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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
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
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
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
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
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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