People talk about how Mexico is infiltrating the south now but Mexico has been infiltrating my family for a hundred years, ever since my great-great-grandfather Jose Massalenia Pablis turned up in Gradyville, Kentucky, at the age of thirteen. An old newspaper clipping says he came back with a preacher who had served during the Mexican-American War. My father says that he lived with the preacher until he was grown, making shoes and bowls to sell just like he had in his homeland. He married Black-Irish Nancy. All we know about her is that she had two brothers, Abdolonomous and Isaac. On his wedding day, Jose changed his name to Joseph M. Franklin and signed his marriage license with an “X”. The clerk wrote “White” in as his race, but filed the document under “Coloreds” in the local courthouse, where it is still located.
None of us ever knew why he came here, only that he did and that he brought Mexico with him, then handed it down for five generations. My grandfather’s sisters were named Viola and Suez, and his brothers, Jim Isaac and Junis, were as brown as the soil they tilled, with not a hair on their bodies to speak of. Great-Uncle Junis, who is now eighty-six, tells me that he is hairless because he is Indian. “Yeah, Grandpa came from Mexico,” he says, “but he was Indian.” I think about what Uncle Junis says, and I understand how so many have robbed Mexicans of their Indian heritage. I can’t imagine Mexico without Native American ties. I can’t imagine my family without Mexico. My daddy has never seen Mexico, yet it has been beating in his heart for sixty-seven years. Mexico set the tone for my grandfather’s life, for my father’s life, and ultimately, for mine.
For me it was a piece of treasured heritage. For my father, it was a stigma. He was brown at a time when everybody in the south was either Black or White. There weren’t any categories for Mexican-Americans in those days, so his family got the shaft, not being excluded as blacks were but not being included as whites either. They were always the hired hands, the servants, playing second fiddle. Daddy used to get spanked by his uncles if he said any “Mexican” words or did anything “Indian.” They were trying to eradicate the label from our family. When I got to be a teenager, I tried to stick it back on because I felt we were being robbed of our identity. Maybe I believed that because my great-great-grandfather had kept his mother’s maiden name, some part of him didn’t want to completely forget who he was or had been in his youth. Or maybe it was just that in a nation of mixed people, I needed to identify with a group. I needed to belong. As far as I know, there weren’t any other Mexicans in these parts back then, and maybe just maybe, my great-great-grandfather was the first Mexican in the state. At any rate, he was here, and because he was, I am too.
Three years ago, I went to Mexico and gave a speech at a church in Spanish. I told the people there the story of my great-great-grandfather, and of how without Mexico and all of its culture, my family would never have existed. I told them about the wildflowers of southeastern Kentucky that had sprung from one stray seed the wind blew our way. Now every time I see a Mexican man working in somebody’s field, I think of my great-great-grandfather and wonder if he was a prophet, a foreteller of what would one day be commonplace.