Updated: Apr 14, 2022
“Where are you from?!” She asks excitedly in that Valley girl accent I’ve come to expect in Los Angeles. My back is to her while I work, but I can see her reflection in the espresso machine. Her ash platinum hair resembles the thick cloud of steam coming from the frothing cup as I heat up some soy milk. I calmly mix in a bit of cinnamon.
She’s nice, if a little clueless, but I’m not in the mood to answer with my usually flippant “I’m American.” So, I say robotically,
“I’m originally from the Dominican Republic,” since I know from experience this is what she wants to hear. Yet still I add, “but I also grew up in Massachusetts.”
I add in the creamy milk to the chocolate syrup-filled cup as she completely ignores my New England childhood and focuses solely on her limited perception of me based on the origin, I’ve just told her:
“Ooh, Latina, you’re so spicy!” she says as I shake in a little sea salt. I have barely said a word to this woman and yet I am “spicy” by virtue of my cultural background. My actual personality and who I am as a person hold no true weight. Since I am from a Latin American country I must, by default, be “spicy.” I don’t even like spicy things, much less love the idea of having that as my general descriptor.
I know from encountering outright bigotry that her excitement at my supposed and perceived fierceness comes from a place of true ignorant curiosity, not malice. I am not necessarily offended but it stings, nonetheless. I am automatically lumped into this stereotype having barely opened my mouth. I have no discernible personality, and most importantly, I have no voice.
I smile without feeling it as I lightly put the plastic lid on the paper cup and hand her the hot chocolate, I’ve just made her. “That’ll be $3.50, please.” I’ve gone through this too many times and it’s been too long a day for me to stand there and explain to her why her comments are problematic. If I had the energy, I might have actually taken the time to tell her how uncomfortable a descriptor “spicy” really was for me.
Whenever I had to meet a new person as a kid, my throat would close up and my palms would get disastrously sweaty. The sweat would drip down my fingertips and splash down to the ground. I never made friends, I inherited them. My sister, an outgoing, more talkative version of me, would collect them. Eventually, I would find myself surrounded by new friends I didn’t really have to work to acquire. I had a strong personality, but my absurd shyness made it so I was the polar opposite of anyone’s idea of a spicy Latina.
I was a quiet kid, constantly exoticized and subsequently reduced to nothing more than a condiment anytime I exhibited any level of emotion. It made it difficult to come to my own conclusions about my identity. That confusion, married to the relentless idea of “progress via assimilation,” made it impossible to feel comfortable in my own skin. The complicated nature of all these things combined also made it difficult for me to feel at home in my new country.
Excerpt from Ni De Aqui Ni de Alla Anthology