¿De donde eres? Where are you from? A Reflection.

I have always wondered what people meant, when I am asked this question. What filter is one supposed to sift oneself through in order to produce a satisfactory response? What is the actual question? My father is Mexican and my mother is Puerto Rican. In the US, the general expectation is that you are actually from where your parents or ancestors most recently immigrated from. By this logic, I would have been Puerto Rican and Mexican, but was generally considered more Mexican than Puerto Rican. As a youth, it seemed that some people just wanted to quickly label and dismiss me. “Oh him? He’s Mexican”. One can never really tell what this kind of glib summation means, especially when you are 7. And what about my Puerto Rican side? 

Throughout my life, my linguistic blend of Spanglish and Mexican/Puerto Rican dialects seemed to puzzle other Spanish speakers. My conversational Spanish never sounded like a mother tongue. The phrases and idioms known to native sons of Latin America were lost on me. So I would alter my cadence and try to match the speaker’s. Sometimes it worked. Some Mexicans would listen to me, take a breath, and pause for a moment before asking if I was from Mexico City. Dominicans often asked if I was Ecuadorian or Puerto Rican. What were they observing? Did I sound like a stuck-up city dweller or a naive local from a small village? Would I be labelled ‘gringo’? Would it be assumed that I wasn’t ok to socialize with? 

As much as I tried to sound “Latin” enough, there was nothing I could do about my looks. I am still not sure what people see when I come into their field of view. I share many traits with certain Latin Americans. Wide, stocky torso. Short legs. Long arms. Despite a scarcity of facial and body hair, the hair on my scalp is thick, wavy and dark. I don’t look like most Puerto Ricans I have met. People have asked me if I am Italian or Arabic. I met a cop of Italian descent once and we could have passed as brothers. The genetic legacies that show flows of human migration are unpredictable. Some Dominicans are mistaken for African Americans or Haitians and vice versa. One of my Puerto Rican teachers related stories of Indian men singling her out to flirt with. 

Sharing the same language and similar appearance can bring people together. Differences can lead to sharp divisions and imagined hostilities. I have often felt and misunderstood the tensions between Dominicans and Puerto Ricans. In my neighborhood there were Dominican bodegas and Puerto Rican bodegas. The Dominican bodegas played merengue. The Puerto Rican bodegas played salsa. In both, Central Americans were the stock clerks or butchers. Also, they sold very similar variants of the same foods. 

Puerto Ricans are US citizens. In my opinion, this created resentment among them and other Latin Americans. Dominicans have to apply for visas and resident permits. Otherwise, they risk illegal immigration. However, they lived in the same neighborhoods as Puerto Ricans, and competed for the same jobs with the disadvantage of being born on the island that wasn’t a US territory. Or they could be more easily exploited by employers. No green card? You get half the pay. Don’t like it? Take a walk. 

My mother once set an odd precedent by warning me not to spend time with my babysitter’s son. That is correct, a boy my age was out playing and probably roughing it in the streets of NYC during the early 80s. He was learning how to breakdance, play NYC style basketball and throw graffiti tags up. I was indoors watching a cartoon rabbit terrorize a hunter with a speech impediment, or a housecat and mouse try to maim each other in an epic battle for access to the feast housed in the refrigerator. His mom was my babysitter while my mom worked. They were friends. A Dominican woman and my Puerto Rican mom. My mom thought he spent too much time en la calle/in the street. That he was too wild. That he was a bad influence on me. Was this a colonial legacy rearing its head? I was in Catholic school! If Catholic education wasn’t good enough to keep me from becoming a common thug, what was the point of sending me there for 7 hours a day, 5 times a week, 9 months of the year? The irony is, he was one of my protectors. I wasn’t tough. I needed him to navigate the hierarchy in the neighborhood. Among others, he kept an eye on me that I didn’t always know was there.  

In the US media, Spanish speakers could be lazy alcoholics or nosy neighbors. They were portrayed as emotionally volatile, obsessed with dancing or as insanely jealous casanovas. They were often the “troubled youth” on episodes of police dramas or family sitcoms. A typical storyline could be something like: Juan isn’t a bad kid. His older brother is in a street gang and the local shop just got robbed. Officer Murphy thinks he can get Juan to give up his brother. Sure, I saw people like these in my community but these personalities were just as present in other cultures too. We didn’t have a monopoly on less than desired personality traits. 

On the Latin American channels like Telemundo or GalaVision, I saw serious or comedic interviews with politicians, artists and musicians from all over the world. Additionally, I witnessed the hip emphasizing gyrations of Iris Chacon, who hosted some kind of variety show from Puerto Rico. My mother discouraged me from being corrupted by her as well, and changed the channel. Not only was I being shielded from the streets, my hibernating libido was in no danger of awakening (thanks, mom!). There was Walter Mercado, a gifted and flamboyant “psychic” who made appearances on different programs. He dressed like a Las Vegas magician. Charo was often invited to appear on many US talk shows. Outside the US, she was known as a talented singer and flamenco guitarist. American media always reduced her to a caricature of a Latin American woman: shrill voiced and thickly accented. 

Further, I didn’t understand why there were so many jokes in US culture at the expense of Latin Americans. They can do the job but so slowly. They don’t work and often steal. They sleep so much. They never sleep because they are always having house parties at night. They have drinking or drug problems. They have so many kids. They are so poor. They never legally immigrate, etc. In recent years, many contemporary comedians often joke about the Mexican work ethic, the quality of their house parties, the great street foods and aftermath of nights that began with tequila shots. Is this progress? Maybe it is not ideal, but I would say so. It can make people curious and appreciative of the cultures outside their own. Personally speaking, I want to know what people think of one another. I wish people were more curious about each other. We can learn a lot by asking one simple Swiss army knife of a question, which I invite you to use on a fellow neighbor or student: 

      Y de donde eres? 


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