Kindly Stop Assuming I’m Latina
I was at a luncheon today–one that was hosted to celebrate one of the nonprofits I support. Their mission is to provide support and resources for immigrants to get settled into our community. I have been an active volunteer and a donor for the past year.
When I arrived at the event, an older (white) man made eye contact as I set my purse on my chair. He headed over to me, extended his hand and offered a well spoken greeting.
I speak Spanish (very poorly), but I am by no means fluent. I understood everything he said, but I was so taken aback that he started things out in this way that I just stared at him for a moment. I’m not sure if the look of shock I gave him was appropriately conveyed, but I shook his hand and responded, “I’m Eunice. Nice to meet you.”
He mentioned that he was there because his wife is one of the volunteers with the organization, and as he pointed her out to me, she looked vaguely familiar. I nodded and waved at her as he turned back and said to me, “And how about you? Are you one of the immigrants?”
It was at that moment that my shock turned to rage and my blood began to boil. I politely looked at him and said, “No, I’m actually a donor to the organization. I give both my time and money.” And as my friend approached to join us, I introduced the two of them, then turned and walked away before I said the unbecoming words that were about to pass through my lips. My Southern mother would be proud.
I understand that I have an ambiguous look about me. My whole life, people have questioned my ethnic heritage (and often in quite ignorant and offensive ways). While the Portuguese blood from my maternal grandmother gives me the mustache I wax regularly, I don’t think I really look Hispanic in any way. In fact, people confuse me for Indian far more frequently (thank you to the Irish nose my dad gave me). But the assumption that I am a Latina has prevailed in recent months.
When I was in Costa Rica last week, one of my friends joked that I could pass for a Tica and that she should take me to the fish market to see if we got a better price. I suppose the Portuguese gives me enough that I shouldn’t be surprised that people think that I was born in a country that Spanish is the primary language. But when it happens, it still stuns me a little bit.
This isn’t completely new for me. When I was working at a country club, one of the members tried to get my attention by calling me “niño.” When I visited the food bank, one of the volunteers regularly started her conversations with me in Spanish, and I would respond in English. You would think after the second or third time, it would have stuck, but I guess not.
And there was the one time I was approached in a bar by a woman asking for my autograph. She thought I was Rosario Dawson. I was flattered, but when I realized that Ms. Dawson is Puerto Rican, I had to laugh a little bit. Maybe I look more Latina than I think I do.
Even my daughter, who goes to a school with a large Latinx community, often has to convince her peers that she is not Mexican like many of them. I get a phone call from her almost weekly asking, “Mom, am I Mexican?” as she laughs and tells her friends, “See! I told you!” when I say no. I’m glad she’s still amused by it. I’m just exhausted by correcting people.
More times than I care to admit, I’ve been asked where I’m from, and when I reply, “Arizona,” the inevitable follow up question is, “but where were you born?”
Arizona, you ignorant fuck.
Today broke me.
I have spent the afternoon seething about the ignorance that accompanies the assumption that my appearance tells you that I am not from here. It’s offensive. I’m going to be frank–it’s downright racist.
We all walk through the world with the paradigms and biases that we carry with us. Those are shaped and reshaped as we interact with new people and have new experiences. It’s a constant flow of information that bends and folds these ideas we have about the world around us. And for some people, it means that they wear their ignorance on their sleeve.
I often wonder why there is a need to satiate the curiosity around my genetic makeup. My appearance has been called exotic and I am sure that leads a lot of people down that path. People want to know what it is that gives me my look that is so different and unlike someone they might have seen before.
But does it really matter? Does the fact that I have a black mother and a white father augment your opinion of who I am? Does it mean that I’m somehow better (or worse) in your eyes because I can check a specific box? Does it mean you can assume that I understand the cultural references that you think I should know because of the color of my skin?
Why must you assume that I’m different because of the way I look? Why must you assume I’m the same? My physical appearance doesn’t tell you anything about me. And if you would stop making assumptions for one moment, you would learn that.
It’s not often that I’m reminded that I’m not white, but today was probably one of the most painful moments of that reminder that I’ve ever experienced. I suppose if this is the worst I ever have to endure, I’m lucky.