Okay, since I moved to Vermont I am constantly made fun of for my high heel shoes. Generally I refuse to justify this obsession, but it recently hit me that it is not just the displaced New Yorker-stranger-in-a-strange-land thing. In fact, though I frown on stereotypes, this past winter I realized that this frivolous footwear fascination is indeed connected to my Latino heritage.
I had just finished a long day of errands and I sat waiting for my sugar-free vanilla latte. Bored, I found myself watching people’s feet as they walked in and out. As the sixth or seventh person passed by, it occurred to me that I had never seen such a large collection of practical, comfortable shoes in my life. Mostly due to the brutal New England climate, no doubt. But as I looked down at my black, shiny, Tommy Hilfiger spike-heeled boots, I realized that this was yet another way I did not fit in in my adopted New England state. But I did not always care so much about footwear.
It all changed the year I turned 30 and I made my first trip alone to visit my family in Puerto Rico after my mother passed away. With her loss I noticed things I never had before. Like the intense color of a ripe guava. The way the leaves of the palm trees whipped around with the afternoon breeze. The way family and friends touched so naturally, so warmly. And the shoes. On the second day of my trip I wanted to buy a book by a Puerto Rican author, and my uncle Estéban kindly brought me to Plaza Las Americas. As we were parking, I noticed a long-legged young woman in professional dress walking towards the mall entrance. Her clothes didn't surprise me — women tend to dress up in P.R. — it was the four- or five-inch heeled, brown pumps that she was clicking along on that shocked me. "Tío, do you think she is actually going shopping in those shoes?" He glanced over and replied, "No, she is probably going to work. She's wearing a nametag. I bet she works in the department store over there." Just the thought of doing a retail job in such elegant but uncomfortable footwear was inconceivable to me. I didn't think much more about it until the next day.
My cousin Tere was taking me out for an afternoon of lunch and shopping in Old San Juan. When I rang the bell Tere opened the door in a flurry of besos, greetings, and abrazos, and dashed across the foyer to get her purse. As she checked for her keys, I noticed the pretty 1950s style cotton sundress she wore on her size four frame, and then my eyes fell on her shoes. They were the kind of feminine strippy-strappy sandals I had only seen on episodes of Sex in the City. The heels weren't too high, about two inches, but they were so delicate and made the most wonderful clicking sound as she walked across the Spanish tiles. Suddenly, I felt like a complete slob in my jeans, t-shirt and sneakers.
We had a wonderful afternoon, but something changed for me that day. When I returned to the great white north I started to notice the dull, practical footwear that passed for shoes around me. I longed for color. And straps. And high heels. But I couldn't find what I wanted locally. Whenever I traveled to any major city, as soon as I got off the plane I would rush to the nearest shoe store and buy the most impractical but simply gorgeous tacones I could find, in glorious, tropical-flavored colors. Soon, my closet began to overflow with these purchases, and I would wear them to work, holding my head high as my co-workers ribbed me about my "Barbie shoes."
I don't wear tacones for my husband; he couldn't care less about what I wear on my feet. I don't wear them to impress other people, more of them shake their heads at my shoes than admire them. I wear them for me. Just for me. Then I started to notice references to tacones in Latina writing and magazines, and among my friends. I had begun to think it might be just a Puerto Rican thing, until one afternoon when I was talking on the phone with my amiga Lisa in Chicago.
Lisa and I are writing a second book together, and we were waiting to hear on an offer from a publisher. We were fantasizing about what we would do with a nice fat advance, and I was floored when Lisa — a militant-Chicana-bisexual-feminist — said, "Chica, the minute we get that check handed to us in their New York office, we are running down to the Manolo Blahnik Studio. Mami needs a new pair of bright red, ankle-strap sandals!" After that, I came to realize… it is just a Latina thing.
I took the last sip of café, stood up and strode to the door, reflecting on how I now associate my penchant for girly shoes with my Latina side. I’ve heard many of our Anglo sisters say that they think high heels subjugate the female, while Latin women look at them as a way of celebrating el cuerpo. The sway of the hips. The strength of the calves. You know we have our practical side, our sensible shoes — I don’t go hiking Mount Elmore in my Franco Sarto mules — but we relish those moments when we are una diosa, wearing a nice tall pair of ankle strap tacones. So just keep in mind when you see a tacones-clad woman walking down State Street in Montpelier, that yes, you can be a 21st century, independent woman while wearing a pair of high-heeled Carlos Santana mules. And look damn good at it, too.Powered by Sidelines