White Washed

White Washed

White Washed

An Essay by Carla Reis

         I eat strawberry ice-cream because my father eats strawberry ice-cream. He told me when I was young that strawberry ice-cream is real, more real than chocolate, because he could feel the chunks of fruit glide down his tongue. He told me chocolate is just vanilla with cocoa. I think somewhere in there, he’s wrong. I am United States born and I am Latina. My mother, born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, tells me I am as Latina as the rest of them. My father, born in Maracay, Venezuela, tells me I should let my curls run wild among my head.

         My father tells me he is American because he is from South America. My mother is American, because she was born in Puerto Rico. I live my life without knowing what the sand on the beach of Culebra feels like in between my toes or how clear the water of the beaches in Venezuela are. I live this life because my parents told me [1]“no es seguro allí” and it was better to be brought up in the land of the free. I was told everyday, [2]“tienes suerte” because I never had to see the violence in the streets. I tell my father he is not from America and I am not lucky.

         I am walking down a two-way street when a man in a leather jacket and skinny jeans yells from his car [3]Oye Mami! Te quiero comer!” and I push my head down further into my scarf. I am told “You’re too American to be Latina,” by a woman on the other side of the coffee bar where I’m serving her from. “I don’t hear your accent?” she tells me as she pulls her hand away, grabbing her card, and coffee in another. I am stuck between the language I was taught rather than the one I had to learn.

         I am in a Baskin-Robbins when I see an old woman struggling to ask for a double Chocolate ice cream cone, I pull my hood down and down rush’s my pin-straight barbie hair and gleaming smile. I ask “Necesitas ayuda?”[4] and she doesn't care about what I am saying.

         I am at a stoplight downtown, where a man is asking for directions to Navy Pier so he could take his wife and daughters up on the ferris wheel. He is asking in Spanish, to people who pass him with no regard. I pull him aside and tell him the directions in Spanish, and with his surprise, his eyes widened, looked me up and down, from my head to my toes and chuckled to himself “No pensarías" [5].

         The last time I was told that I am a “fake Latina” I was walking down platform of Harold Washington Library brown line, the wind outside was icy and my hands were trembling along with my teeth. There was this man that sat next to me on the bench, waiting for the train to come. His eyes looked kind, his skin was such a smooth caramelo[6] color. He wore the Puerto Rican flag proudly on the back of his sweatshirt, marking himself to the public to respect. He heard my chattering teeth and said [7]Es frio de pinga aqui!” The chattering stopped for a moment when I paused and looked at him, laughed and said “Very!” his smile dropped into a disappointed look in seconds as he replied “You’re the problem with this country, you parade around like you’re proud to be Latina but you don’t even speak the language. You are not Latina, chica.” When did I say I didn’t speak Spanish? Is he serious? I had no idea what to say to him.

         I am five foot five, I have olive-toned light brown skin and curls that dread together after a couple days without brushing. I have thick curves along my body and I did not work for it. It was handed down from my mother and her thick thighs, strong legs, and wide hips. I get my face from my father, with large brown doe eyes and eyebrows for days. My body screams Latin american goddess but I do not feel it recently. If you put me in a room with only Spanish speakers I will get through it, easily. If you put me to write a novella in Spanish, I would do so, without problem. But if you ask me to speak this language in which I am so fluent it hurts, I will not be able to deliver. I have been told my Spanish is ugly, that my Spanish is American. My Spanish is not thick like my mother’s heavy Puerto Rican slang or as soft and fragile as my father’s Venezuelan annunciation.

         During the third week of February, I am at a Mexican joint adjacent to the bar I had too many drinks at. When ordering, I am not familiar to the menu because I do not know Mexican culture or cuisine like I know empanadas and arepas like the back of my hand. I ask “What’s the Mexican version of a tostada?” the employees look back at each other, like giggling sorority girls [8]Y que paso? No eres Latina?” they mockingly say, while hitting each other in the chest to create the douchebag effect. [9]Si yo soy Latina, y que?” I confidently say back to them, my words mumbling with every syllable.

         I am from Miami, born and raised. Everyone knows Cuban’s took over the population of South Florida and no one is getting it back soon. I am fluent in Cuban cuisine and have learned over the years that a tostada is bread and butter. Mexican tostadas are fried tortillas covered in meats, cheeses, pico de gallo, lime juice, cebollas, and god knows what else. What makes it different if I’m latina asking this rather than a white person asking the same question? I’m expected to know every culture. 

         Nearing June, my Summer trip back home is en-route and I’m landing at Miami International Airport where you step outside and can feel the humidity cling onto you like a disease. Spanish is the second official language of Miami-Dade county, English is the first official language but mostly taken as “optional” to most of its residents. Most would actually say it’s not even needed.

         I was speeding on the palmetto when I pass by a CVS that had an extra sign under the white and red “CVS/Pharmacy” that read [10]“Y mas!” in green and orange lettering. I am from a city where you do not speak to your high school teachers in English, where you do not speak to your cashiers in English, where you do not order your food in English. But how did I end up being a fake Latina? How did that name get put on me when at my first job, solely spoke to customers in Spanish and sometimes in Portuguese that I did not understand? How when my grandmother does not speak English and I tell her stories every other day? How when in my house, my parents will not speak to me in anything other than their language?

         A couple months ago, I was told I was “uncultured”. Uncultured will not understand that. Uncultured does not remember the chancla thrown in perfect boomerang effect when you did not listen to your mama. Uncultured doesn’t know the difference between [11]callate” and “silencio”. Uncultured does not know the latin church every Wednesday and Sunday or that it goes on for five hours after the four hour servicio. Uncultured does not feel the strangeness in their throat when trying to pronounce “easy” english words at the age of seven. Uncultured does not know the legends and prayers that were told to us day in and day out. Uncultured does not fear la llonora or el mal de ojo. Uncultured does not repeat “Angel de la guardia, dulce compañia, no me desapares, ni de noche, ni de dia,” until they get the prayer right. Uncultured does not hear the “r” roll out from under our tongues. But I am uncultured for a Latina, they say. 

         Latina is just a name. A title. But being Latina is more than that. It’s praying to God that the Chancla will stay out of your way today. It’s the way you carry yourself. It’s the way you speak. It’s the smell of your thick hair and the rich skin you have. Latina is the arroz con pollo guisado, it’s the plátanos and the dulce de leche. It’s the blood that you bleed. It’s the faith you carry. Latin is everything I am and everything my family raised me to be.

         I am a fake Latina because I straighten the curls out of my hair, torch each strand until it is as straight as white America, because I respond to people in the language that I chose to learn, because I worked hard for the annunciation and the understanding of silent letters, because I am living and breathing the language the deems me uncultured. I am a fake Latina because I am not only Latina, but American, because one “cannot” be both, because I do not push my Latina pride on others, rather keep it to myself because it is mine to keep. It is mine to flaunt and it is mine to hand down. I have not curled my tongue in ways I didn’t know I had in me for it to not have counted for something. I am proud of the tongue I was born with.

         I am like strawberry ice-cream. I am too real and so rich in my culture for anyone to tell me differently. I do not need to be pushed down from my culture. I am better than that. I am Latin-American glory. I am strawberry ice-cream.

[1] No es seguro alli: It’s not safe there

[2] Tienes suerte: You’re lucky

[3] Oye Mami! te quiero comer: Hey Mami! I wanna eat you!”

[4] Necesitas ayuda?: Need help?

[5] No pensarias: You wouldn’t think!”

[6] Caramelo: Caramel

[7] Es frio de pinga aqui!: It’s cold as dicks out here!

[8] Y que paso? No eres Latina?: What? Are you not Latina?

[9] Si yo soy Latina y que?: Yeah I’m Latina, and what about it?

[10] Y mas: And more!

[11] Callate: Shut up



...and into the Fire

...and into the Fire