My Face Is An Ethnic Enigma

September 9, 2016


I have the kind of face and hair that in many people invokes the thought, “What the heck is she?” I have been approached by various kinds of people asking me questions in their native language, only to witness their faces fall as I frantically wave my hands in front of me and say, “Oh no, I’m sorry. I don’t understand.” Or watch their face contort into utter confusion as they ponder how on Earth I could not be one of them. But not all of these experiences were negative ones. In fact, they gave me the opportunity to converse about different cultures and languages as those people eagerly explained to me why they thought I could be of their culture. Some of these experiences even provided me great stories to tell over some drinks or to commiserate with others who had experienced similar situations.

My favorite of these occurrences was on a hot, laborious summer day. My close friend’s father, who was a real estate agent, was renovating a house that he would be placing on the market within a week. I was recruited to help with the painting and cleaning of the house – and to provide my friend, whom I hadn’t seen in months, with moral support and intimately witty commentary as she divulged all the wild stories she’d been saving up to tell me.

What began as a warm, exciting reunion quickly turned into a sweltering, arduous undertaking. Knowledgeable giggles turned into acknowledging grunts; energetic hands turned into sluggish ones. Hours later, a break was desperately needed, so my friend’s father tasked me with running up to the other painter who was hired to relay some instructions.

After being given the necessary information, I slowly dragged my sorry body up the two flights of stairs to find him. I noticed that there was music playing, and the closer I got upstairs, the more anxious I began to feel as the percussion and high pitched warble of bachata became clearer and clearer. When I finally located him, my stomach dropped. As soon as I saw the silhouette of his face and the color of his skin, my mind feverishly began translating the message I was entrusted with to Spanish, with very little success.

Despite the previously mentioned confusions that transpire because of my ethnically ambiguous face, the irony of meeting people who actually do pertain to my culture is that I am overwhelmed with a desperation to prove my Hispanic identity. I was born, raised, and culturalized in the United States. My Spanish skills slowly eroded over the years due to under use. There is no trace of fluency or authenticity in my Spanish. There are even traces of American pronunciation and inflections in my speech. In these encounters, I am presented with two choices: make a rudimentary but ethnically personal connection with another human being by hacking my way through Spanish, or hide in the safe yet alienating space of speaking English.

Exhausted, sweaty, and self conscious, I decided to remain in the comfort of English and said, “Excuse me, but Mr. R. asked me to tell you something.” He sighed a “yes” and turned around to face me while wiping his face with his forearm.

And then he gave me the look.

His eyes scanned my face under furrowed brows, before hovering their unseeing focus on my eyes. In that moment, I could practically read his mind: ‘Is she…Hispanic? Would she be Hispanic with those features? Should I try speaking to her in Spanish? What if she doesn’t understand?’ At the same time, I was also lost in my own confusion. ‘Should I keep speaking English? Was this the right decision? What if I insult him by speaking Spanish, as if I’m saying his English isn’t good enough? What if he’s disappointed at how insufficient my Spanish is?’ Shifting uncomfortably under his baffled gaze, I relayed to him the message that I was sent to deliver in the first place. He nodded in affirmation distractedly, uttered a few words in broken English, and with that I thanked him and quickly went back downstairs. I felt slightly disheartened by my decision to avoid what could have been a great conversation, but as it was already a familiar feeling that I had worked through many times, I shoved it aside and continued my work downstairs.

Later in the day, my friend and I were sent upstairs to work in the bathrooms. I passed the painter as I walked through the hallway and gave him a smile. He smiled back, hesitated for a second, and then turned back to his work. As my friend and I worked in the bathroom, I quietly recounted the earlier meeting with him and discussed my internal reactions to the situation.

Because I was enveloped in my storytelling, I didn’t notice that my friend had misplaced one of the items we were working with. As we turned away from it to leave, it slipped into the sink, and a large CLANK resounded in the small, confined space. At that moment, the painter was standing in the hallway right in front of the bathroom doorway. In my surprise, I yelled out one of the most well-known yet very regional atrocities of our language. Realizing that he was standing within our proximity, I immediately gasped, covered my face, and turned away. I lament that reaction because according to my friend, the painter’s head swiveled around to face me, eyes wide open and mouth hanging in shock. She and I burst out laughing uncontrollably – her out of sheer entertainment, and me out of hysterical mortification. As we left the bathroom to head back downstairs, she leaned close to me and said, “Well at least now he knows!”

By: Sandra Changanaqui