Why I Feel Especially Safe and Joyous Visiting Mexico as a Half-Mexican Person of Color

Photo: Courtesy of Alex Temblador/W+G Creative
The dome-like temazcal was warm inside. Mo, the temazcal ceremony leader, poured water over a heated volcanic rock he had placed in a center pit. He put a woven covering over the doorway, trapping in the steam and making me sweat—which was the point of the traditional Mesoamerican sweat ceremony.

I was at Naviva, a Four Seasons Resort, in Punta Mita in the Mexican state of Nayarit. Its programming is designed around wellness of body, spirit, and mind, and the temazcal ceremony is one of the most profound offerings. During the first portion of the ceremony—which is designed to create feelings of gratitude, grounding, and rebirth—Mo spoke about Mother Earth. As he did, a crowd of people with similar faces and brown skin tones much like my own appeared in my mind.

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I’d been thinking about my Mexican ancestors for many years, seeking out a connection to them through limited family stories and my creative writing. Growing up in the U.S., I didn’t always feel connected to my cultural heritage, partly because the connection itself sometimes felt tenuous; I’m half Mexican-American, and my great-grandfather was the last person of my Mexican family members to be born in Mexico.

As an adult, I began traveling to Mexico in the hopes of better understanding my heritage. One of those trips led me to the temazcal at Naviva, where I felt surrounded by my ancestors, grounded to Mother Earth through the land upon which I sat, and at home in a place where I did not grow up.

Deepening my connection to my cultural heritage as a Mexican-American in Mexico

I was a kid the first time I visited Mexico, crossing the border on foot from Laredo, Texas, where my father’s family hails, to Nuevo Laredo. I can recall the sounds and smells, the bursts of color that didn’t surround me in North Texas where I grew up. As soon as I could travel on my own, I returned to Mexico again and again, seeking places where I could find connection with my cultural heritage and ancestors and deepen my sense of identity.

Over the years, I've tasted Mexico through green pozole in Guerrero and stayed in a hacienda supposedly owned by La Malinche at Fiesta Americana Hacienda Galindo. I’ve laid eyes on the oldest cave paintings of North America in the San Borjitas Cave in the Sierra de Guadalupe Mountains and admired beautiful murals by Mexican Mural Renaissance painter José Clemente Orozco throughout Mexico. By canyoning in Jalisco, climbing sand dunes in Baja California Sur, drinking wine made in Guanajuato, and walking on the black beaches of Loreto, I've connected to Mexico and my heritage.

“Sometimes, it’s not enough to read about our countries of origin. Sometimes, we need to walk the same paths, eat the same foods, sit underneath the same warm sun as our ancestors.” —Jessica Mohrweis, LPC, therapist

No matter where I've gone in Mexico, I've felt comfortable, sometimes more so than I do in the United States. According to Texas-based therapist Jessica Mohrweis, LPC, this feeling of belonging is not surprising, given my Mexican-American heritage. “Sometimes, it’s not enough to read about our countries of origin,” she says. “Sometimes, we need to walk the same paths, eat the same foods, sit underneath the same warm sun as our ancestors.”

Travel data shows that these motivations may be particularly strong among people of color. The 2021 MMGY Vistas Latinas study found that 57 percent of Hispanic travelers said they're more likely to visit a place that embraces Hispanic culture and celebrates Hispanic-owned business contributions. And in 2020, market researcher Mandala Research found that 50 percent of Black travelers ranked Black heritage as very or somewhat important in their choice of a destination.

Feeling safe in Mexico surrounded by people with a similar background

Though my cultural heritage has allowed me to create meaningful connection to my ancestors in Mexico, it also serves a more practical purpose whenever I visit the country: safety in similarity. According to Mohrweis, feeling safe among those with a shared heritage may be another reason why people of color, like myself, commonly travel to places where the locals have similar cultural roots. “Sometimes, we need to feel tethered to a larger community, especially if we are isolated from members of our own communities back home,” she says.

Although I grew up in Texas, which has a large Mexican population, the state is constantly at the center of racist politics and perspectives pertaining to Mexicans and Mexican-Americans. Growing up, people casually used slurs relating to Mexicans. And today, I’m still subjected to microaggressions about my Mexican identity and American nationality. Factor in the border politics and racist laws that target people of Mexican ancestry, and it doesn’t always feel safe to be Mexican-American in Texas or the U.S. Perhaps Mexico has always felt safe to me because I blend in. (Yes, there are admittedly areas in Mexico where safety is of concern, but my safety in the U.S. is no more secure in a movie theater or a mall.)

In Mexico, I’ve been embraced by strangers who are excited to share their culture with someone like me who has lost that familial knowledge and wants to reconnect with my ancestors.

The one thing that has surprised me the most about visiting Mexico is how my insecurities about my heritage seem to fade away. In the U.S., I’m always having to defend my Mexican-American heritage, whether it’s to Anglos who say, “You look Mexican, but I don’t even think of you as Mexican,” or to Latines who admonish me because I don’t speak Spanish fluently. (My grandmother didn’t teach my father because she didn’t want him to be subjected to racism.) However, in Mexico, I’ve been embraced by strangers who are excited to share their culture with someone like me who has lost that familial knowledge and wants to reconnect with my ancestors. And that’s a major reason why I feel so at ease in Mexico.

“Although you are still different—you were born and raised in a completely different cultural context—[when visiting your ancestral country], you might experience a temporary sense of rootedness that feels more profound than in your home country,” says Mohrweis of my sense of belonging in Mexico despite being born and raised in the U.S.

In 2022, I visited Guadalajara, the second largest city in Mexico. My grandfather was the last in my family to visit the region more than 70 years ago when he was a kid. It’s supposedly where my great-grandfather was born and the last place I know my family lived in Mexico. I thrived during my solo trip, staying in haciendas around the city, visiting the nearby city of Tlaquepaque where my grandfather stayed long ago, and spending time in as many art museums and old cathedrals as I could. I ate and drank my way around the city’s gorgeous cafes, had conversations with jewelry makers, LGBTQ+ leaders, chefs, and hotel owners. I didn’t find any of my own family in Guadalajara, but that didn’t matter.

Mohrweis says that, as humans, we are narrative by nature: “We learn through stories, pass along culture through stories, and create our identities [based on the] stories told to us.”

I don’t have many stories about my family in Mexico—what they did or what they were like—and I may never know those stories. But by visiting Mexico and diving into Mexican food, history, and art, I can write my own. Every time I deepen my connection to my family's cultural heritage in Mexico, I add a new chapter to the book they once began.

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