In the Blog
história de mestiça
Illustration: Saul Freedman-Lawson
My mother is Brazilian. My father is ethnically French, but from Mauritius Island. The two met in New York City, a place originally foreign to them both, where they worked for 14 years.
Last summer, my parents and I were staying with some distant family in France. A heavy humidity stifled the town like a thick blanket, trapping the winds and radiating heat. We had only spent two days in Saint-Nazaire, but I was already beginning to grow restless. My great-aunt Simone, whose home we were staying at, assured me there would be plenty to do. The house was painted pale yellow, surrounded by tall Cypress trees native to the region. My great-aunt, a devout Catholic, had crosses in every room of the house. The people staying at the house were comprised of my father, Simone’s husband, Simone, my mother, and me. Simone’s husband probably uttered five words during our entire stay, and most of them referred to food.
I had mostly spent the two days doing housework for my great-aunt and leaving the house with the whole family to go to small museums and excursions in Guérande half an hour away. One of the museums available was an old military base called “Le Grand Blockhaus” disguised as an apartment building that was used during the Second World War by the Nazis when they occupied the region. I expressed my interest in going to see the military base, to which Simone replied, “that’s funny, it’s more of a boy thing to be interested in.”
Stunned, I looked at her and said, “would you rather I want to go shopping?”
“It’s more of a girl thing to do, if you’d like to go.”
“No. I want to see the military base.”
“Of course we can go! I’m sure you’re not used to being in a place with so much history,” she offered me a plastered smile that conveyed the thought checkmate, triumphant in her own patriotism toward France.
The Blockhaus was extremely boring, and I realized she might have been right about me preferring to go shopping. In the car, Simone talked to my mother about religion, and how third-world countries make disgusting religious art.
“They show Jesus absolutely drenched in blood. It’s blasphemous.” Simone declared. My mother had studied art history for most of her life, and has been stubborn for even longer.
“It is a style of art, and it actually originated in Italy. It is Baroque and you see that sort of art in France all the time.”
“I have never seen it in France,” said Simone, “you need to learn to speak from your own life, not impose. Maybe in Brazil it is customary to show your Lord and Savior gushing with blood, but in France there is some notion of propriety.”
My mother knew she would not be able to convince Simone otherwise, and I held onto my mother’s hand while we drove back in silence. I knew exactly the way she felt, foreign foreign foreign.
When we returned to the house, we all sat down for dinner with some red wine. The conversation had an overlying tension that could not be pinned down to a source. There was a bloated silence between words that seemed to hold more meaning than the conversation. My mother’s repeated attempts to make conversation in a language that was not her own were shot down by Simone’s swift “quoi?”s. The repetition of that small word hit my mother like bullets from a machine gun— she knew Simone’s goal was to remind my mother that she was not welcome or understood in the home. My face reddening with glass after glass of wine, I felt my temper rise up to my throat, waiting for an explicit provocation to reach its boiling point.
Wanting nothing more than for dinner to be over, my mother and I picked up all of the plates, including my oblivious father’s. Once in the kitchen, my mother and I communicated in sighs and lowered eyes, but did not utter a word. I became painfully aware that we were the only people of colour in the house, and we were cleaning up after all of the white people.
When we came back to the table with the cheeses, Simone exclaimed, “we’ve had Mauritian maids before, but we’ve never had Brazilian maids before!” This was one last bullet in my mother’s chest. My face reddened but I said nothing. I am your family, I thought, we share the same bloodline. My mother offered Simone a tight smile with closed lips, while I offered no such reassurance. My father laughed, smiled broadly to the table, and asked my mother to pass the wine.