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Two Women with Trenzas across Time and Space

Calanit Tsalach*

December 2010

For days, I have been completely absorbed in this article by Margaret Montoya. Montoya is a Professor of Law, born in New Mexico, and first-generation of Latinos going to university. Without using the word “autoethnography,” she uses her personal narrative to examine her way through academia, the prices she has paid and the various masks she has had to wear in an attempt to influence the way people reacted to her as an outsider.

She opens her article with an early memory, a memory in which her mother is braiding her hair for school. She views this as a daily ritual in which her mother teaches her that those ‘who don’t speak Spanish’ will see her as different, judge her and find her flawed.  She does not want her daughter to look uncombed, but the message that resides in combing, along with bathing and doing homework, is much deeper. The message is for Montoya to stay on guard, because in the outside world, she will always be judged for the color of her skin, her name and her accent. When Montoya, the young girl, put on her school uniform with her braids done, she was actually putting on her public self that obscured the differences between her and the Anglo students in school: a mask that signals to them that she is clean and well-cared for at home.

I dwell into her memory, and within a moment I am taken into my own childhood, the childhood of a Mizrahi (oriental Jew)[1] girl growing up in an inner city hood. I read her words, close my eyes, and it is there: our family story about my own preparation to school. My mother always tells how I used to wake her up very early in the morning to braid my hair. I didn’t want to be late to school, even though our house was right near it. I just needed to cross the crosswalk and I would be at the gate. At one of my visits to my parents, after reading the article, I ask my mother about it:

She tells me, “Ohh ohh, you’ve put us through hard times. Every half an hour you’d wake up [and say] ‘Mom, is it time to school?’ [And I would answer loudly] ‘No!’ Another hour, another half an hour, and again, until it was time to go to school. It was every day, every day. Don’t know [if] you were afraid to be late, I have no idea. ‘Mom get up, do my braids, I’m late.’ [very loud].”

And I ask her – “But what grade was I?”

She responds, “First grade!! What grade!? You were anxious, I don’t know what about [. . .] and school was two minutes away [. . .] Today we laugh about it, but who knows what you have suffered, I don’t know. Kool Sa-aa [from Arabic-Iraqi, meaning “every hour”].  Ya binty [“my daughter”] one o’clock, two o’clock [she laughs] [. . .] Kool Sa-aa Tig’eni [“Every hour you came to me”].”

When my mom wonders about my interest in the story, I tell her about Montoya’s article.

As it often happens when I connect our lives to academic things, my mother tenses up, watchful that this connection might also mean that I am judging her and doubting her parenting.

I tell her, “I’ve read an article.”

She asks, tensely, “And?”

I say, “A Latina law professor speaks about her mother combing her hair in the morning, making her braids for school. School for whites, Americans, not Mexicans. When her mother combs her hair, she says to her something in Spanish. That this way they would not think she is not tidy [. . .]”

She says, “No, you were an aesthetic child, tidy. You can also see at the pictures from the kindergarten. Your hair. Sometimes you see kids that look like no one has combed them in weeks [. . .]. You were tidy. Me-adla [“neat, everything in its place”]. You know your picture from the first grade. It is a unique germen bag, orthopedic, to keep your back. Don’t think I’m just what you see, I invested in you kids.”

I can feel for my mom, while I think to myself, that even then, we both knew something about the preparation required to ‘be good’ at school, and now at the university. To always stay on constant alert.

When I go back to Montoya’s article, I am amazed to see that it was published almost twenty years ago. An echo from twenty years ago resonates in my body now, here in Israel, while I am doing autoethnographic research on my experiences of ‘ethnic otherness’ in academic spaces. “Autoethnography” means braiding the personal and the cultural, the personal and the social, the personal and the academic. It is relatively rare in the academic writing of Israel, especially for doctoral students. Montoya wrote her paper in 1994. I am writing mine now and still I get friendly advice that writing it will hurt my career.

But, here, now, an echo from twenty years ago emboldens me.

I am writing about my parents’ home, the move between my life here and my life there, what it means to go back home from university, and what it means going to university from home. Which mask do I put on and where? I am always an in-betweener.

But, here, now, an echo from twenty years ago creates a space for me.

In my research, I’m trying to capture moments of otherness at the university, trying to unveil my fragile existence here in relation to my ethnicity, class and gender. In many of the moments I find myself in silence (or silenced?), hesitating if, when, and how to find my voice.

But, here, now, an echo from twenty years ago gives me back my voice.

‘Mascaras, Trenzas, y Grenas’ – an echo that gives me

strength,

space,

voice,

inspiration,

solidarity.



* Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel.

[1] A term relating to Jews who immigrated to Israel from West Asian and North African countries.

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