissolving cultures than communism. My travels in the bloc forced me to question why. How did I lose such a fundamental part of who I am? And why have I never invested time or energy recovering it?”
Griest studied Spanish intensively for about four-and-a-half months in the town of Queretaro, three hours from Mexico City. On the advice of a junior high school acquaintance who came to one of her readings, she decided to study there. He picked her up on her arrival, introduced her to his friends, and found her a place to live with a group of gay Mexican artists who spoke Spanish.
Once she could speak Spanish, she started interviewing undocumented workers who had come back from the United States and also their families. She also spoke to indigenous resistance leaders in the states of Oaxaca and Chiapas who were fighting the Mexican government for land, grievances, rights, and dignity. Griest explains, “They were treated horrifically, with the paramilitary and military trying to steal land and resources, and taxing them.”
Her entree to these people was via her unusual travel companion, a “drop dead gorgeous” American dominatrix who Griest met in a hostel. She was covered with colorful tattoos — the Great Lakes across her chest, huge artichokes growing up her arm, and Mayan words across her belly — and dressed so that much was visible. “Everyone was happy to have her around,” says Griest.
As she got to know this “phenomenal country,” Griest says she felt pride but also anger that she had been “kept from this and never taught or showed this.” Now she speaks to high school students in Texas, telling them, “Be proud to be from such a vibrant, gorgeous place with such an amazing history.”
Griest is still in touch with many of the friends she made on her journeys. While her Russian and Chinese friends are doing well, the ones in Cuba are not. One of the Cuban twins she met died from an abortion — her doctor was away in Venezuela at Castro’s behest, there was no medicine because of the embargo against Cuba, and there was no sterilizer. Her grief at the loss of her twin put the remaining sister in a shaky psychological state. When her husband managed to get two visas for Canada, Griest herself raised the $7,000 they needed in the bank immediately in order to leave the country. Now Griest is trying to figure out how to raise the $10,000 it will cost another friend to safely follow his pregnant girlfriend to the United States. “The situation is really bad in Cuba,” says Griest.
Griest is now working on three book projects. One is “Mexican Enough.” A second is a book she was commissioned to write—the life story of a motivational speaker from El Paso, who is a survivor of rape, incest, alcoholic and abusive husbands, and now is a high-paid CEO of her own company. The last book will be a guidebook on the 100 best places for women, to come out in spring 2007 from Traveler’s Tales publishing. It will include places of historical significance, spots for belly dancing, applying henna, and eating chocolate as well as venues from the women’s cooperative movement, yoga centers, and spas.
For the present Griest is taking advantage of the Latin American studies department at Princeton, which she describes as “wonderful, kind, and welcoming.” She goes to lectures and audit classes, learning as much as she can for her future career, which she feels sure will be about Latin America. After her fellowship is over at the beginning of September, she has a fellowship to work at Ledig House, an international artists’ colony in New York’s Hudson River valley. Then, although she will be at the ready to hop a plane to Mexico for any major news breaks, she expects to be nomadic for a couple of years. The only thing she knows for sure is that “I will rely on the kindness of strangers.”
Writers Talking Series, Thursday, February 23, 7:30 p.m., Princeton Public Library, 65 Witherspoon Street. Lecture and booksigning by Stephanie Elizondo Griest, who wrote her memoir “Around the Bloc: My Life in Moscow, Beijing, and Havana.” Free. 609-924-9529.
Griest will also speak Wednesday, April 5, 4:30 p.m., at the Princeton University Program in Creative Writing, Stewart Film Theater, 185 Nassau Street, 609-258-4712.