Tag Archives: ethnicity

The stand in

“Stupid Jew girl,” said the boy at the bus stop.  I was not upset or offended, just a little confused.  Was he Indian? Pakistani?  I didn’t know (isn’t that just perfect).  We were in suburban East Texas; did he think that it would make him blonder, more blue-eyed, to make some sort of dig at me?  Did he think I would find being called Jewish to be shameful?

I’ve always been amused that my family was the representative for Jewishness on our block.  We had Passover seders, apples and honey at Rosh Hashanah (when we remembered it, coinciding as it often does with my sister’s birthday), we showed our friends chocolate gelt at Hanukkah.  But I’ve never been to a synagogue or a bar mitzvah in my life.  I didn’t know that Yom Kippur, the holiest of holy days, even existed until I was a teenager.  My father wore a cross and went to church every Sunday.

But I was a stupid Jew girl.  Sure, man, whatever you say.

For as long as I can remember, people have looked at me and assigned me roles.  I’m a lot angrier about my racial/ethnic reception in the world now that I am an adult.  As a kid I accepted some subtle humiliations as general awkwardness of the teenaged years.  I was never going to be pretty or popular or socially adept, so it didn’t occur to me that it should matter that some discomfiting incidents could be linked to my color, my hair texture, my name, my (alleged) religious identity.

It does matter.  It should matter.

With varying degrees of connection to reality I’ve been the Jew in East Texas, I’ve been the American in Brazil, I’ve been the Brazilian in the US (that one was baffling).   I’ve been innocuous enough to pass for white.   I’ve been, “what are you?”.   I’ve been the stand in for a lot of different things.   The specifics have not seemed to matter so much as the fact of difference.  So maybe I’ll just stand for that.

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Hair

I have great hair.  No sense beating around the bush.  I wake up in the morning with a fabulous mop of tousled, dark curls.  My complete lack of skill with womanly primping means that my ‘do is unimpressive most days, but that’s not the hair’s fault.  The raw material is there.

photo credit: Erin CT

I’ve gotten a little bit better with product use and such.  As with most things (physical and mental), it was worse in middle and high school.  I grew up in East Texas.  Meteorologically, the heat and humidity are just awful for curly hair.  Culturally, it isn’t much better.  My little sister admits that when we lived there she used to wish she were white.  She wanted a cute blond ponytail like all of her friends I guess.  And her hair, black as it was, at least was straight.

I never actually wanted to look different.  In my mind I fantasized about growing up to be some kind of exotic beauty.  The wind would catch a soft lock and blow it across my face and suddenly I was a foreign princess, striking and mysterious.  What did it matter that it was really a plume of frizz set on top of an awkward kid in ill-fitting clothes?  That’s what fantasy is for.  Out in the real world I resigned myself to just being weird looking.  I wasn’t ugly, so I counted my blessings and turned imaginary heads.

I had my mom straighten my hair once for a school play.  I found it curious and intriguing to realize how long my hair actually was…but then when I got to school my friends were so impressed and excited.  I was appalled.  My hair was curly!  How dare fashion and society suggest that I should spend hours of my life blow-drying reality into submission?  How dare these people with their straight hair suggest that somehow I could be improved by looking more like them.  They should all get perms and leave me in peace.  Maybe I would have been prettier with straight hair, but just as I had no dreams of getting a nose job to flatten out the bump in the middle of my face, I had no interest in “correcting” the thick mop that, for better or worse, was mine.

I’ve made myself sound very strong and self-possessed.  I wasn’t.  I was a kid, like any other.  And like so many dorky teenagers I had visions of being “popular”.  I don’t know exactly what this meant to me.  I found the popular crowd to be by turns intimidating and repellent.  I never looked at a cheerleader and thought, “oh yeah, we’ve gotta be friends one day.”

Nor did the football players or other classic male heroes of the school-aged set do much for me.  While I may have been intrigued by a boy here and there I don’t even remember actually desiring a boyfriend.  Jesus, then I’d have to go out to a movie or something with said boyfriend, and therefore tell my parents I was going to a movie with a boy!  Even my mom noticing that some kid my age was talking to me at a family barbecue made me want to throw on a habit and get me to a nunnery.

My inner monologue has always had a snide take on my social failings.  I offered myself absurd explanations for how things worked.  A nice shirt from XYZ trendy brand, now people will like you!  Plucked that single, unruly eyebrow hair, problem solved, you are now beautiful!  I would say these things to my reflection in the mirror then snort at the absurdity.  Maybe deep down inside I wanted it to be that easy.  But that easy to what?  What did I want?

The vague adolescent longings didn’t explain themselves to me at the time, but in retrospect I think I just wanted confidence.  I wanted to feel good about myself.  Movies and my peers taught me definitions for “cool” and “pretty” that had no room for a book-worm with dark skin, dark hair, wry humor, and a knack for getting As.   But then, I guess I didn’t want to be cool and pretty badly enough to get over being really lazy about messing with my hair.  (And as a teenaged girl, cool and pretty are really all you’ve got.)

I wasn’t a sloppy kid; I just refused to get into the hair and makeup thing.  Beauty had straight blond hair and no amount of good conditioner was going to make that grow out of my head.  So why bother?

During my late teens and early 20s I slowly, really painfully slowly, started to realize that there were people out there (besides my parents) who thought I was attractive.  At first I was highly suspicious of these people.  I wasn’t ugly enough to be made fun of by this kind of behavior, so what was the end game?  Once the idea of diversity really being a thing and not just some slogan finally fully digested I started to pay more serious attention to my hair.  It was nice hair!  Thick, healthy, shiny.  After a mere two decades of life I embraced the idea that a smidge of attention could make my hair really gloriously lush.

For Christmas a couple of years ago my husband got me some fabulous hair product that he didn’t realize was marketed to African-American women.  It was great stuff, and he wasn’t concerned about the racially specific marketing.  He often refers to my “ethnic hair”.  I love that.  Really, I do.  It sounds vaguely like he’s being offensive, but it made a light bulb go off:  I have ethnic hair!  Not failed, white-person hair, hair that is big and dark and curly on purpose.  What a revelation.  One that, even now, I have to repeat to myself, just to make sure the sentiment really sticks.

Speaking in tongues

As a kid I figured that one day I would speak Spanish.  I listened and understood much of what my parents and their friends were saying, and I studied dutifully in my Spanish classes in school.  With the same surety that I would one day feel like an adult (PS, I don’t) I knew I would speak Spanish.

My father’s native language is Spanish and when my mom, brilliant and in love, started dating him at age 15 she just taught herself the language like the rest of us teach ourselves to jump rope.  She doesn’t even have a gringa accent.  She works in Peru and most people simply assume she’s from another Spanish-speaking country.  My own acquisition of the language did not go quite so well.

When we moved to Brazil when I was 16 I learned my first Portuguese words in the airport passport control line, “bem vindo,” welcome.  My Portuguese quickly outpaced my Spanish.  Not only was I surrounded by it more than I had ever been with Spanish, but I really loved it.

I wanted to love Spanish.  I thought I did, or could.  But it wasn’t love, just grasping at something that I thought was supposed to be my cultural birthright, the life raft that would float me through the sea of pale Texan faces where I did not belong.

Not that I belonged in Brazil.  My social stiffness stateside doesn’t go away when I go south of the border.  It might even be worse in Brazil, where my natural demeanor is in stark contrast to the culture of rhythm and music and warmth.  I am not white, Anglo-Saxon, or Protestant but I am as priggish as they come (I mean honestly, who uses the word “priggish”?!)

But something about Brazil hugged me close and murmured words into my ear that I wanted to understand and speak back.  I studied Portuguese and just reveled in the cadence of it, which seemed intuitive to me.  The more I learned, the more comfortable I was making mistakes and asking people to explain things to me that I did not understand.  Why waste time being a shy perfectionist when there is communicating to be done?

Last week I went to Peru.  It has been a decade since I studied Spanish and almost as long since I attempted to speak it.  And lo and behold, I can understand airline instructions! Ask for directions! Carry on a conversation for over a half hour with a random stranger!  Negotiate my way through a clotted airport line to make my flight on time!  My Spanish was slow, shaken painstakingly from my brain like so many grains of sand found tucked into every conceivable crevice after a day at the beach, but it was there.

It was comforting to know that even after I had abandoned it like an ungrateful child, Spanish still lingered in my mind, waiting calmly and patiently to serve the marvelous purpose of sharing thoughts with other people.

I had always wanted to speak Spanish because I thought it would give me something.  But over the last decade I’d experienced what it was to enjoy another language, to just try (sometimes in awkward tenses and misplaced nouns) to share thoughts with another person without worrying whether or not I sounded smart enough.

I won’t ever speak Spanish fluently.  But that doesn’t really matter to me so much these days.  As a kid I thought Spanish would solve problems for me by bestowing me with an established cultural history and ethnic identity.  I thought it would be “cool” to speak another language.  I thought the speaking of a foreign tongue would imbue me with a magical confidence in myself that I did not yet possess.

But that isn’t really the point, is it?  Knowledge and new abilities are not neat tricks that you perform for personal glory.  Our perceived skills are not anywhere near as important as the heart and motive we bring to our actions.  It is more important to reach out with what we do know than it is to scheme for the personal satisfaction of knowing even more.

My adventure into my long-lost friend Spanish was fun and peaceful.  It felt grown-up.  I am confident in my ability to do what I can do, confident in my understanding of what I cannot.  I am grateful for the former, I am grateful for the latter.

“I have given you my soul; leave me my name!”

No one, myself included, noticed that the first four letters of my name spell “anal” until I was in college.  Not a single friend, not either of my brothers.  Seriously, you can’t fake naïveté like that.

My brother got called “Beaner”, a hilarious elementary school play on his name (Ben) and our assumed ethinc origin (Mexican).  Despite the fact that Ben has fair skin and green eyes and our father is from Paraguay (a state in Mexico maybe?), I think the teasing bothered him.  First graders don’t like to be teased.  His middle name, Andres, or as they say it in Texas child-speak “Undress, ha ha ha!”, didn’t win him any points either.  Poor Ben.

The first family-wide blow came when I was in 11th grade.  Pfizer had just launched a magical new drug with titillating warnings like “for erections lasting more than four hours seek medical attention immediately.”

Viagra.

We Villagras could hardly celebrate the suddenly vigorous blood-flow of middle-aged penises around the nation.  It felt heavy.  I loved my name!  I had never wished to be a Jones or a Smith.  Even Garcia or Lopez felt too generic, too firmly rooted in an identity (again, presumably Mexican) that didn’t actually apply.  Villagra was strange, un-spell-able, un-pronounce-able, and ethnically ambiguous.  It required explanation, just like the long-winded story of who we were and why we all ate such weird food at home (abbreviated explanation: Mom likes to cook).

The coming of Viagra was my first encounter with permanent, irreversible destiny.  Our name was ruined.  We joined the ranks of families called Lipschitz or Gaylord and men named Dick.  I clenched my teeth and waited for the furor to peak and fade, but the cultural priaprism never died down.  The stupid blue pill with most of my last name printed on it was here to stay.

Then we moved to Brazil, where all of the teenagers we knew were having so much sex themselves that they had no time to worry about the older generation’s sexual dysfunction.  We were granted a few years respite by a sweeping, tropical hormone surge.

By the time it was pointed out to me that my first name was just as easily understood as Anal-ia as it was Ana-Lia (the way it is pronounced) I felt inured to the pain of being a marked woman.  I shrugged it off with the same coolness with which I now explained the spelling of my last name, “Viagra, with two Ls in the middle.”  I could have handled being called Rectum Erection at that point with the haughty defiance of Marie Antoinette.  Mock as you will, this is my name.  It may be imperfect, but it’s what I started with, and the hell with you and your awkward giggle if you think you can take it away from me.  This is what my parents felt in their tender little hearts when they looked down at their fresh, cone-headed first baby, and I’m sticking with it.  My mom says I’ve always been stubborn.  And that first babies frequently have cone-heads.

Your name really has very little to do with you.  Someone who has never met you before slaps a label on you and calls it a day.  More loving, perhaps, but same essential procedure that got us a bunch of “Indians” living nowhere near the Indian subcontinent and a “New World” that has been on this planet just as long as the Old one.  My loyalty to my own moniker is a combination of sentiment and a deep appreciation for the meaninglessness of it all.  If “a rose by any other name” and all that, then what the hell do I care what you call me?  Why waste precious brain waves wishing for a new name when my name doesn’t actually make me feel differently about myself?

Someone asked me when I was about to get married a few years ago if I was going to change my name.  “To what?” I asked.  It took me a few moments of wondering if this person thought I’d make a great Mandy before it dawned on me that we were talking about my last name.  It had never occurred to me to change my name.

I am aware that the last name given to all of my siblings and me is my father’s name while my mother is our lone Fitzgerald.  Regardless of the paternalistic traditions that got me here, the fact is that I spent close to 30 years with this name.  We’ve struggled together, Anal Viagra and I.  Just because this dude I met and decided to marry happens to have a different name doesn’t compel me to try to match.  We don’t wear matching clothes either, although that would undoubtedly make us look more like a “set”.  I don’t think it occurred to Aaron to ask about my name changing either, though he faked indignation that he wasn’t offered Villagra.

Very clearly Western spiritual leaders/yoga masters/etc sometimes go by Eastern names.  I’ve heard that some yoga teacher training programs include the bestowing of a traditional name at the end.  I guess I can appreciate why the symbolic re-making of your Self might begin with casting off the name that was pinned on you blindly out of a baby book years ago and instead selecting a label of deep personal meaning.  But having defended for so long a name that suffered numerous social hits, I must say that I love my name as it is.  The deep personal meaning comes from rejecting the yearnings for “something better” or for perfection and just embracing what I have.

I love my name because it is what my parents decided they wanted to say every time they called (in love and in frustration) their oldest child.  I love my name because it looked pretty when I learned to write it in looping cursive in elementary school.  I love my name because it sounds strange and exotic, matching perfectly the vague out-of-place-ness I always feel.  I love my name because when push came to shove and the other kids made fun of it I went on loving it.

I had other moments in my life when I was every bit one of the lemmings that young people too often are.  But when fate, the biomedical industry, and silly teenagers made fun of my name I shrugged it off.  I experienced one of those glorious, proud moments when really, truly, it doesn’t matter what they think.