I talk to the cleaning lady

I am Colombian, I am also Latino. I don’t get offended if I am called Latin or Spanish and most of the time don’t feel a need to correct people. I do get a little offended when someone tries to call me Juan or if someone insist that I speak Mexican. That is not because I mind being identified as a Mexican, its more my anger towards the stupid perception that if you are any shade of brown you must have been born a Jose or Juan. As Latinos we do face a lot of ignorance, but a little known fact is that even inside our “ethnic” group there is still a lot of division.

The first Latino social group that I was introduced to in high school was predominantly Mexican, and I was not readily accepted. Coming from a middle class background from “tropical” country put me in an interesting position. I could not relate to an immigrant that came from a very small farming village. I also could not relate to the kids of Mexican descent that grew up here.

I was lucky, I made friends with a Puerto Rican kid that kinda looked like me but was double my size. That provided both protection from the gangs and also entry to his social group. Smaller than most, but still a safe heaven for me. I fit in, but my Latino identity really did not have a shape. In some ways it still does not. I am a Colombian by birth and Latino by label of this country.

I love talking to people, and if their only means of communication is Spanish (or they like to default to it) I use it. I know some people are threatened by the use of another language around them, but I can assure you that most of the time the conversation is not about you. I am sure it is an American thing since for example in Europe there are often times different languages spoken inside a single country.

Spanish is a lot more accepted now and a lot of people now even try to speak it even if its not in their background. Even though I think most people should be learning Portuguese, Spanish is not as scary as it might have been before. I know the people from my family from the previous generation put a high emphasis on the importance of speaking English with no, or as little accent as possible. I know professionally it has been the same thing, if someone detects an accent they seem to associate it with intelligence.

Its bizarre to me how someone that is speaking two languages can be looked down upon by someone that knows only one… but it happens over and over.

There was a feeling inside of me that I could not explain and then I read this article.

Most everyone that I spoke with had had the experience of having complete strangers casually ask them, “What are you?” Another question I have never been asked. Although I had lived most of my life acutely aware of what I felt were disadvantages assigned to my dark skin–especially growing up in New Orleans–it wasn’t until I began having these conversations that I came to realize some of the privileges my dark skin carries; the most profound of which is its ability to clearly communicate my racial identity, not only to other people, but to other black people.

I am light skinned. Yes I am a Latino and other Latinos can recognize me easily and maybe even pick out my country of origin, but overall I am considered very light for a “brown” person. In fact, many Latinos have in the past completely ignored my ethnicity and went onto believing that I was white. My wife experiences similar things since she is even more fair skinned than I can.

Unless you are very close with a group of black people you don’t get to learn about “light skin.” I have had conversations with my black friends about it, and learned quite a bit from one of Malcom Gladwell books and his mixed background. I am personally a collection of races, from very Caucasian blue eyed blondes to up in the mountain native Americans. No like seriously, one of my ancestors was from a small village in the mountains.

It is really a challenge to establish a racial identity in this country when you never really had to belong to a race growing up. I still to some extent consider myself Colombian first, American second and Latino third. Sometimes though it feels like I should put Latino first. I just don’t know how to do that.

I have experienced reverse racism quite a bit. From someone looking at me like I was on the wrong side of the counter at an expensive restaurant, to someone telling me that I was too “white” because of the way I spoke English. Its hard to identify yourself with something that wants to already reject you for who you are. I don’t pretend to be anything, I am who I am.

Still I identify myself with my ethnicity and get annoyed when someone asks for chips and salsa in a Cuban restaurant… If you did not know, Chips and Salsa is a Tex-Mex thing, its not even Mexican… neither are burritos.

I am an American Latino though, I can dance Salsa, Cumbia, Merengue, Bachata and Quebradita. I eat Mofongo, Pupusas, Mole and Ropa Vieja. I can tell you the difference between tamales, empanadas, and arepas and how you probably only had one kind. I do want to learn more about being Latino in the US and get a different perspective on that… I still think mine is too narrow at times.

I make every attempt at connecting with other Latinos at work in all levels of the company. I make it a point to talk to the cleaning lady, in Spanish. I don’t mind if someone is listening to me ask for my salad “sin cebolla.” It might not be much of an identity but I want other Latinos to know that I do speak the language fluently and don’t care what floor I work on, I am still one of them.

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