Sunday, July 13, 2008

Framed by a Mughal motif: My first glimpses of Hispanic America

As a student at Arizona State University in Tempe, I lived in a neighborhood that consisted mostly of cheap apartments. For five of my six years there, I stayed at different points on the same curving street – Orange Street – flanked by spindly palm trees, and patches of green lawns maintained laboriously by sprinklers.

It was here that I began to understand illegal immigration from United States' porous southern border, an intensely debated national issue. In the days after I arrived (the Fall of 2000), I heard other Indian students using the term makkus to refer to Mexicans – or any Hispanic immigrants for that matter. It was mostly a derogatory term, though many used it benignly, in the same way they used gultis or gujjus. The general consensus was that one shouldn’t live in a makku area, for there would be many bike thefts and muggings (there was, of course, some truth to this assertion: even the most uncomfortable prejudices are generally well rooted in reality). But in the Phoenix metro area, immigration, illegal or otherwise, was so rampant that Indian students had no way of getting away from makkus. Indeed, the southwestern cities in the United States can sometimes seem like an extension of Mexico.

Like many others, I arrived with no idea of this. It made sense that Arizona had Mexicans – Mexico after all shared a border with the state – but of their history and culture I knew nothing. I did not even know they spoke Spanish. Later, I would develop a fascination for Mexico's explosive sixteenth century history, and begin to slowly understand the forces that made the country what it is today, but those early years as a student in Arizona, I knew very little. It was only through everyday encounters with Mexicans who worked odd jobs and were my neighbors that I formed my initial impressions.

And my strongest impression, interestingly enough, comes from the immigrants I met at Copper Kettle, the Indo-Pak restaurant in the neighborhood.

Copper Kettle was relatively cheap – five to six dollar meals – and the food, while never consistent, was occasionally excellent. It was a popular haunt for students. The interior was dark; sub-continental themed paintings and tapestries hung on the walls. There was a fatigued look to the place, and from the faint but unmistakable smell of bug spray, I felt cockroaches were teeming beneath the faded carpet.

On the wall behind the cashier’s bar, where we placed orders, was a large opening in the shape of a Mughal motif. The kitchen was partially visible through it. Framed, then, by the contours of this stylish motif – which curved elegantly on either side to converge at the top: like the dome of a mosque – were the Hispanic immigrants who worked in the kitchen, cutting onions and garlic, stirring curries and washing dishes. There was something unique and affecting about this; it remains an enduring image from my time as a student in Arizona. It is also what inspired me to write this post.

The lady who ran the restaurant was a tall, middle-aged Pakistani woman, fair-skinned, with eyes that slanted upward. She was dressed usually in a salwar-kameez. She bustled around, carrying food to tables and settling bills. She was cranky, often complaining to customers of how tortured she felt listening to the same songs that played in the restaurant for hours on end. She vented on the Hispanic busboys with a somewhat feudal air, slapping her forehead and shaking her head, upset that Jorge or Gerrardo hadn’t carried the plates out in time. They in turn stared back at her blankly. They probably did not understand a word, and this only incensed her more.

She seemed to trust Luis, though. He was even allowed to handle payments, which was surprising. I talked with Luis a bit, since he was the only one who spoke English. He was a short, dark man, always in a baseball cap, and ever ready with an endearing, gap-toothed smile. He lived a few blocks away. Like other immigrants, he worked multiple jobs. I ran into him once at Four Peaks, a popular local brewery and restaurant. It was a large, noisy place, with a lot more staff and waitresses. There, Luis seemed puny and insignificant, yet was just as cheerful. He said he worked there on Tuesdays and Thursdays while other days he was at Kettle.


There were plenty of Indian restaurants within a five mile radius of the university. Since I craved incessantly for curry, I visited all of them frequently. And therefore became familiar with the Hispanics who worked at these places: the articulate, short man who worked at Delhi Palace; the guy with a troubled, brooding look, who seemed to switch Indian restaurants every two weeks; the waitress with curly hair and large glasses at the Udipi place, whom I spoke to in Tamil first – I was so certain! – and was mystified to learn later that she was Mexican.

And I can go on and on, beyond Indian restaurants: the short, stout men from the south of Mexico (or so my friend Jesus told me) who worked at construction sites, and wore striking, orange jumpers; the families who were my neighbors, whose kids rode tricycles in front of the porch; the crowds I saw at Food City, the cheapest of all grocery stores, where the bill was never more than ten dollars no matter how much I bought, and where I discovered cayenne pepper and tomatillos.

Awareness or curiosity doesn’t always come easily - how we tend to take the milieu around us for granted! So while I lived in that neighborhood for a long time, it was only after three years that I began asking some questions. Who were these people I saw each day? What had caused some of them to make the long trek across the Arizona desert, risking death by dehydration, capture by the Border Patrol and intimidation by armed gangs? Why did they not look Caucasian, though some looked almost so? What was Mexico’s history? Who were the Aztecs and the Mayans – always mentioned in reference to Mexico – and where were they now?

I know more now than I did then, but perhaps one day, I’ll be able to write a longer piece – a travel, history and current affairs piece – that ties all these questions together. For now, there’s much to learn, and lots of travel to do.


Anonymous said...

As always, you did a great job with this non-fiction piece. During my first few years in the US, I would get quite disturbed to see many Indians behaving like racists when it came to Hispanics, African immigrants etc. However, upon giving it more thought, I realized that ours is a highly discriminatory society in India- by caste, creed, religion and even color. The last one cracks me up...even after +200 years of slavery under the British, a goraa Punjabi never hesitates to express his disgust upon seeing "Kaale Tambi". When Shahrukh Khan came out endorsing "Fair & Handsome" I nearly lost it. Anyway, so it goes.


Hari said...


It took me a few seconds to figure out who you where - it's a pleasure to have you here. For some reason, AKS only reminded me of a strange Bachchan movie of that name which came out a while ago.

Hope all is well with you.

Yes, of all physical features skin color seems to the most compelling when it comes to how we - as humans, not just Indians - differentiate, or construct the "us vs them" argument. It's a tremendous barrier we still find difficult to cross, and is accentuated by what has happened historically.

In India, we're obsessed with fairness creams. If Africans and not Europeans had been dominant in the world, would we have looked to darkness creams?

Krishnan said...

It is really painful to note that of all people, we Indians, had to indulge in racism albeit of a milder kind !