Let me tell you what really drives me crazy as a fair-skinned Latina. It’s a question I get all the time, one you might have innocuously asked yourself, on occasion. When I tell someone I’m of Puerto Rican heritage they say, “Funny, you don’t look Puerto Rican!” Though this raises my blood pressure through the roof, I restrain myself from using the comeback some of my more militant friends use, “Funny, you don’t look like a bigot!” My new version is more subtle, but hopefully just as effective, “And just what do you think a Latina looks like?” After waiting out either a series of stammers or excuses I continue with, “We come in all shapes, sizes, and colors, you know.”
Now I don’t bring this up to make anyone feel bad. I know that more often than not there is no hurtful intent behind this comment; however it makes one feel that they are not ethnic enough, or somehow not fitting the “standard” for their given ethnicity. But the worse situation is when this question is asked as if it were a compliment, as I was asked by a loud man at a party in Brooklyn one afternoon: “Whoa, you sure are white for a Puerto Rican! Maybe you shouldn’t tell people your mother was one. You sure could pass as one of us.” As if being “whiter” is equal to better. As if I am not proud of my mother and our heritage. As if I would prefer to be “one of us.”
I taught a community college course in race, class, and gender in the United States a few years ago, and there was a woman from Germany taking the course who confessed she is often asked, “What brings you to Vermont?” She would tell them that her husband is a Vermonter and his work is here, and then she gets, “How long will you be here for?” or “When do you head home?” as if her welcome is expected to wear out, when in fact she was indeed a permanent Vermont resident just like everyone else in the class.
It just seems to me that though there has been so much focus on PC terms, such as Hispanic-American and African-American (though I have insulted more black people with the latter… a Jamaican friend yelled at me in a coffee shop, “I’m a black Jamaican! I am not African American!”), that we lose touch with the subtler words that can be hurtful. This is even true within our own cultures.
My cousin Tere is a fair-skinned blonde beauty who, unlike me, is Puerto Rican on both sides. She was in an elevator in New York when two young Latino boys were talking about her in Spanish. She smiled down at them and responded to their comments in perfect Spanish. Their jaws dropped and they called her a “blanquita,” little white one. And last year when my family and I were returning from Puerto Rico, the airline ticket agent greets me with “Good morning!” and turns to my Native American husband (who by the way, prefers to be called Indian) and says, “Buenos días, Señor” though those are about the only words in Spanish he knows and I am fluent.
And in the interest of disclosing all, I prefer the term Latino over Hispanic, as the latter is not inclusive of the indigenous races of countries such as Mexico that have their own rich cultural histories and language that began way before the invasion of Spain. I know, I know, this can all make your head spin… so what is my message, gentle readers? Only that I ask that each of us to respect one another’s identification. There is no way to know where another’s family hails from, whether they had mixed parents, or if their skin color has anything to do with their heritage. So when someone identifies themselves as something other than you would have guessed, keep it to yourself. I can guarantee they already know, they’ve probably looked in the mirror a few times in their lives, and would rather you take their word for it. However if they identify themselves as being from anywhere other than this planet, they are fair game.