Role Model Rule Number 8: Reclaim Your Rights To Be A Citizen Here, Here
from How To Be A Chicana Role Model by Michele Serros
I can't get by one week without a white person asking me The Question:
"So, where are you from?"
"From Oxnard," I answer.
"No, I mean originally."
"Oh, St. John's Hospital, the old one over on F Street."
"No, you know what I mean!"
No, what do you mean? And why is it important to you and why do you really need to know? When Latinos ask me where I'm from, it really doesn't bother me. I can't help but feel some sort of familiar foundation is being sought and a sense of community kinship is forming. "Your family's from Cuernavaca? And what? They own the IHOP on Via San Robles? Wow, we really need to do lunch sometime!"
But when whites ask me The Question, it's just a reminder that I'm not like them, I don't look like them, which must mean I'm not from here. Here, in California, where I was born, where my parents were born, and where even my great-grandmothers were born. I can't help but feel that whites always gotta know the answer to everything. It's like they're uncomfortable not being able to categorize things they're unfamiliar with and so they need to label everything as quickly and neatly as possible. Sometimes when I'm asked The Question, I like to lie and make up areas within the Latin world from where I supposedly originated.
WHITE PERSON #1: So, where did you say you're from?
ME: From Enchiritova, it's actually a semi-populated islet off the coast of Bolivia.
WHITE PERSON #2: Yep! I knew it! I knew it! Kevin, didn't I tell you I thought she was an Enchirito!
WHITE PERSON #1: Tag her!
Now, instead of getting uncomfortable, I either immediately return The Question to the person who's asking, or I try to beat a willing white person to the punch.
ME: So where are you from?
EL OTHER: Me?
EL OTHER: Oh, I'm from here.
ME: From Los Angeles?
EL OTHER: No, from here, here.
ME: You mean the corner of Venice and Inglewood?
EL OTHER: No, silly. You know what I mean.
ME: No, what do you mean, really? Where you from?
EL OTHER: Uh, I-I don't know.
ME: So what's your ethnicity?
LA OTHER: Oh, I don't got no ethnicity.
ME: Everyone has an ethnicity.
LA OTHER: No, I mean, I'm like a total mutt!
ME: A mutt? Come on, don't say that. That's like calling yourself a dog.
LA OTHER: Well, I am. I got so much of every kind of blood I couldn't even begin to tell you.
ME: You got any African?
LA OTHER: Of course not!
ME: So are you originally from the U.S.?
EL OTHER: Why?
ME: Just wondering.
EL OTHER: Well, my mother is French-Canadian and my father, his family's actually from Iowa. Wait, no, they're from Idaho.
ME: So what's your father's ethnicity?
EL OTHER: American.
ME: No, ethnicity. Not nationality.
EL OTHER: Uh . . .
ME: You don't know?
EL OTHER: Uh, no, not really.
ME: And where are you from?
LA OTHER: I'm from here actually. One of few people who can actually say they're native Californian.
ME: Your parents as well?
LA OTHER: Of course, . . . I'm sixth-generation Californian!
ME: Sixth-generation Californian? Wow, you don't look Mexican.
But one of the most insightful pieces of dialogue I had came from a conversation with a gentleman on an airplane. We were both flying to North Carolina. The in-flight movie was over, there were no magazines in the pouch in front of me and the batteries in my CD player were dead. Could striking up a conversation with my fellow passenger be so bad?
ME: So, where are you going? (Looking at his briefcase)
EL OTHER: To Raleigh, just on business.
ME: And where you from?
EL OTHER (looking out the window): From here.
ME: Oh . . . the Midwest?
EL OTHER: No, I'm from here. You know.
ME: What do you mean, here?
EL OTHER: I mean, I'm from here, here.
ME: Oh, I just meant originally. You look like . . . I don't know--different.
EL OTHER: What?
ME (fearing air rage): Oh, never mind.
EL OTHER: Different? Different as in how? That's the weirdest thing I've ever heard! No one has ever said I looked like I was from somewhere else! I'm American--American, from here, here!
He then turned his back to me and continued to look out the window. I suddenly felt awkward and I regretted subjecting him to my questionnaire. I meekly put on my headphones, closed my eyes and pretended to be listening to music. Before I knew it the pilot announced we should prepare for landing and as I put my seat back in its upright position, I looked over at the man. He was still looking out the window and I saw him exhale slowly. It was then I suddenly felt sorta sorry for him. It's amazing how many white people don't know anything about their own ancestry or background and so it's no wonder a lot of them confess to feeling so culturally bankrupt. A lot of white people get really defensive when you ask them where they're from. The Question is answered with an uncomfortable series of pauses, wrinkled brows and temple rubbing. They're confused when The Question is put upon them, because after all, they look like they're from good ol' "here," rather than some faraway "there." As our plane touched the ground I looked over at the man again and wondered how he knew where he was going if he didn't know where he was from?
Contents Copyright 2001, National Public Radio