Archive for May, 2008

White-Collar Blues

For years, the diversity at my job consisted of an Asian woman and me in a sea of 40 white people. A few months ago, everyone got excited because it seemed that we had hired our first gay employee. But as it turned out, he was merely effeminate and not so exotic after all.

So we were all disappointed.

Still, we recently added a woman who is half-Mexican, so the Hispanic population has doubled. Or to look at it another way, because we are both half-Hispanic, between us we add one Latino to the staff. This is progress.

The lack of Hispanic representation in the so-called respectable professions (often defined as those that pay a decent wage to fuck around in a cubicle) is stunning. Aside the time I spent toiling in fast food as a teenager, I’ve usually been the only Hispanic at a given job. I’m used to it, and it’s never been an issue, at least not in the sense of overt hostility. Confusion, however, is much more common.

On occasion, I’ve worked with people for years who are surprised to find out that I’m a Latino. Perhaps we’re making small talk and I’ll mention that my grandmother speaks only Spanish or that my last name has its roots in El Salvador or that I know what “puta” means (hey, it comes up). Then I’ll get this strange look as if I’ve been hiding a secret life or pulling an especially egregious fast one on them.

“Are you Hispanic?” they’ll ask in perplexity. And when I confirm it, they’ll frown or shrug or cluck their tongues with the peevishness of the mildly deceived. They appear to want to follow up with “And when were you going to tell me this?”

It’s not that they’re closet racists. It’s that their worldview has been altered abruptly. What have they believed to that point? I can’t say for sure, but the thinking seems to be, “He’s sort of white, but not really. He’s clearly not black. If he’s not one of those, but still does white-collar work, he must be Asian. Probably Japanese.”

I had one co-worker who wanted to know if I had any female relatives I could fix him up with because, as he stated, “I’m into Asian girls.” He was heartbroken to find out I could not help with his cause, so I refrained from pointing out how painfully common his fetish is among white men.

In a future post, I’ll have more on people’s frequent insistence that I’m really Asian (it’s ranged from comical to combative). But for now, let me return to my original point, which is that very few Latinos read “Dilbert.”

In fact, the only other Hispanics I usually see in an office building are the guys mopping the floor, and they often give me quick, embarrassed smiles as if to say, “Sorry I don’t make you prouder” or “Aren’t you afraid they’ll catch you impersonating a white guy?” Otherwise, we avoid eye-contact, because the Latino janitor is probably thinking that I look down upon him, while I’m super-conscious of the fact that I don’t want to appear like I’m looking down upon him. Perhaps we should engage in a moment of solidarity, or I can emphasize the importance of education so his children can go farther than he has, or we can snicker and say, “How about those Anglos, huh?” But we do none of this, because the class difference between us is vaster than the racial similarities that bond us. I feel that I should say something to the guy, but no words of wisdom, in either English or Spanish, arrive. So I keep walking, and I hit my cube, and he keeps scrubbing, and I’m sure that no one thinks for a moment that he is Asian. 

Who Are You?

I know what you’re thinking. Exactly what is the U.S. government’s definition of a person who is “Hispanic”? Come on, we’ve all wondered about it. Well, look no farther for edification.

The U.S. Office of Management and Budget first defined a Hispanic to be “a person of Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Central or South American, or other Spanish culture or origin, regardless of race.”

The U.S. Census Bureau included the term on its 1960 form, but this, the government’s initial attempt at a definition, wasn’t published until 1978.  Apparently, nobody was Hispanic before then.

Now, it’s far too easy to take shots at a nameless bureaucracy that pathetically attempts to corral the messy realities of the world. But I’m going to do it anyway.

The first thing we notice in this definition is the phrase “regardless of race.” This is problematic, because I thought we were talking about race. How can it be irrelevant when it’s the whole point?

Well, if you’ve ever worked for the U.S. Census Bureau (I did, as a teenager for one horrific summer, but that’s another post), you know that Hispanics are not considered a race. We are an ethnicity.

What does that mean? I really don’t know, because the only answer I’ve ever heard is “It’s political.” Perhaps a sociologist, cultural anthropologist, or government worker out there can clue us in (please post if you know the official answer, seriously).

Clearly, any attempt at defining a large group of people who come from vastly different cultures is doomed to be incomplete, sketchy, vague, and possibly insulting. But we need to cut the government some slack here. They have to define Hispanics. Otherwise, we would have no way to measure how badly we’re doing on the economic scale, and we would have no idea who’s being acknowledged during Hispanic Heritage Month (it’s in September, by the way).

Ultimately, perhaps you’re just Hispanic if you say you are. It’s not like there are any ceremonies to induct you into the lodge or anything (although that would be cool if there were).

As I mentioned in one of my first posts, many people would not consider me (I’m half-Anglo) to be Hispanic. So I should feel validated because I fit the government’s definition. After all, my family is originally from Central America.

But slipping easily into a government-built box means nothing, of course. Independent of some red-tape organism, all of us develop our own definitions and self-images and myths and creation stories – everything we need to say, “This is me.” 

John Wayne Was Not Latino

Today is Memorial Day, when we put flowers on the graves of dead soldiers, Marines, airmen, and Navy members, proclaiming them all to be a credit to America. This is true, for once, even of those who weren’t citizens.

As I’ve pointed out earlier, the first U.S. service member killed in the current Iraq debacle was an immigrant from Guatemala. And Hispanics have sacrificed by the thousands in U.S. wars.

Yet the contributions of Latinos to America’s military have been so overlooked that Ken Burns had to be culturally bitch-slapped to include a few minutes of extra footage of Latinos for his World War II documentary.

For this reason, “The Borinqueneers,” a PBS documentary, may be the only way for Hispanic members of the theoretical Greatest Generation to get their due. I haven’t seen the movie yet, so I can’t vouch for its quality. But it’s about time that filmmakers acknowledge that those fresh-faced corporals weren’t all redheaded kids from the Nebraska cornfields. Some of them went by Ramirez and Hernandez and Sanchez – you know, American names.

A Matter of Self-Preservation

As we enter the first weekend of summer (unofficially, anyway), let’s take a moment to consider the implications of warmer weather.

It is beyond all reasonable or scientific doubt that global warming is occurring and that humans are at least partially to blame (for the love of all that is good and holy, please do not try to debate this point; we’ll get nowhere).

But let’s assume, for the moment, that all the carbon offsets, recycling efforts, and Prius sales in the world do not succeed in cooling the planet off. The holes in the ozone layer get bigger and bigger, and the ultraviolet rays pour through faster and faster. What then?

Well, in this new superheated, toxically charged cauldron of a planet, being dark-skinned will be an advantage. The duskier our exterior, the better our defense against the sun’s punishment.

The natural question, then, is will we see a new super race of the pigmented-enhanced in the future? Should you go ahead and mate with a Latino or black person now to ensure that your children (your genetic legacy) have a bare minimum of protection on a sun-baked Earth? And what can a white supremacist say when being pasty is so yesterday (evolutionarily speaking)?

The consequences are clear: You either get behind attempts to combat global warming, or you start trolling the personal ads for a mate with a solid amount of melanin.

Actually, in either case, it is always a good idea to take on a Hispanic lover. So damn it, go out and pick up a rugged caballo or a fine mamacita today.

Your children will thank you.


From the Motherland

She arrived in New York City on an autumn day in 1967. She knew four English phrases: “yes,” “no,” “please,” and “thank you.”

She came here to get a college degree and to see more of the world beyond the confines of her tiny village in Central America. To earn tuition money, she got a job scrubbing floors and cleaning house for a Holocaust survivor. She spent evenings memorizing phrases such as “Does this train go to Grand Central?” and “I would like a slice of pizza.”

Once enrolled in school, she picked up English rapidly, and soon, she was reading books that had been banned in her home country. Some of these books told of the atrocities that her nation’s government had committed. They told of the thousands murdered and the land stolen and the cultures despoiled. She had traveled multiple time zones to learn the truth about her own homeland, but once she knew it, there was no returning to her old life. From that point on, she was American.

Because she was beautiful and exotic (especially for the time), she picked up some modeling gigs, which paid better than housecleaning. On one shoot, she met a divorced photographer a dozen years older than she. The man had three kids and drank too much, but he was smart and funny, and he took her to great parties, where she hung out with Andy Warhol and Bob Dylan and other NYC icons.

She married the photographer and moved to the Midwest. At the age of twenty-six, she had her only child, a boy, to go along with the three stepchildren she was raising.

Her husband wanted to start a new career in real estate, and to cover the exorbitant start-up costs, she got a job as a cashier in a grocery store. Her thick accent in a place staffed almost exclusively by ninth-generation Anglo-Americans caused no small amount of hilarity.

The real-estate business boomed, and the family got a big house in a developing part of the city. Her husband had a flair for making money, but as the cash poured in, his drinking increased proportionally. Before long, cases of brandy were being delivered to the house weekly. Like all upper-class alcoholics, he soon embraced the violence that had always been lurking beneath his smiling façade.

They came to an arrangement: When he hit her, she would fall down. This arrangement was played out often, just to make sure it was still in effect.

The children from the man’s first marriage left to go live with their mother. By this time, her husband’s chief occupation was drinking. So the real-estate company began to falter, and it was only her stepping in to work the details that kept it solvent.

One night, her husband hit her as usual, but she decided that she had endured enough. She went to the shed, grabbed an ax, came back, and walloped him in the head. She used the flat part of the ax head, for which he should have been grateful. After he got out of the hospital, he threatened her just once more, and she knocked him flat. He never touched her again.

She didn’t file for divorce, however, until the night he threatened to blow up the neighborhood, and the SWAT team deployed outside her door. It was a good time to leave.

She found work as a waitress and went back to school. She was a full-time worker, full-time student (making the Dean’s List), and full-time single mother. She still had energy to become a community activist and organize political rallies on behalf of the people in her home country, which was, at the time, a bloody pawn in the Cold War.

In the land of her birth, her brother and sister were murdered. Both died at the hands of a government funded by U.S. tax dollars. She brought over the orphaned children, and together with her sister (who had emigrated years before and started a family of her own), they helped raise the kids.

She made sure that her own son was well-fed, had all the books he could read, and received plenty of Christmas presents.

She worked her way up from administrative jobs to management, and then moved on to government jobs. Before long, she was advising mayors on cultural matters and giving speeches at grand openings and forming subcommittees and chairing meetings.

Today, she owns two houses in the nicest part of town, using the real-estate knowledge she learned salvaging her ex-husband’s business. She has an office in City Hall, where she helps run her adopted city and is one of the leaders of the state. She has met with governors, senators, and former Presidents. Universities around the country pay her to give guest lectures.

It is far removed from the small village of her birth or the NYC apartment floors that she scoured or the runways she walked or the check-out line of the grocery store where she toiled. It is the American experience.

She is my mother, and today is her birthday. She remains my personal hero. 

Hispanic Hiatus

First, let me give belated thanks to Melissa for commenting on my post “It’s Much Prettier in Spanish.” She displays sound logic when it comes to learning a foreign language. Also, thanks to Angelina (!) for posting a reply to “Becoming a Trendsetter,” although the Fanatic ever so mildly suspects that she allowed sarcasm to infiltrate her comment.

Second, let me apologize. Because of my travel schedule and various personal commitments (always a cryptic term), I will be unable to post new entries for about a week. It will hopefully be sooner than that, but I want to guess on the long side so people don’t say, “Look how many days have passed without an update; I knew he’d burn out on this blog thing quickly.” We can’t have that, so save your hate emails and angry comments, because I’ll have something fresh by this time next week.

In the meantime, here is a completely unrelated video of a dog licking peanut butter to keep you entertained until I get back.

How to Apologize to a Vato

It was asking too much for the person I elbowed to be a meek librarian or a rambunctious brat or an elderly tourist from Iowa. I should have considered my odds before foolishly stretching my arms on Venice Beach, home of the largest conglomeration of weirdoes, miscreants, and thugs in Southern California. When I stretched on the crowded boardwalk, I simply had to whap some colorful local character who was likely to bludgeon me.

My elbow struck the hard, sinewy back of a muscular Latino. He was bald and short, and the tattoos covering his torso proved that this was a joven who wore a shirt only if forced to. This was not one of those times, and he turned slowly to face me, his pics and biceps already flexing. The guy was pissed.

I knew he didn’t give two shits about our shared heritage, so I calmly looked at him, raised one hand in casual appeasement, and said, “Lo siento.” I added a nod and maintained eye contact. He glared at me for another second or two, then scowled and nodded back. He slowly turned his back on me, content that I was neither a threat nor a worthy challenge to his SoCal cred.

I resolved to never again move my elbows more than two inches from my ribcage in public.

I had defused the situation in the only way possible. I made clear to the vato that I meant no disrespect. It was an accident.

But neither could I display any fear. To do so was to risk being perceived as weak. Worse, I may have come across as judgmental, which is the worst thing one can do, because the object of your scorn will inevitably turn homicidal out of annoyance that you’ve stereotyped him as, well, dangerous. It’s either a self-fulfilling prophecy or murderous irony.

In any case, I handled the situation with my intimidating compadre well, and I was vaguely pleased with myself. Then I mentioned it to an Anglo friend, who cut off my anecdote and said, “You apologized but didn’t show fear, right?”

“Yeah,” I said.

I mentioned the incident to one other person, a black friend who also interrupted me to say, “And you let him know it was your fault, but you didn’t look scared either, right?”

“Right,” I said.

Suddenly, my quick-thinking settlement of a potentially violent conflict just looked like fucking universal knowledge. Most of us, it seems, come equipped with a high degree of so-called street smarts. For the most part, it’s just common sense mixed with a tough façade, and to my horror, it is not a special privilege of people with darkened hues.

For decades, Hispanics have been told that, “Yes, you are economically and politically disadvantaged, and you may very well be a cultural afterthought with no real pull for the entirety of U.S. history. But damn it, you’ve got street smarts! And those rich white people will never have that.” This message was even the subject of a “Chico and the Man” episode, for damn sakes. Would Chico lie to me?

Refraining from panic when you bump into a thuggish minority is hardly the essence of urban cool. In fact, it is arguably racist to assume that a tough-looking Hispanic guy will kick your ass for flinching at him. Would I have acted the same way if I bumped into Marge Henderson from Nebraska? (I don’t know if Marge exists, but she works here as an effective archetype). It’s doubtful, and in any case, I would probably scare Marge into apologizing to me first.

So maybe I am not so wise in the ways of the hood, or perhaps mass media and well-established social cues have ingrained a level of awareness in all of us, and pulling off a barrio vibe is just matter of watching the right movies and keeping your cool.

Still, if you ever bump into a tat-heavy, muscle-bound freak who looks like he means business, take my advice and apologize with a calm smile. Then go about your business, content that you are secretly the baddest motherfucker on the planet.

Stumped by the bitca

On occasion, the Bitca will interrupt me at work (or more likely, interrupt my own self-imposed interruption of work) to ask me a stray question or make a unique observation or confide her hatred of a co-worker. The other day, she approached me with the earnestness of a Buddhist monk in training, looking like she sought answers to the big questions on life and existence.

“Hey,” she said. “Doesn’t ‘cucaracha’ mean cockroach?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Why would anyone sing about a cockroach? And isn’t it insulting to Mexicans to be associated with cockroaches?”

I had to admit that I had never given the subject much thought. Now that she mentioned it, why would Mexicans be happy that one of their most famous pop-culture contributions refers to a loathsome, disease-carrying insect? As I pondered this, the Bitca went on.

“I hope you know that I asked you that question, not because you’re Hispanic, but because you carry a lot of useless trivia in your head,” she said.

“Of course,” I said.

“I don’t want to be prosecuted for hate crimes.”

“Who does?”

The she punched me on the arm, announced that she had just committed assault after first provoking me with racial hate speech, and stated that the incident should be noted on my blog.

I didn’t want to give her the satisfaction, but she had piqued my curiosity. So I looked into the matter. Five minutes of internet research revealed that “La Cucaracha” has murky origins.

It could have originated as a drinking song, much like the melody for our national anthem (it’s true). The tune may have been a coded reference for drugs (“roach” is slang for marijuana even in the United States), which makes sense when you consider how many oh-so-witty musicians have written odes to that perennial dream girl, Mary Jane. Or the song may have been a political allegory, which is a much deeper genesis than I expected. My favorite theory of this annoying tune’s meaning is that it was a result of “the great Mexican cockroach scare of 1827,” which we can all agree would be an excellent title for a direct-to-DVD horror movie or punk-rock anthem.

In any case, the Bitca has gotten her way again, and we are all just the slightest bit wiser because of it. 

Becoming a Trendsetter

In honor of Mother’s Day, allow me to give a shout out to all the moms across the blogosphere. Let me also take the time to make a plea to those who are considering becoming a mother through adoption.

My request is that you look south. There are plenty of Latino infants for you to choose from.

I know what you’re saying. Hispanic babies have simply not become fashion accessories like African or Asian infants have. This is true.

There are perfectly good orphans in Central America, but the celebrity moms and dads appear to swoop only into places like Vietnam and Mauritania. Can’t they take home just one adorable brown kid to complete their ethnic menagerie? I would think that, at the very least, Angelina Jolie would have snagged a Bolivian child in her relentless quest to form a toddler UN.

But alas, this has not happened, and Guatemala is a perpetual second to China when it comes to Americans going abroad for the offspring needs.

You can change all that. Look past the obvious cuteness of Asian babies. Decline that trip to a Pacific archipelago to see the latest batch of infants.

Instead, grab your husband/wife/partner and say, “Damn it, let’s get a Nicaraguan baby! Today!”

You won’t regret it.

It's Much Prettier in Spanish

As we enter our third month here at the Hispanic Fanatic, it’s clear that we need to get one thing out of the way:

No, I will not teach you how to curse in Spanish.

As we all know, the first thing anyone ever asks to learn in a foreign language is how to insult a total stranger’s parentage in as disgusting a manner as possible. Blasphemy is also hugely popular.

Why is this? Are we looking for some common bond across culture, and the need to offend is prevalent around the world? Or is this just human nature to gravitate toward the basest level of communication? Or is it just more fun to shout, “hijo de puta!” than it is to murmur “como se llama”?

In any case, Spanish is not any more vulgar than English, and the context of the insults are pretty much the same.

If you really want to let someone have it, you have to go with Arabic. Most languages stop at “Fuck you” or perhaps “Fuck your mother.” But an Arab friend once taught me an insult that basically translated to “May you be anally raped by a thousand lunatics and your severed corpse flung into the gutter to be devoured by a hundred rabid hyenas.” Sadly, I have since forgotten how to pronounce this extremely handy phrase. However, with sentiments like that floating around the Middle East, I have a better understanding of why they are so damn tense there.

But again, what taboo are we seeking to transcend when we learn how to say “shit” in a foreign language? Why is it the first thing we ask, instead of “Where’s a restaurant?” or “Can you break a twenty?” or something we might actually use?

Of course, even bringing up this subject is bound to offend some people. To those individuals, I can only offer my earnest apologies and humble expressions of remorse.

And let me just add, in the true spirit of sincerity, that you should go chinga tu madre.

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