I was born and raised in New Orleans. Post Hurricane Katrina when the levees broke and flooded our city (that was for you, Rob) I lived in Houston, Texas. During that tumultuous time, I had a co-worker who is of Hispanic origin. Hola chica! She was as bright eyed, bubbly, and feisty as you can imagine. Add another dash of habanera and that’s her. When I decided it was time to make the big leap to L.A., I told her she was welcome to visit anytime. Her reply, “Are there any Mexicans in L.A.?” The question caused the type of knee-jerk reaction where you cock your head slightly to the side and repeat the wording in a slightly satirical tone, one octave higher at the end. “Are there any Mexicans in EL-AY?” Her innocence alarmed me and rendered me momentarily speechless. Who am I to give cavalier statistics on the Latino population comparison of Los Angeles to Houston? I’m an amateur statistician at best. After a long dramatic pause, I responded my own rhetorical question, “YEP! You would love it!” She was barely 21. (I tend to reserve judgment for fools twice her age.) She had never been to Mexico and I have never been to Africa. I considered us even. On race I am no authority. I grew up in a city with one of the most complex racial intermingling histories in America – a port city, colonized by Spain and France with the most land-owning, free people of color in the 19th century. Notwithstanding, the city is still pretty black and white. Yet visually we are a gumbo of sorts. Inside this cocoon called home, I’m black. I’ve always been black. It would be a shocker if suddenly I weren’t. My birth certificate says Negro. So, I’m African-American for sure. Right?
Remarkably, outside my native crescent land, my nationality has been questioned more than once and even refuted twice. It started in Basic Training. I had three drill sergeants: one white male, one black male, one Hispanic female. A Neapolitan coalition of armed might if you will. One day my female drill sergeant called me by my last name, because that’s what they do when you join the military, and asked me a very straight forward question. “What’s your nationality?” The puzzled look on my face should have given her a clue. I answered, “Black, drill sergeant.” The profound lack of reference to any nation in the answer should have given her another clue. She fumbled along clueless. “No. I mean, what are your parents?” I replied instantaneously and a bit incredulously, “Black and black, drill sergeant.” And so it went… The questioning and the subsequent dismissal as if we were playing some cruel game of Connect Four genealogy. It happened that day for the very first time and it’s happened numerous times since then whenever I visit New York, D.C., Chicago and some parts of L.A. I don’t speak Spanish. I’m not from Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, or any other Latin nation I would be most proud to represent if I were. Heritage is important to me. Why would I deny it if it were mine?
Here’s the genetic breakdown I know. My great-grandmother on my father’s side was from France. My great-great-grandfather on my mother’s side was Jewish. My great-great-grandmother was African. My familial hues are most represented by people of color and I am unequivocally an African-American woman. You with me? Good. I speak English. In high school I studied Latin and French. At a military institute off the coast of Monterey I studied Korean. I’ve never studied Spanish. Ever. Although, I’m told I have an affinity for languages. Insert “me” as Jason Bourne played by Matt Damon as he spouts German to the officers requiring proof of his citizenship then proceeds to disarm and disable both.
I’ve always wanted to be that badass. I thought I was joining the military to be the female James Bond. (We can thank a silver-tongued recruiter for that notion.) The truth is the “needs of the Army” far outweigh any girl’s dreams of learning Russian to slip underneath the iron curtain and procure secrets vital to the continued freedom of our nation. And… my test scores dictated otherwise. They ensured years of adoration for bulgogi, white sticky rice, and kimchi were in my future! In hindsight I don’t think blending in would have been a feat easily attained in the Ukraine. (I told you I’m a colored gal. Don’t you DARE repeat that. The term grates my skin!!!) Consequently, I couldn’t pass for Korean any day of the week either, not even in winter when I’ve lost my summer tan. I am quite versatile. The languages I’ve studied come complete with accents which astonish a native tongue. I’m a bit of a showoff. We can thank my background in theatre and my position in the birth order for that. I love languages and I never cease to amaze myself. In Italy I picked up a few phrases after “Ciao Bella!” was engrained in my brain. In Mexico, I found myself in the middle of a marketplace bartering for a blanket while screaming, “Veinticinco! Veinticinco!” This is in no way contradictory to what I wrote earlier. It’s true. I’ve never studied Spanish. I learned my numbers from Sesame Street and Villa Alegre, the first national bilingual children’s program televised in the U.S. I’m a chameleon and a very quick study. Blame it on great genes and a father who taught me how to play blackjack when I was seven years old.
What’s my point? I’m not sure. This is now considered rambling. The only explanation I have is my power of association went full speed ahead when I saw a sign tacked on a pile of empty boxes in the office that read “Basura.” My deductive reasoning led me to assume the sign read “Trash” or “Garbage” in Spanish. Yes, even an idiot could have figured that out. Thank you for the compliment. The sign was thoughtful. It was a solid attempt to communicate with someone on their terms instead of leaving to chance which items were regarded as important and which ones should have been discarded. It made me wonder why I haven’t made more of an effort to take a Spanish class… or get a Hispanic boyfriend as one of my friends suggested. (If I had taken her advice I shudder to think which Spanish words I would have learned first. “Aye Papi! Muey bueno!” does not count.) Maybe I’ve yet to encounter a situation where my knowledge of the language was absolutely necessary. Whatever the case may be, when I decide to learn the most widely used romance language in the world it will be because my desire to communicate has overcome my apathy. It’s that simple. It won’t be about the denial of my race or heritage. My ethnicity will be questioned as long as my features represent a collection of 40 different nations. My answer will continue to be the one given to my drill sergeant on that scorching hot summer day in Columbia, South Carolina. But, perhaps it will be phrased more succinctly in my best voice a la espanol, “Yo soy morena!”
Persnickety Self-Adjustment: Embrace your race. It’s important to celebrate who you are enlighten those don’t.