As my husband and I prepare to celebrate 15 years of marriage this year, we wonder what all the stir is about
My husband and I met the usual way—in a dive bar. Over the years I’ve spun the story to make it sound less like a cliché.
“We met at a jazz club,” I’ll say in polite company. “I went there to see an improvisational drummer, and wound up with an Irishman who brandished impressive guns.”
By guns I mean rock-solid biceps and triceps honed by years of rock climbing and weightlifting. I know, because I squeezed those guns shamelessly the night we met at El Chapultepec, a legendary Denver bar that is steeped in music lore. Music greats such as Miles Davis, Chet Baker, and Stan Getz played at the jazz mecca, and the likes of Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald, Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, Bono, Jack Kerouac, and Bill Clinton—who played tenor sax on the club’s tiny stage—have sat on its hallowed stools. In a 2006 Esquire magazine story, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer J.R. Moehringer described El Chapultepec like this: It “smells like New York, feels like New Orleans, and sounds like southside Chicago.” It was perfect.
In the Aztec language of Nahuatl, “chapultepec” means “grasshopper hill,” so the bar was a fitting place to catch a husband, especially for a grasshopper like me who still had a lot to learn about love. I was 38 and he was 41. It had been eight years since I’d divorced my first husband, a South American engineer, and longer since he’d divorced his first wife, a sweet white American girl-next-door with a killer body. As Bonnie Raitt would say, we found love in the nick of time. He was cute, smart, and made me laugh, and took me to good restaurants. What really closed the deal for me, though, was the way he opened his door to welcome me with a cilantro-infused salad in one hand, and an acoustic guitar in the other. He serenaded me with Spanish love songs, and we danced to Lyle Lovett and the Gipsy Kings.
We figured out that we had “almost met” on several occasions, and our whirlwind romance felt destined to be. I met his elderly parents, sitting stiffly amid his mother’s Irish lace as his father dropped casual “N” bombs, and he met my large, rambunctious Hispanic family, who told him embarrassing stories about my checkered past as they fed him tamales and green chile. On our wedding day, I wore a long, vintage Gunny Sax dress to cover my baby bump, and carried a bunch of lilies tied with ribbon. As we walked toward the judge’s chambers in the drab Denver City and County Building, a line of prisoners broke into applause, clanging their handcuffs and whooping with glee as we passed. I’m still not sure if they were happier about our shotgun wedding or our interracial marriage.
On that November day in 1997, we became husband and wife, happily joining the ranks of thousands of other whipped fools who have loved each other so much they were willing to face discrimination and alienation to be together. For us, love was not only blind, it was color blind. Stone-cold color blind. I’m Mexican American, and my “viejo,” my old man, is (mostly) Irish American. This year we’ll celebrate 15 years of marriage. We still love each other, have a beautiful son, and have built a big, sloppy, happy life together. So what’s the big deal?
Forty-five years after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down bans on interracial marriage, the number of mixed couples is on the rise, according to the Pew Research Center’s Social and Demographic Trends project. Over the coming decades, interracial marriage is expected to become even more common as more people learn to accept that humans can and do fall in love despite differences in skin color, language, religion, culture, and national origin. One day, much as it has existed in Latin America for centuries, interracial marriage might even become the norm in the United States and Canada. One day, the pejorative concepts of miscegenation, half-breeds, and mongrelization will seem like bad throwbacks to the colonial era.
According to the Pew study, 15 percent of all new marriages in the United States in 2010 were interracial, which is more than double the 6.7 percent reported in 1980. In fact, interracial marriages reached an all-time high in the United States in 2010, accounting for 8.4 percent of all marriages. That is far above the 3.2 percent reported in 1980, but still far too low to celebrate color-blind love in our putative “post-racial” nation, sociologists say. Census data issued in April indicate that one in 10 opposite-sex married couples, about 5.4 million pairs, are interracial, a 28 percent jump since 2000. In 2010, 18 percent of heterosexual unmarried couples were of different ethnic or racial backgrounds, or about 1.2 million pairs, and 21 percent of same-sex couples, or 133,477 pairs, were mixed.
“Race is still a category that separates and divides us,” Cornell University sociologist Dan Lichter told USA Today, but “this might be evidence that some of the historical boundaries that separate the races are breaking down.”
The way my husband and I see it, we are way ahead of the curve on this growing trend. As baby boomers we grew up with the civil rights movement, and have seen tumultuous social changes throughout our lives. But these changes have not translated into a high rate of interracial marriages for boomers. The generation that preached “make love, not war” and ignited a midcentury cultural revolution that spawned drugs, sex, free love and rock ‘n’ roll, grew up and grew old mostly with people who looked, sounded and acted just like them. Most boomers played it “safe.” Few broke out of the mold handed down to them by their repressed, 1940s and ‘50s parents. Those who did, were seen as offbeat, eccentric and a little “wild.”
In fact, the Pew study concluded that only 9 percent of white Americans have taken the color-blind leap of faith for love. For Hispanics, it’s 26 percent; 17 percent for African Americans; and 28 percent for Asians. Interracial marriage is more common in the Western United States, where one in five people, or 22 percent, married outside their ethnic group in 2010. The figures drop to 14 percent in the South; 13 percent in the Northeast; and 11 percent in the Midwest. Hawaii boasted more interracial couples than any other state, with four in 10 newlyweds, or 42 percent, intermarrying in 2010. Other states with notable interracial marriage rates include Oklahoma, 26.3 percent; Nevada, 25.6 percent, and New Mexico, 25.4 percent. In Colorado, where my husband and I reside, only 8.8 percent of marriages are interracial.
Maybe it’s because I grew up in the Mountain West, but my tastes toward men have mostly tended toward the Anglo-Saxon persuasion. My sociologist friends might argue that I suffer from self-hatred, or that I’ve been “brainwashed” by mainstream U.S. society, which has flashed repeated images of the white European as the standard of beauty and trusted authority figure for more than 100 years in film, television, radio and print media. They’d be wrong on both accounts. I’ve given Latino men in the United States plenty of opportunities to date me, but most have never found me attractive because I am too independent, too career-minded, too opinionated, and too much like my gringa sisters. My luck with Hispanic men didn’t change until I met my first husband, a bona fide Latin American. In the end, it was a bona fide Englishman who stole my heart in South America, and broke up my first marriage.
Mexican-American men have always seemed angry and resentful when they’ve seen me walking down the street on the arm of an Anglo-Saxon male. I’ve grown to recognize the territorial look in their so-familiar, brotherly eyes. When I’ve tried to discuss the issue with my hardcore Chicana friends, they’ve smiled devilishly like the cabrónas that they are, and called me “La Malinche” in a playful, passive-aggressive way. Mexico’s version of Pocahontas, La Malinche was a Nahua woman who became a translator, adviser and lover to conquistador Hernán Cortés, and is condemned bitterly to this day for aiding and abetting Spain’s conquest of the Aztec nation. As a teenager, I lusted after blond, blue-eyed boys with 1970s versions of the Bieber haircut while enduring my stepfather’s World War II-era admonishments that “marriage was hard enough without throwing racial differences into the mix.” Call it kismet or a cultural curse, but it’s been my destiny to bear La Malinche’s notoriety.
My husband and I both grew up with fathers who had served in segregated military units in World War II. They came back from the war with set ideas about "those people," anyone who didn't fit in with their idea of what was normal, familiar and comforting. My late stepfather tried to dissuade my sisters and me from dating anyone who was not Hispanic, and was every bit as capable of being a bigot, despite his brown skin. He'd known too much hatred in his life, including signs in barber shops and other public establishments in the 1930s that read, "No dogs or Mexicans allowed." I'm not making excuses for my father-in-law or stepfather, but they truly were products of another time and place. Before they died, both had grown to know, accept and even love the life my husband and I have created for ourselves.
I can’t say I’ve brought down an entire civilization by marrying my husband, but we have broken through a lot of taboos, and weathered our own challenges over the years. We fight over the same things all couples fight over—money, child rearing, the division of labor, sex, and who gets to control the remote on movie nights. Alone, we are free to ignore mainstream society’s prejudices, and face each other as we are: man to woman, husband to wife, parent to parent, boomer to boomer, Coloradan to Coloradan, American to American. We are walking on a trail blazed by other interracial couples throughout history—from Frederick Douglass and Helen Pitts to Richard Loving and Mildred Jeter. We are not pioneers, but we are carrying the flame.
In our house, my husband is not “white” and I am not “brown.” We are man and woman, and we speak the same language. Things have not always gone perfectly. My husband and daughter clashed throughout her rebellious teenage years, and his efforts to be a surrogate father to her have not gone unrecognized. We understand all the jokes about married couples who can’t stand each other sometimes, yet can’t imagine life without the other. Sometimes we butt heads over political issues, and don’t always agree that our country has progressed socially. He is an eternal optimist, and believes we’ve moved the needle forward. I am a realist who sees right through retrograde attitudes, and hears bigoted comments with hair-trigger precision. When he wants to lighten up my mood, my blue-eyed, blond-haired husband holds up his tanned arm up to mine and say teasingly, “See? I’m darker than you are. You can’t deny me my Latino roots.”
The one person who can bring everything to a screeching halt, and put everything into perspective is our son, who is the perfect manifestation of everything we’ve worked toward in our life together. He didn’t ask for it, but our son seems to be weathering life as an interracial child just fine. His very birth was living proof that I was, indeed, human, that I belonged to the same species as my husband, and that we could procreate and bring forth another human being who bleeds red, breathes air, and carries DNA from both of us in his body. Granted, our son looks more like his dad, and everyone jokes that I “must have been asleep at the wheel” when he was conceived (Believe me, I wasn't). Our son has a musician’s pitch-perfect ear, and plays guitar like his dad. At the same time, he has a knack for language, and my goofy sense of humor.
Our son is a bold representation of our faith in humanity. He is accepting of people of all backgrounds, which fills me with pride. One day, he’ll bring home a special someone, and the only thing that will matter is whether or not that person will love and care for my son as much as I love and care for his father. At 14, our son knows he is a cultural hybrid, and doesn’t have to choose one side over the other. In the microcosm of our lives, he lives in a richly textured tapestry of love and acceptance. Still, we can’t protect him from the world, and he learns the lessons of human frailty and darkness when classmates tell him, “Nu-uh, dude, you’re not Hispanic,” right after one of them has made an ignorant comment or joke about Mexicans, probably something they heard at home. At first he bristles, then he educates. He is never cut, viscerated or scarred by their young, foolish ineptitude.
One of the most hopeful findings of the Pew project is this: Forty-three percent of Americans believe more interracial marriages would be a change for the better for our country.
It’s been a long time coming, but it’s something to hold onto, like the big, strong arms of the brawny Irishman who still holds me as we dance.
© 2012 Story and photos by Deborah Méndez Wilson. All rights reserved. YouTube video of the Black Keys, "Howlin' for You." All rights reserved.