We had planned it as just an ordinary weekend outing. “We’ll go to the matinee and catch dinner after the show.”
The movie was fun; the dinner was delicious and our conversation, as usual, was varied and lively. Four words, however, changed the tenor of the evening into a more thoughtful one.
Kaye and I had decided to have dinner at a favorite Mexican restaurant. As is my custom whenever I am in a Hispanic environment I speak Spanish. Those waiters, who recognized me when we entered the place, greeted me with a cheerful, “Buenas noches.” Immediately, I felt at home.
A new waitress came up to the table to see about our beverage order. When I asked for my usual iced tea, I spoke Spanish.
The young woman seemed stunned. “You speak Spanish very beautifully,” she said. “Where did you learn?”
“From my parents,” I replied.
“I don’t understand.”
“My family is from Puerto Rico.”
As if her words had failed her and she needed to resort to sign language, the young woman circled her own face with her hand, took a step backwards and shook her head.
“But you are white.” She had whispered as if afraid to offend.
But I knew what she meant. She was confused because my appearance does not fit the stereotype of what a Latina or Hispanic woman should look like. I look Anglo or as the waitress said, white. I am white, but I am also Hispanic
It is funny and it is sad that in our country this national obsession with race, ethnicity and the need to pigeonhole everyone into her proper place continues unabated—even by those who should know better.
It was supposed to be a relaxing, fun evening; I did not want to get into such a serious discussion with this seemingly sweet, young woman. I took a deep breath, hoping this curious and puzzled waitress would accept my simplest explanation.
“I am white and I am Puerto Rican and I am an American, too. This is what America is about.”
“Oh,” she said and a delighted smile spread over her face. “I’ll get your tea.”
I looked over at Kaye ready to apologize for having excluded her from the conversation because the waitress and I had spoken in Spanish. Luckily, her high school Spanish had not entirely deserted her and Kaye had understood most of the conversation.
Most important of all, I think she understood.
Kaye’s Comment: Once again a comment is so important I have decided to amend my post. It is important to include another view point that might be overlooked in the comments area, otherwise.
Actually, I’m glad to hear the entire translation. With my very limited Spanish (actually just from a “learn Spanish in your car” CD), I understood that you were telling her you were from Puerto Rico and I think I was as surprised as you were when she said “blanco,” because I knew she was referring to your skin color. During the past couple of years, I’ve become much more sensitive to the complexities of being anything other than a WASP in the United States. I never dreamed a red-haired “white” woman would have any race-related problems. For a very long time, I thought you were just a New Yorker, with a strong accent born of the city. Because I detected no trace of a Spanish accent, I was surprised to learn you had spoken only Spanish as a child and quite surprised and appalled the first time you mentioned that some people hesitated to accept you because of your heritage. Personally, I think it’s interesting to hear about first-hand about other cultures, especially from someone who has lived in that country. It’s sad that we human beings have such a long way to go in accepting all human beings as equals. It’s sad to see that integration has helped kids see that their classmates who have a different skin color aren’t monsters to be feared, but it’s sad to see racial animosity persisting so many years after the schools were integrated. I understood the word “American” in what you told the waitress, but didn’t know that you had explained so sweetly that this is what America is about. I’m sure she has encountered hostility because she is so obviously hispanic, so I’m sure she was reassured to meet a welcoming American. Yes, it was an enjoyable movie and the conversation, as always, was stimulating, and you’ve now proven that even four words can become grist for the storyteller’s mill.