What Are You?

I’ve been thinking of writing this for a long time and I think the best place to start is with the question, “What are you?” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked this question. I most specifically remember being in high school when a guy asked me, “What exactly are you?”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“I mean…are you Italian…Jewish, maybe? What are you?”

“Oh! You mean what’s my ethnicity?”

And then when I tell them that I’m Mexican they say, “But you don’t speak Spanish.” or “But you don’t LOOK Mexican.”

How many Irish Americans out there are speaking Gaelic? Just…curious…

The other question white folks like to ask me is, “What generation American are you?” You know, like, when did my family cross the boarder? When did we swim the river and crawl over into the USA?

One time a guy was completely baffled to learn that not only was I Hispanic but that I’m not a democrat and I’m not Catholic either. Apparently these are prerequisites.

White people love to tease me about being white. They actually tell me that I’m not a Mexican because I don’t speak Spanish. They tell me that they are more Mexican then I am (I mean A LOT of people tell me this) because they took Spanish in high school and college. My foreign language in high school and college was sign language. Does that make me deaf?

I know they are teasing. I know that they are just poking fun.

Hispanics don’t like it either; my not speaking Spanish. It’s funny that white people can’t tell my race but Hispanics can. I remember when I used to work at Home Depot it would happen a lot. A Hispanic would walk up to me and start speaking to me in Spanish. It did not take them long to see that I did not understand them.

“No habla Española?”

“MUY poquito.” I’d tell them. VERY little.

With a look of disgust, annoyance and exasperation they’d try again to speak to me in English this time.

In a sociology class I took in college the definition of race and ethnicity were being clarified. Race is based on appearance and your ethnicity is based on your culture. I struggled with that because so many people think I’m white (based on my appearance). Not only that but there are blonde haired-blue eyed Hispanics and black Hispanics besides the cocoa skinned-dark haired Hispanics. When I questioned it the class said I was white.

“But I’m not,” I argued. “No one ever thinks my brother and sister are white because their hair and eyes are near black. How can they be Hispanic but I’m white?”

The Hispanic girl in front of me turned around and said, “Well, you don’t even dress Mexican.”

“Excuse me?”

“You know you don’t wear baggy jeans and…” and she went on to describe how a proper chola should dress. See here for what a chola is:

My ethnicity and race are flippantly dismissed in a joke mostly due to the fact that I don’t speak Spanish. Many white families now have tacos, burritos and enchiladas as a regular part of their dinner menu but most of you don’t make tamales, empanadas, biscochitos, natillas and rellenos. Most white families didn’t grow up calling their belly a panza, a booger a moco. Their moms didn’t pinch their little nalgas and their grandmother didn’t call them “mi jita, mi corazon.” Their daddy’s didn’t yell “VAMANOS” every time he tried to get the family out the door.

So here it is for you. Here is the answer to all of your questions. My family has lived in America for more generations than your white family. My family lived in areas of New Mexico and Colorado long before they were states of America. They lived there when it was still Mexico. We never crossed a border. The border crossed us. My grandparents didn’t teach their children Spanish because, like all immigrants who didn’t speak English in America, they were punished in school or lost job opportunities because of their language and/or their accent. (See that? Right there is when I magically turned into a white girl.)

I’m sorry I’m not sorry that I didn’t have a quinceanera, that I don’t speak Spanish, that I’m not Catholic or a Democrat. I’m sorry I’m not sorry that my hair and eyes are not dark enough for you. I’m sorry I’m not sorry that I don’t know how to Salsa dance. (OK. That last part is true. I really hate that I don’t know how to Salsa.) It is not cute or funny when either white or brown (or any other race for that matter) jokes about me being white. It is not ok to tell me that I’m not a “real” Mexican when Lopez, Sanchez, Prieto and Gallegos blood are pumping through my veins.

What am I? I’m absolutely NOT WHITE. I am also NOT “really” Mexican. I’m AMERICAN!!! Comprende?


About buddyandbug

Man and I moved from Texas to Colorado with Buddy and Bug. This blog is a chronicle of our adventures as we deal with homesickness and adjust to Mountain Living. “If you are a dreamer,come in. If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar, a hoper, a prayer, a magic-bean-buyer. If you're a pretender, come sit by my fire, for we have some flax-golden tales to spin. Come in! Come in!” ~ Shel Silverstein
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4 Responses to What Are You?

  1. Anne Marie says:

    My husband has been through the same thing in terms of not speaking the language. The border crossed his family when Texas became part of the US. They’d lived in the Rio Grande Valley since the early 1800s. His grandparents on both sides of his family spoke English as their second language, but decided not to push more than conversational words and phrases on their children exactly for the reasons you said: it was the 1950s/1960s and non-English speakers would be punished, ridiculed, judged, etc… He worked in sales for several years and told me about Hispanics that would seek him out for assistance, a look of relief in their eyes as they approached him. Then the look would turn to confusion and then disgust as he’d have to get his Indian coworker who spoke fluent Spanish to help them.

  2. Nancy Durr says:

    Michal, I think you’d find it interesting to know that when Bill and I lived in San Antonio he was mistaken for Hispanic ALL the time. And he would receive the cold shoulder when he gave that dumbfounded look of not understanding Spanish. So even one white guy has had the same treatment. How ironic. Of course what I’ve always found interesting about Bill’s appearance is that no matter what part of the world he’s in, he’s mistaken for another ethic group. In Paris they were convinced he was Arab. It Italy, he was Italian. (Ooooh, I liked that.) Back home in Chicago he’d be mistaken for Jewish (close enough to Arab but don’t say that to either of those ethnic groups!!).

    One more thing you might find interesting. Here in Southern California they’re not Hispanic, they’re Latino. What’s the diff? It’s all geographic. So there ya go.

    • buddyandbug says:

      I honestly don’t know the difference. I think the only difference may be that Hispanics are people whose language is Spanish and Latino are people whose language is Latin based which would include Italians and, I think, Portuguese speakers? I don’t know. My brother has also been mistaken for middle eastern and for Malaysian when we were there. For me it’s always Italian and Jewish though in Paris I passed as a Parisian which thrilled me!!

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