When my doctor insisted that I had to increase my activity level about eight months ago, I joined a water aerobics group at the local WMCA. It was my hope to put an end to my couch potato days so I could live longer and embarrass my children and grandchildren for years to come. The Y experience was a good one; in short order tiny muscles started forming and I found I could hoist the grocery bags with the best of them.
This particular YMCA has a culturally and ethnically diverse cliental, which makes me feel right at home; however, I noticed right away that although friendly, the different groups tend to cling to their own racial and ethnic groups.
For about eight months everyone has greeted me and welcomed me when I arrived, but outside of the hellos and goodbyes, there was little or no conversation with the large fun-loving African American group. At times when I was the only non African American in class it got a little lonely.
One day, although I arrived a little late, I stopped to chat with the female locker room attendant, who speaks little English. One of the class members came in after me; an elderly woman in her mid seventies, Gloria maneuvered her walker with surprising dexterity in that cramped space.
“Oh, Oh! Looks like we are both late,” Gloria said. “I hate being late.”
“It’s not too bad,” I replied. “Class hasn’t started yet. Take your time.”
“I sure hate being late.”
My classmate yanked off her clothes and lowered her body to the bench to put on her swim shoes. I continued my conversation with Carmen María. With the issue that had troubled the young attendant resolved, I grabbed my towel and started to make my way to the pool. Gloria took hold of my hand as I walked by.
“Will, you please, steady the walker for me, honey?”
Gloria stood, a little unsteady on her feet. “I hate this cold weather,” she said. “It feels like the wind just twists my knees.”
She looked up at me and smiled warmly. “I didn’t know you was a colored girl,” she added.
My jaw dropped open. I started to explain to Gloria that I am not a colored girl, but she had already moved ahead to another conversation thread. “How long have you been in this country? You speak English real well, too.”
Now, I had two errors to correct, but Gloria was already steering her walker to the pool area. “Carole, come on, honey; class started.”
That morning the pool was crowded and I never did get a chance to explain to Gloria that I was born in the U.S.A. and that I am a White Hispanic.
I understood her mistake. For decades since the sixties the racial makeup in this country was described as White, Negro or Black, Asian, Colored, Indian and other. The terms Hispanic or Latino were not in use, not even by the Census Bureau.
There have been many corrections made since that time, but it seemed that for Gloria time had stood still. She had heard me speaking Spanish with Carmen María and that was enough for her. In spite of my medium complexion, light, reddish-brown hair and green eyes Gloria assumed that I was Mexican, too. It was her understanding that because I spoke Spanish and I am Hispanic, I am a colored girl.
The following week, when I showed up at class the African-American ladies were very welcoming. Immediately, I understood. I was now one of them. Actually, it felt good.
Now here was my dilemma: I could correct the erroneous impression and embarrass Gloria and the ladies or I could just enjoy the camaraderie. I chose to enjoy.
But suddenly there was another problem; the White women in the group were now a little cool towards me.
This has been a bizarre turn of events. I am still the exact same woman I have always been. No less loveable or more hateful than I was the week before and yet here it is, acceptance by one group and an abrupt dismissal by the other. In the bad old days, we used to call this a “Twilight Zone event.”
Two months later, I still don’t know whether to set the facts straight and alienate everyone, change my membership to another YMCA or just coast along and see what happens.
Life sure is interesting in America!
This is a true story but a couple of names have been changed for the usual reasons.