If I must choose an ethnic label, I would call myself Filipino-American. If I must choose a racial label, I would call myself Asian-American. I hold to many of the cultural values that lead to the stereotyping of these two groups—particularly when it comes to food and academics. I’m a shameless example of the “model minority” myth.
Except I’m really not.
Although I’m Filipino, and therefore Asian, Americans (that is, White Americans) rarely see me as such. They see my skin color and hear my last name, and they thus conclude that I must be a Latina.
Now, I don’t find this insulting, but I feel as though I’m somehow insulting Latino Americans by masquerading as one of them. I speak really shitty Spanish, to be honest, and my understanding of Latino American history is meager, at best. On a good day, I can name maybe three indigenous groups from Central America (Maya, Aztec, and Olmec) and only the Inca from South America. My idea of good Mexican food is whatever I can get for five dollars on Taco Tuesday. If I was actually Latina, I would be a disgrace to my abuelita.
I hope by now you can imagine my perplexity at being perceived as a Latina, my sheer disbelief every time I get racially profiled.
The worst and most recent incident happened at the airport. Of course, being profiled as a Mexican is hardly comparable to the other kind of profiling that happens at airports, but I find any extent of profiling to be degrading and humiliating.
I had just returned from a study-abroad course in Australia, and I was eager to gather my luggage and stuff my face with home-cooked food. I also felt immense relief at having survived my very first solo international trip, a frightening and exciting milestone in my life.
So there I stood in the customs line, trading tired stories with the woman behind me, duly awaiting my turn with the bored customs officers. At last, a booth opened up, and I sauntered up to the window—yes, sauntered, because I was just that ecstatic to be home with my family and eating delicious Filipino food.
I smiled at the officer, due to both my excitement to be home and my general rule of thumb to smile at strangers who could potentially ruin your life.
The slightly overweight, bearded, balding, white man made no effort to return my cheerful greeting. He took my passport and my entry form and perused the two documents. The time he took to just examine my papers already exceeded the time he spent with the last weary traveler.
And then the interrogation began.
At first, I thought nothing of it. The questions were fairly typical customs questions, although in greater number than usual: What countries had I been traveling? Where in those countries did I spend the most time? What was my purpose for traveling there? Who did I stay with? Nothing to raise my suspicions.
But then the questions became tangential.
What is your exact name? Where precisely were you born? Do you go by any other names? What are they?
Here I grew a tad flustered—all I wanted was some chicken adobo over rice. Yet the interrogation did not end there; the questions, once tangential, turned flat out irrelevant.
When was the last time you were in Mexico? How long did you visit Mexico? Did you visit Mexico any other times before then? For how long? For what purposes?
Now, to be honest, I’ve visited Mexico exactly three times, and in each visit, I spent less than a day in the country. Maybe altogether they might add up to twenty-four hours total across the border. The first time I visited, I was visiting an orphanage to donate toys directly to them with my father. The second time, I went shopping in Tijuana with my mother. The third time, my entire family went on a short cruise that took us to Ensenada.
I have a very American experience of visiting Mexico. Again, if I had an abuelita, she would be ashamed. (My lola is very proud of me, on the other hand.)
And yet, here was this random guy judging me for having non-white features and a Spanish last name. He kept going through questions, almost expecting me to slip up so that he could deport me to a country to which I have absolutely no cultural or social allegiance whatsoever.
Once I realized the brevity of the situation, the smile that I had fought to keep plastered on my face melted away, and I actually started to feel terrified and embarrassed. I could not tell if I was passing whatever test he imposed on me, and I was starting to learn that the test was structured so that the taker could never tell where the end actually was.
Then I started feeling infuriated. Every day there are people who actually claim identity as Latino, and they face the same interrogation at the airport or at the border whenever they want to go home to their loving families. For whatever amount of humiliation I experienced, they must experience it tenfold, as they see their heritage being attacked by this nameless uniform, basically accusing them of not belonging with a backhand.
As a member of the Asian minority, the model minority, my experiences with discrimination and stereotype were limited—I, along with all my other Asian peers, was expected to succeed in school and in life. And that kind of agency has afforded me so much more throughout the years than I realized (but only when others recognized my Filipino heritage).
When the officer finally handed my papers back to me along with the permission to enter the country, it took a considerable amount of energy for me to suppress my urge to glare at the man and say, “You know, I’m actually Filipino, not Mexican. You missed it by about one ocean.”
But that probably would not have ended well for me, and I hated myself as I silently stalked away, letting his racism slide by and disrupt the life of the next innocent traveler with a Hispanic surname.