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This article by Michele Alperin was prepared for the February 22, 2006

issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Finding a Culture of One’s Own

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.


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