"She walks around with the ‘nopal on her forehead," so the saying goes. Se va con el nopal en la frente.
It’s an old dicho, a saying, about the brown-skinned Mexican who denies being Mexican. Behind her back, the people say, “That person can’t hide who she is. You can see the nopal (the prickly-pear cactus leaf) on her forehead.”
This story is part of an LAist series called Being American. It’s inspired by the success of our year-long Race In LA series, in which Angelenos shared personal stories about how our race and/or ethnicity shapes our lived experience.
Though this expression is traditionally a put down, I long ago decided to reclaim it as a badge of honor, as I express my Mexican pride through my poetry and art. I’m brown and proud. My skin is brown like cinnamon, “Piel canela” like in the song by legendary Puerto Rican singer Bobby Capó.
Since my childhood in East Los Angeles, the phrase con el nopal en la frente was drilled into my head by my dad, Elías, and my uncle, Alfonso, as a reminder of my identity, one I should never deny.
“You can’t escape who you are,” my dad would say. ”See the cactus outside in our yard. Your Mamá cooks nopalitos, makes desserts from the tuna fruit and soothes skin burns with the nopal slime. We Mexicans love nopales. Mija, you’re as Mexican as a nopal. Be proud.”
Both sides of my family are like many Mexican Americans who fight to preserve the dignity of our history and culture. We share family stories, folktales, anecdotes, dichos, chistes, and Chicanismos.
But sometimes we have felt conflicted when we are barraged with demeaning images and words, when Mexican American contributions are left out of textbooks, and when we are stereotyped in literature and films. The old Frito Bandito is dead thankfully, but he’s been replaced by things just as bad.
So, really, who can blame us for feeling twinges of bitterness and shame? We are haunted by memories of hundreds of years of mistreatment and denigration of our history, our culture, our Indigenous and Spanish languages, and the theft of our Southwest land.
My paternal grandparents left El Paso, Texas, because of the intolerable mistreatment of Mexicans there. The health department blamed Mexicans for every ailment that plagued Texas — from lice infestations to the “Spanish” influenza epidemic of 1918.
During and after a typhus scare, many Mexicans crossing between Juárez and El Paso suffered forced head and body shaving and chemical baths with toxic substances like gasoline. My uncle and aunt told me that, as children, they also had to suffer disinfectant and vinegar baths at home at the hands of health authorities. And during the Mexican Revolution, the Texas Rangers and vigilantes freely shot Mexicans as sport.
It was this kind of hostility that my grandparents, José Julián and Emilia Rodríguez Aparicio, were fleeing when they left El Paso in 1916 and migrated to Barrio Hazard in L.A.’s Lincoln Heights. Here, they did everything they could to help my dad and his siblings be heroic and proud of their Mexican culture and their Catholic religion.
My parents instilled the same in me. My Ma and Dad brought my two brothers and sisters and me up to be proud Mexicans, to honor those who work with their hands, and to use correct Spanish.
My Dad insisted we speak Spanish formally and politely, to say “por favor” y “gracias,” especially when we spoke to our Ma and our tías. My Ma, whose family came from Sonora via Tucson, Arizona, spoke Spanglish and laced her speech with Yaqui Indigenous expressions. She called me Trochi Mochi and used amazing Indigenous baby talk on all the babies and toddlers of the family.
I made homemade piñatas and confetti-filled cascarones for Easter with my Ma. My Dad let me color in his encyclopedias, and showed me how to pray the rosary. We all went to Sunday mass at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Boyle Heights. The sermons in Spanish, with their references to Latin and Old and New Testament exotic names, educated my ears to the lyricism of my heritage languages.
Fighting name shame
My Ma named me after the Cathedral of St. Vibiana downtown — the place where the nuns cared for her when she was orphaned at age seven. But my birth name, Vibiana, was recorded as “Vivian” at White Memorial Hospital in Boyle Heights. This was a common practice in hospitals then, automatically Anglicizing the names of Mexican babies without asking anyone. My youngest brother’s name, Felipe Francisco, was changed in the hospital to Philip Frank.
Thankfully, I was brought back into the Mexican Catholic fold when I was baptized with my intended name, Vibiana, at Our Lady Queen of Angels Church at La Placita, Olvera Street.
But that old shame caught up with some of us. Members of my family changed their Mexican names, like my great-uncle Jesús, who legally changed his name to Jose or Joseph. I was told he was ashamed because “Jesús” sounded too Mexican. My uncle Alfonso told me Jesús had hoped to be taken as an Italian, a culture in his mind superior to his own. Tío Alfonso would tell me about how much this upset my grandfather, José Julián, who didn’t understand why his brother would change his Mexican name.
This was when Tío Alfonso would remind me about the nopal on every Mexican’s forehead. “Your uncle Jesús had a big nopal on his forehead,” he would say. “He was handsome and looked very Mexican. Changing his name didn’t take that away.”
My dad, who was muy moreno y orgulloso, was proud of his nopal.
He knew that our family struggled to feel confident in this American land — a place that my Dad said was really our land, our birthright, and we should not forget that.
Reclaiming my badge of honor
I wear my nopal with pride as a badge of my mexicanidad. For me, the nopal is a metaphor for our pride in our culture. It is a symbol of our beauty and strength.
Last year I published a book of poems, Chicana On Fire. In it, I wrote about the nopal en la frente and what it means to me.
Tongue That Speaks
Born from the nopal.
Lavender-jade flowery cactus
centuries old Mexican food—
Nopal—symbol of life,
showing who you are.
It’s true what they say.
You can’t hide your Mexican self.
One can see the barely visible nopal on your forehead.
You are a soul sister, a tía, a tocaya.
You are a comadre, a lover, a mother, an abuela.
You have that special radiance of a mestiza.
The Yaqui Mother Goddess of the Moon casts a glow
of letters on the nopal engraved on your forehead.
The Aztec Goddess of water, Chalchiuhtlicue
inspires a ribbon of words that slip off the tongue.
Stories from the nopal
food of our people.
“Tongue That Speaks,” © 2022 Vibiana Aparicio-Chamberlin, Chicana On Fire, Ignited by the 1970s East L.A. Chicano Protest Movement, Bambaz Press.
A Charla By Cell Phone (excerpt)
Think about it. The cactus is over 90 percent water. Water is life. It’s a gift from Mother Earth. The eagle led our ancient Mexica people to the sacred nopal on Lake Texcoco with its underwater cisterns. We are born of water and nurtured by the medicinal juices of the nopal.
We Chicanos live in the Aztlán desert homeland surrounded by our beloved nopal plants. I write poetry to tell these stories about my family, my pueblo, and my ancestors. The stories are of struggle and survival. We blossom like the cactus flower.
Excerpt from “A Charla By Cell Phone,” © 2022 Vibiana Aparicio-Chamberlin, Chicana On Fire, Ignited by the 1970s East L.A. Chicano Protest Movement, Bambaz Press.
I’m proud to claim my Mexican Yaqui and Tarahumara roots and my brown body as I wear the verdant nopal on my forehead.
It is my badge of honor and identity.
And I proudly grow several nopaleras in my yard.
Vibiana Aparicio-Chamberlin is a Chicana storyteller, poet, and artist. Her original art is featured in this essay. Vibiana is the granddaughter of Yaqui and Tarahumara Mexican immigrants. Born in East Los Angeles, she now lives in Pasadena. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University. Her books include Chicana On Fire (2022) and Mi Amor (2015). Her poems have been published in several literary magazines. Her poem "A Charla by Cell Phone" was also published in the Phi Kappa Phi Forum.
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