I am part American West Cowboy and part Australian Prisoner. Ok, I can’t be certain on the latter but it’s an exciting identity to claim. My father was born in California and his parents, my grandparents, both hailed from the rugged terrain of Wyoming during the first half of the 20th century. My paternal grandfather’s family in particular — his mother and father William Tillett and Bessie Strong-Tillett established a working cattle ranch on Crooked Creek which is just north of Lovell, Wyoming, an area on the Montana and Wyoming border, in 1895. And that’s what it remained until 1976 when the family decided to transition it into a working cattle guest ranch. My grandfather’s nieces and nephews still run the TX Ranch and from what I understand, despite a ridiculous Hatfields and McCoys situation, it’s a successful and lucrative business. Due to some very specific family tensions and grudges that date back to before I was even conceived, I have never visited. My mother, on the very opposite and other hand, is a proud Australian. She immigrated to the United States in 1981, shortly after meeting and falling in love with my father in her tiny hometown of Ayr, Queensland when she was only 18. My dad was there for six months working on a ranch owned by family friends having been sent there to put some distance between him and his high school buddies whom my grandparents had deemed a bad-influence. Once his temporary visa had expired and had no choice but to return to the States, he convinced my mom to get the money together to get a flight over and marry him as quick as possible. She did (by selling her horses) and they did. I was born a year later. (Unfortunately and due to circumstances out of my control, I have very limited knowledge of my mother’s ancestry.) I was born and raised in the dusty, hot and modestly sized town of Las Cruces, New Mexico; the same small town my dad had also grown up in because my grandfather, his father, got himself a job with NASA in the 1960s and was invited to work on the Apollo missions. (Alternately, my grandmother has spent much of her adult life as an animal and bird rehabilitator so I not only have an inherent fervor for space exploration and the infinite mysterious quality of the universe, but I have a passionate and overwhelming love and empathy for the animals we share this small world we call home with.) Much of that work was done at White Sands Missile Range (WSMR), an area just minutes northeast of Cruces. Sidenote: WSMR is also home to Trinity Site, the location of the world’s first atomic explosion on July 16, 1945 - more specifically happening near the north end of the historic Jornada del Muerto which in English means “route of the dead man” which is quite appropriate, don’t you think? And what does it say about me that there’s something about that fact that I strongly relate to or identify with? I am a child of the nuclear age and I came to be at the heart of it all. I wear a pin on my camera strap with an image of an atom bomb explosion that says “Homesick” beneath it. I find myself somewhere in that morbid absurdity of the land I came up in.
Las Cruces, NM is largely made up of a Mexican/Hispanic population majority of about 60%. I very definitely grew up a minority as a very white girl situated undoubtedly in the 35% Anglo category, and I can say from experience, it’s an anomalous feeling being a minority in my hometown that so happens to occupy 52 square miles of land in my mother country, of which I am a very definite part of the majority. It’s like living in a divergent microcosm, and articulating it is difficult, but because of this, I’ve never felt a strong belonging to any one self-identifying group or race of people, especially since my mother is Australian. I grew up on gorditas and rolled tacos and red and green chile and Vegemite toast and Turkish Delights and cheeseburgers and tuna sandwiches and meat loaf. I celebrated Christmas and Thanksgiving and Cinco de Mayo and Dia de los Muertos and Boxing Day. I came to fruition in the midst of three different cultures and I carry all three with me in everything I do. They are all an equal part of who I am. This is something I’ve grown comfortable in knowing as I’ve aged. However, it was not always that way; when I was younger I felt the desire to gravitate toward one over the others. Who was I? Where did I belong? Where did I most fit in? I rebelled against my Mexican influenced surroundings in high school when I decided to take French instead of Spanish. I rebelled against my American roots when I claimed to be more of my mother’s daughter than my father’s. For some baseless reason, I assumed that to embrace one culture I was obligated to deny the others, a path quite opposite that of Malcolm X (if there are really any grounds for comparison here) who grew into who he was and his sense of belonging, his people, his fight; I feel my own sense of identity has become more ambiguous the older I’ve grown. I belong to everyone and no one, everything and nothing. (I think getting away from my hometown and getting some perspective has been helpful in this regard. In The Ancient People, Willa Cather writes “In Chicago she had got almost nothing that went into her subconscious self and took root there. But here, in Panther Canyon, there were again things which seemed destined for her.” Everyone should escape overly familiar surroundings whenever possible and shift their frame of reference.) And unlike Amy Tan in Two Kinds, I may have had a foreigner parent but Australian and American culture tend to parallel each other in many different ways so I was not really growing up within one society while having another total alien one thrust on me against my will.
When I attempt, in vain, to articulate who I am, I can only think to say “I would just be myself, I guess.” As Walter proclaimed in Will Weaver’s The Undeclared Major. Or Yo soy yo, y nadie más.
Fair dinkum mate, I can only be me!