What is an expat? Or, making taco salad in lovely Lucca

My grandfather, Pedro Nieblas, made clear to my mom the importance of blending in. Pedro was child of Mexican immigrants who spoke mostly Spanish and worked in Southern California where the Nieblas family had settled in 1860.

“If someone asks you where you’re from, tell them you’re from Spain, not Mexico,” he told my mom. And to keep her from both looking Mexican and having a Mexican accent he discouraged her from speaking Spanish.

Pedro Nieblas as a young man.

Years later, one of the great regrets of her life would be the disconnect between her and our Spanish-speaking Mexican relatives. My younger sister became a Spanish-English interpreter, and I studied Spanish after finishing my graduate degree, but we became a white American family with a lost, Mexican-American heritage.

Just as my grandfather, Pedro, had hoped.

This week I had a conversation with an English-speaking friend in Lucca who gently scolded me for using the term ‘expat’ to describe non-Italians. “It separates us,” she said, “from the place we’ve chosen to be part of.”

Hmmm. Indeed, the term ‘expat,’ or ‘expatriate,’ is multi-layered. As this fine BBC article points out, it originally referred to an educated, professional transplant who was overseas to work for a government or corporation and would return home shortly to resume a life in his or her own country.

But what about the ‘migrant worker’ who is in a foreign country for economic reasons? What about the person who chooses to live in a foreign country for lifestyle reasons, like me? Malte Zeeck, founder of Internations, the world’s largest expat network, suggests in the same BBC article that the meaning of ‘expat’ should be broadened. “Whatever the moniker or motivation, most of us who move overseas to work do so in hopes of bettering our lives – whether the draw is money or experience.”

Years ago I sat in a Berkeley lecture with Richard Rodriguez, author, journalist, social commentator, and PBS personality. He was talking about immigration and whether the US was a ‘melting pot’ or ‘salad bowl’ of cultures, races and nationalities. He suggested there are three North American strategies for how to live among cultures. Mexico, he said, was a melting pot, where to be ‘Mexican’ today almost universally requires a blending of culture and DNA between European and Native Mexican influences. Canada, on the other hand, is a place of boundaries between cultures, with large communities from Singapore or China or Pakistan or the Philippines that stand distinct from European Scottish-English and French immigrant cultures. The US, Rodriguez suggested, is in a ‘slow boil’ of cultural interactions where race and ethnicity play a role, but where assimilation is compelled with subtle pressure. 

The extended Nieblas family, all tracing our roots to my great-grandparents walk to California from Mexico in 1860.

My grandfather clearly felt the pressure to conform. He was willing to give up his culture to blend in to his new land. For Rodriguez, this fits with what he views as the Mexican norm.

In distinction from him, I haven’t turned up in Lucca to become unified with the Italian culture. I’m not hoping to become Italian. I’m guessing there are American expats who are trying this in a limited way, perhaps especially if they’re here because of ties with Italian ancestors. I’m sure, too, that the distinctions begin to melt away for people who’ve been here over decades.

In my case, I’m here because I’ve sampled many cultures and choose Italy as the culture I’d most like to explore and savor. I like the car-free lifestyle of historic, European center-cities, and as an aging history-buff I like discovering ancient things, which abound in this grand peninsula and its scattered islands. When I fell in love with Lucca over tea in Piazza San Frediano on the Via Francigena pilgrimage walk I knew I wanted to live here so I could be myself in Italian culture. I’m not intimidated by the Italian language – it’s my fifth foreign language, so my boundaries with Italy are not because I feel the culture and language are somehow impenetrable for me. I’m taking Italy on my own terms because I know who I am. I’m an American of Mexican-American and European descent, an expat in Italy. I aspire to be fluent in Italian and comfortable with Italy’s many cultural, historic and social benefits as an insider someday, but not as an Italian.

My parents in their 1949 wedding photo.

So, I’m here to enjoy Italy on my own terms, and it’s not always easy. Since reading the biography of Mahatma Gandhi in 1987 I’ve sworn off red meat, which adds to the dietary challenges of living in the land of tortelli Lucchese, our local pasta which is stuffed with beef and pork. And man does not live on Margherita pizza alone. Instead, I’ve acquainted myself with the small shelf of Mexican standbys at San Cordordio Esselunga. There I can find my tortillas and sauces, hot and mild. And almost everywhere I can find corn tortilla chips among chips of the potato variety. They’ve become part of my Luccan-Italian-Mexican-American daily diet.

These thoughts came to the fore on Monday as I began to plan for a potluck dinner with friends at my Lucca place. The kitchen of this fourth-floor living space Theresa and I have come to call ‘Dusty Book Heights’ – for both its furnishings and our housekeeping patterns – doesn’t include an oven. All those casseroles I’ve prepared over decades at Methodist potlucks back home are suddenly impossible to cook. I already knew that real Italians would scoff at my staple stove-cooked pesto pasta with chicken. ‘Yuck,’ my Perugian friend Marta dall’Aglio would say whenever she hears of chicken mixed with pasta.

Then it occurred to me. I could recreate a West Coast US favorite – the humble taco salad. 

I found ground turkey at the Polleria Volpi on Via San Paolina. Jane Pedersen contributed a packet of Lawry’s Taco Seasoning she had on hand. I added cheddar cheese from Esselunga (sliced for sandwiches), plus taco sauce, tortilla chips, canned corn, rinsed black beans (again, Esselunga), and mixed it all together.

It was enough to make this Mexican-American expat feel right at home.

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