I was at a Dunkin’ Donuts in New York City grabbing coffee. After handing me my change, the Indian woman wanted to know where I was from.
This happens often — whether I’m at a restaurant, an adult video store or a funeral. Inevitably someone will ask, “What are you?”
They ask in a way as if I look like the Elephant Man.
And then I realize that their question is one about my cultural identity.
Although I’m Latino, much of my cultural heritage and history is Mexican, but I often get mistaken for someone from the Middle East or India.
The employee at the Dunkin’ Donuts made this mistake. She enthusiastically asked me where I was from and I guess she was expecting me to answer with India. But when I said Texas, she just sighed and said, “Here’s your coffee.”
The subtext was shrieking “You son of a bitch!”
This same thing happened in Denver at a festival.
Your $5 or $10 or $25
Jenn was buying an umbrella for her niece and while the foreign man handed her change, he looked at me, smiled and then asked, “Where are you from?” When I responded with Texas, his smile turned into a frown and he wished us a good rest of the day.
I wanted to explain to both the Dunkin’ Donuts woman and umbrella man that Texas is pretty foreign itself, but it was too late. At first I thought people just had something against Texas but when this same thing started happening with Latinos, I realized it was a cultural thing.
People see me and think, “He’s one of us.” And then I disappoint them.
Whenever I go into a bodega, everyone tries to speak Spanish with me. And when I look at them glassy-eyed, I explain in my broken Spanish that I am not fluent.
“Well, what are you then?” they ask. And when I tell them I’m Latino, they really lose it.
“Well, you should learn!” they shout as they hand me my change. Although they’re right, I wish I could explain to them that I’ve been trying to learn Spanish all of my life.
I studied Spanish in my high school senior year with Mr. Gandar, an eccentric man who was also the cheerleading coach.
Mr. Gandar would give us weekly tests. I was a pretty lousy student.
Once, we took a test where we had to translate Spanish to English. I had no idea what I was doing.
One of the words was “igualmente.” I thought about it for a moment and wrote the first word that came to my mind: igloo.
Afterwards we were instructed to hand our test to another student for grading. We went word by word as the correct answers were revealed. When we got to the word “igualmente,” Mr. Gandar informed us that the correct English translation is “likewise.”
Frank raised his hand and asked, “What if someone put igloo?”
Mr. Gandar responded as if Frank had offered him a hand job. “QUE?! Who put that?”
Everyone looked at one another and then sheepishly, I raised my hand.
“Stand up,” Mr. Gandar told me. I stood up and then he asked, “What were you thinking?”
Before I could answer he abruptly said, “Actually stand up on top of your desk. NOW.”
Although it was a strange request I didn’t think twice about it.
“Now, tell us all, just what was going through your mind when you wrote igloo?”
I tried my best to sound regretful. “Well, I guess I wasn’t thinking. And next time I’ll try harder.” Mr. Gandar then said he was going to give me extra credit for being creative and allowed me to climb down my desk.
While I didn’t retain much of the formal Spanish they taught, I remember a little about formal introductions.
For example, “El gusto es mio,” or “the pleasure is mine” is said after you’ve introduced yourself to someone. I often wonder if there are overzealous people who ever insist that the gusto is theirs alone. I imagine my ancestors meeting and after introductions, both insist that the pleasure is solely their own. “NO! El gusto es MIO!”
They argue back and forth and end up clubbing one another to death.
My other Spanish lessons have come through informal sources.
I grew up in San Antonio, Texas.
Like “Tex-Mex” cuisine, Spanish in San Antonio is a puree of both English and Spanish — Spanglish.
It’s a no-holds-barred way of speaking with no regard to rules or syntax. My father often makes up his own words while my mother says things like: “Me voy a la store to buy leche y chones.” If Strunk and White ever visited San Antonio I’m sure they would have had an aneurysm.
Besides my family, my other source of Spanish was music. When I was 10 or 11, I bought a cassette tape by Jonny Z. The tape only had one song on it, No Señor, about a man who gets dissed by his girlfriend so he decides to go “south of the border” to chase women.
The chorus of the song is Jonny Z repeatedly singing: “Just give me that lovin’ baby.” The song is mostly in English but is peppered with Spanish words. The first week I got the tape I walked around my house listening to it on repeat with my Walkman. I was singing out loud without discretion or inhibition.
At one point in the song, Jonny Z sings this:
Se me paro, baby. Se me paro.
My mother overheard me sing this part of the song, came over and smacked me across the head.
“Don’t sing that!” she yelled. Later, I would learn that what I was saying translates as “I have an erection.”
“My mother” and “my erection” are words that should never be used in the same sentence. I’d been singing this lyric all week. I can only imagine how bizarre this situation would’ve looked like to an outsider: a 10-year-old kid walking around his home proudly boasting that he has an erection.
The real heavyweight for me though in terms of music is Selena, an American singer often referred to as the “princess of Latin pop.”
Her songs are in both English and Spanish. Although she could sing in Spanish I’ve read that she could barely speak it, and still struggled with the language after years of practice. She is worshipped in her native Texas.
You can’t go too far without hearing one of her songs playing. One of the songs you might hear is Bidi Bidi Bom Bom. The title doesn’t exactly translate but can be characterized as a beating heart.
It’s a song I often think about especially when I consider my own sense of place; it serves as a reminder that in this “in-between” state of being, there is, a beating heart.
Danny Herrera was born and raised in San Antonio, Texas. His essays have appeared in The SA Current, Neutrons Protons Literary Magazine and most recently, Storyacious magazine. You can read his weekly blog here.
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