'Disculpe, hablo español' (Excuse me, I speak Spanish)

Wednesday, May 13, 2020 - 1:02pm

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Illustration by Cara Jhang

Growing up, I would frequently visit my mother’s native Mexico. These trips were always a relaxing change of pace from the hustle of everyday life. We would go around four times a year until I was in high school and didn’t have time anymore. Even then, we would go at least twice annually. There were many highlights of these trips, including seeing family, going to the beach and doing a little shopping. The only problem was that I stuck out like a sore thumb.

Taller than the average Mexican by the age of 13 and whiter than every person around me in any given public place, it was difficult to blend in. I was immediately labeled as a tourist on an annual family trip with plans to just sit around and buy bracelets with our names on them. On the other hand, the rest of my family would never even be approached by the vendors lining the tourist-filled beaches. I never wanted to buy the tacky t-shirts or wood carvings they were peddling. Still, they seemed to be pulled towards me, like I had my own gravity that only affected beach vendors. The simplest solution to the problem was to start speaking Spanish and wait for them to realize I was not a typical white boy wandering the beach. 

“Oh, sorry I thought you were American,” they would say, confused, before walking away. These interactions were harmless annoyances, and nothing more. 

The tricky thing is, I am American. Being born and raised in Texas is about as American as it gets (we can debate what the “Real America™” is, and how Michigan is the “heartland” another time). I have never had to question this identity. It has been ever-present as far back as I can remember. After all, I was born and raised here and I am proud to be from here. It’s only a head-scratcher because I am also Mexican. This duality of my identity was not only confusing to these street savvy businessmen— it was, and continues to be, a little confusing to me. Don’t worry, I am not going to get into the internal dynamics of being a white-passing Latino in this piece. Instead, I am going to talk about people making assumptions about my identity based solely on my appearance.  

This phenomenon of being labeled as a tourist immediately wasn’t unique to the beach. In fact, it was common wherever I went in Mexico. It just became normal. Everyone I interacted with quickly realized I was Mexican as soon as I spoke and moved past the initial barrier of my skin tone. Still, little things like being offered the English menu at a restaurant and being told that the showing of the movie I wanted was not in English became tiresome to deal with. The real fun only started when people would talk about me, in Spanish, without the slightest clue that I understood what they were saying.

“Who let that white boy in here, is he lost?” a woman sitting two tables away from me said in Spanish. 

We were at a hole in the wall taco place near my house that is frequented by locals and rarely visited by tourists. She and her friend giggled at her mediocre attempt to make an observational joke. 

In situations like this one, which came up rather frequently, I had a preplanned series of moves that were rather childish in hindsight, but still entertaining. My first move would be to keep quiet and not speak at all to let them think they were right. Then, when the waiter came by, I would let everyone else order before me so I was last — the center of attention. If I got lucky, I could get a two for one deal and have the waiter try to take my order in English, in which case I got to surprise onlookers and employees alike. After the setup had been completed, I would proceed by showing off my fluency. Often, my attempt at proving myself went unrewarded. The people who made the initial comment would not be paying attention to my order like I hoped. My defense mechanism had failed. 

I felt like I had something to prove, but it’s tough to do that with an audience who has already made up their mind about you and doesn’t care to change it. Though, sometimes — when I was lucky enough — they would hear me. This would lead to the universally recognized raised eyebrow, signifying a “Whoa, didn’t expect that,” followed by a nervous laugh. These little misconceptions were always fun for my family and me. We liked seeing the surprised looks, since they represented acknowledgement of ignorance. They were only made better when the onlooker would come up to our table and apologize for what they had said. 

“Sorry, I thought you were American! You don’t look Mexican,” they would explain. 

My lighthearted poking fun clearly came at a cost as I was left to wonder how to respond to apologies like that. I would usually explain that it was a common mistake. It’s an odd feeling to have the qualm you have with a stranger immediately addressed by them. Of course, I liked it when people would apologize, but I didn’t like the idea that they were apologizing only because they knew I understood them. Had I not spoken Spanish, there wouldn’t have been an apology, so letting them off the hook felt wrong. The alternative was causing a scene in a taqueria, so I naturally went with the former. Also, as aforementioned, I am an American, making it confusing to have to accept an apology in which this part of my identity is stripped, only to be replaced by another. In short, it’s a mess. Letting two identities coexist is easier said than done.

While at the time I considered interactions like the ones on the beach simply annoying, and the ones at the restaurant humorous, the last variety of the assumptions based on my complexion were not so easily dismissable. While I reflect upon all of this now, each one of these situations is upsetting in hindsight, but even at the time, this next one was maddening.

Let me set the scene. 

The flea market, or El Mercado al Aire Libre, consists of a canopy set up in the middle of a large plaza filled with never-ending rows of stands, each selling their own items. It had bootleg 90s action movies with bad dubbing, knitted sweaters and screen printed shirts, handmade necklaces and bracelets, and off brand ninja turtle action figures. Anything your heart could ever desire. If you wanted something, the odds were that someone in this market was selling it, and depending on your bartering ability, you could get a reasonable price.

I saw an FC Barcelona jersey that I wanted a few stalls down from where I was. I started heading that way. When I got there, another shopper was enquiring about the exact same jersey. I stood a few feet back trying to look disinterested— if the vendor knows you want something badly, they don’t budge as much on the price. As a side note, if you need lessons on how to haggle in Mexican markets, let me know. I’ll give you a good price for the lessons. 

“How much is the Barcelona jersey?” the other shopper asked. 

“200 pesos,” replied the man running the stall. 

The current customer haggled the price down to 150, bought the jersey, and went on his way. I wandered up to the booth and nodded at the man running the jersey stand, but I didn't say anything. As I started to reach for the jersey in question, the man spoke up. 

“Hello my friend, Barcelona jersey?” he said, “For you, special price. 350 pesos. Very good deal.” 

He said this in English, of course. 

Inside, I was angry. This situation was different from the prior ones, as now my appearance was being used against me. This man bumped his asking price by 150 pesos from one sale to the next. Now, I didn’t do great in Econ 101 with Professor Justin Wolfers, but this seemed a bit outside the traditional bounds of price changes due to an increase in demand. While the frustration built up internally, I had to remain calm. After all, he probably wouldn't lower the price if I was rude. When I responded, I did so in Spanish. 

Disculpe, hablo español y acabo de escuchar que ese hombre lo compro por 150 pesos.” (Excuse me, I speak Spanish and I just heard that man bought it for 150 pesos.)

The salesman started to laugh. He looked at the vendor in the stall next to him with the familiar face that, once again, screamed “Whoa, didn’t expect that.” He apologized and repeated the refrain common to jersey salesmen and women at taco places alike:

 “Sorry, I thought you were American.” 

He then offered me the jersey for 150 and said that I am welcome back any time. Thanks, I guess? 

Each of these stories had a similar resolution, ending with either an apology or dismissal, yet all affected me differently. The beach was nothing, an annoyance; the restaurant was a bit of fun followed by some internal confusion; and the market was genuine anger, only heightened by the smaller situations that surrounded it. During my visits to Mexico, these interactions would combine to leave me with one overarching, indefinite conclusion: I do not belong here. But as I grow older, this feeling has dissipated. 

I have come to better appreciate the aspects of my life that are shaped by my mother’s culture. From something as simple as cuisine or music, to something as ingrained as the undying loyalty to one’s family, I am thankful for all of it.  Most importantly, this connection comes from the thing in my life I am most thankful for: my mother. The pride I feel for her when I think of her being a successful Latina woman in the US is the strongest source of this cultural bond. I have slowly come to realize that I do belong, both in my home country of the US and in my ethnic home of Mexico. My American patriotism comes from my experience here my whole life, my love for the country that has made me who I am, and a goal to make it better in any way I can. 

These connections are different, yet both are important. I should get to belong in both places, and my connection to Mexico should not have to be discounted because of my patriotism here. Through this recent reflection, I have come to the simple conclusion that I am an American, but I am also proud of my heritage — and it is possible for both to coexist at the same time. Nobody, not even Mexican street vendors, can take that from me.