There’s a certain kind of humor you acquire when people ask you on a daily basis, “what are you?” It becomes a game you play with not only yourself, but with the people who give you funny looks when you tell them that you’re American.
In the rules of this game, you get two points if they follow up with the second question, “No, no, no. What are you? Where are your parents from?” I tell them that they’re from North Jersey.
What people are really trying to ask is for an explanation as to why I’m the color I am, like colors come in boxes and I came with a couple defects, a couple bruised edges. Return to sender or keep as a fun vintage-piece you keep on your coffee table.
My skin is light brown with blue veins running underneath it. When I get embarrassed, I blush pink. My eyes are espresso but in the sun, they drip like caramel. “Ethnically ambiguous” is a term I learned existed when I was too young to know what “ambiguous” meant. So, when people ask me where my parents are from, they’re not asking which part of Jersey.
My mom’s parents came from Argentina, and their parents came from Spain. My dad’s parents didn’t come from anywhere, and neither did their parents. Somewhere down the line someone’s parents came from Ireland, but that is all we know for sure.
My mom always says that she had a baby of every color. I’m the darkest. My skin matches my mom’s shade of brown, and my eyes and hair are different variations of the same color. My brother, James, is a mixture. He has landed somewhere in between our parents; a combination of hues. Then there’s Emily. Emily’s skin resembles skimmed milk. She was born with blue eyes and ringlet curls. The three of us are true examples of how diverse genetic combinations can truly be.
There is a sad reality to the fact that people do not believe me when I say my dad is White. Emily will know a sad truth when she grows up and tells people her mom is Latina. James will one day be told by a boy the same age that Latin girls are nothing but curves and pursed lips and that White girls will be the ones that are “marriage material” and he will wonder where both of his sisters fall on the spectrum.
Boys always tell me that they love Latinas. What they don’t realize is that they don’t love Latinas. They love pornography and something different in bed. When they ask me out on dates, they ask me if I speak Spanish and when I tell them that I don’t they seem disappointed. In reality, they are disappointed because I won’t call them “papi” in bed. When they ask me to be their girlfriend, I want to say that I have a lot going on in my mind, much more than the width of my hips, and it is something that they do not want to get themselves into.
I work at a Whole Foods by my house, twenty hours a week. My favorite is when it rains so the lines move slowly, and I don’t have to bag food as quickly. Being a cashier at seventeen is fulfilling in some ways. People, technically, have to trust you with their food, and the food they feed to their children, and not to squish their organic fruit; that is quite the responsibility.
Last Thursday it was raining, and the day moved by enjoyably. I had gotten a compliment from a customer. Broad lady, bright red hair. She had a child on both hips and they tugged at her lime green tee shirt. She told me that I had a “sunny disposition”, which she ended up thanking me for, and the little girl on the left hip blew me a wonderful, little kiss.
The man I checked out next wore tough red flannel. His skin was red, especially around the nose, and his eyebrows looked like they were reaching out to me. His calloused pink hands lifted four glass bottles of hormone-free milk onto the belt. When I said hello, he walked to the other end of my station.
I lifted the glass bottles to scan them, “would you like me to double-bag these?” He was looking at the exit when I had asked and he responded by looking at my hands.
“Double-bag,” I tried to explain, “It’s when I put a bag inside of another one so the glass won’t fall through the bottom. These paper bags aren’t the sturdiest.”
“Sure,” he seemed to be looking at my face now, but not my eyes, really. Something more central. He might have been looking at my nose.
When I finished, I gave him the total. His breath was so loud it could have resembled words, or tongues, but he didn’t say anything. He handed me the cash: limp, damp. I turned and put the cash into the register, picking his change and placing dimes into my left palm.
“What are you?” Although my back was turned to him, I could feel him still looking at me.
“I’m sorry?” I asked. He liked that I apologized. I wish I had been more clear.
“What are you?” Two points. He had his chin pointed to a spot above my head, eyes looking down to meet mine. This was the first time I saw him smile. This was also the first time he looked me in the eyes.
“I’m not sure what you’re asking me.” I knew what he was asking me. Another customer joined my queue; she placed her grapes down with a wet plop, but he was still looking at me and I was still sure about what he was asking me.
“What ethnicity are you?”
“I’m half Spanish,” I knew he wasn’t asking which part of Ireland my ancestors were from.
The word “Spanish” turned a dusty knob in the man’s chest—a light switch maybe, because the air around him became much brighter. The veil of aloofness draped over his crimson face was ripped away.
“Y’know,” he said, “If Trump gets elected, you get a free ride back to Mexico.”