American Chica

by Marie Arana

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Marie Arana draws the reader into the world of her childhood in Peru, where the stark differences between her remote, bookish grandfather and her vivacious grandmother were apparent even when she was a tiny girl. Her grandmother’s descent from conquistadors and her sparking personality were among her notable traits.

Abuelita was a Cisneros y Cisneros, a New World aristocrat with an Old World pedigree: five centuries of paper through the viceroyals to Spain. She was as warm and funny as my grandfather was cut and dried . . . As charged with high voltage as the miles of wire he had stretched out for the electrification of Lima.

The marriage of her parents—father from Peru, mother from the States—was rocky and uneven. She learned to compare it to the earthquakes that made the ground shake beneath them.

As I . . . learned to register the ground beneath my feet, I saw that my parents’ marriage was shot through with fissures. Something like earthquakes would come—geologic upheavals, when the foundations that underlay their union would rattle with dislocation and longing . . .

Marie’s first trip to the United States was during the era of segregation. After Marie and her sister almost enter the “Colored” rather than the “White” restroom in the train station, her mother tries to explain racial categories. She tells them that there are differences between people with white and black skin, but her explanation does not make sense to young Marie.

“Not black hair. Black skin. You have black hair, but you’re white. Your skin is white.”

I listened and looked down at my dark-olive knees . . . They were green. They were yellow. They were brown. They were colored. Never in a million years could they be called white . . .

I had not yet turned seven but I knew what race meant. There were Peruvians who measured color with what seemed the precision of laboratory calipers, but I had never suspected that any of it would pose a danger to me.

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