My jalapeño blood

A few weeks ago, I was at the grocery store buying some jalapeños to make a batch of guacamole. An older white woman watched as I picked several peppers and placed them in a produce bag. “You better be careful with those!” she cheerfully warned.

“Oh, it’s okay,” I smiled, tossing the jalapeños into my cart. “I can handle them. They’re not too hot for me.”

“Well that’s because you’ve got jalapeño blood!” she replied before ambling away.

I stood there for a minute, taken aback at the notion of jalapeño blood. I was unsure of what to make of this comment. Was she a kindly old lady trying to make a silly joke? Or was she making some sort of reference to my skin color and/or ethnicity? I found myself asking, “Is ‘having jalapeño blood’ another way of saying ‘Mexican’?”

It may sound silly to write the question out this way (lord knows it feels ridiculous just typing it), but these are the sort of innocuous interactions that are hard to interpret when you’re a person of color (and Mexican American, in this particular case). If I were to tell my sister this story, I know she’d roll her eyes and tell me that I’m too sensitive, I read too  much into these things. She often thinks I’m too concerned about race…but as I explained in a previous post, I can’t help but be that way, because it’s part of my job.

In my experience, it’s not only what is said that matters, but also who says it. A few weeks ago, I was explaining to my boyfriend–who as an Indian immigrant sometimes has a very different understanding of these issues than I do–when someone asks about my ethnic background, I can’t help but take the inquirer’s own race/ethnicity into account. (And I’m talking about strangers or mere acquaintances here; with friends, it’s a different story because I know more about them.) For example, if another person of color asks, “What are you?” I usually don’t hesitate to say that I’m Mexican or Latina. However, when a white person asks, my spidey sense kicks in and I get suspicious. “Why are they asking me this question? And what might they say in response?” I have had too many encounters that end on a sour note because something rather ignorant emerges from their lips after I reveal my ethnicity.

My reticence especially comes through then their curiosity is phrased as, “Where are you from?” to which I immediately reply with the name of my Midwestern town. Usually they continue to repeat the question: “No, I mean, where are you from?” because they can’t seem to understand that (a) yes, I’m from the US; and (b) there is a difference between nationality/where you are born and ethnicity or race. (I’m far from the first to write about this frustrating phenomenon: Check out Michele Serros’ How to Be a Chicana Role Model or this post I discovered at Latin@ Pop.) My sister, of all people, had the best response I’ve ever heard to this line of questioning: after several thwarted attempts to get her to reveal her ethnicity, a white dude asked in desperation, “What do you have in you?” She told him, “A super-absorbent tampon.” And that sure shut him up!

When I first shared all this with my boyfriend, he played devil’s advocate and asked whether, in my own treating people differently based on their race, wasn’t I being racist myself? I don’t think I am, though. First, I don’t think that acknowledging the existence of different races is in itself a racist act. And second, as a woman of color, I don’t really have enough power over anyone else to impact their lives or limit their opportunities on the basis of race. What I mean is, is the inquirer’s white privilege damaged in any way just because I give them a hard time in finding out my ethnicity? No. They will go on to enjoy the perks of whiteness whether they know I’m Mexican or not.

So back to the grocery store lady. She could be right: maybe I do have jalapeño blood because I do tend to get awfully feisty around these issues. But it’s only because I’ve had 30+ years of dealing with people like her. On some days, it’s enough to make a Chicana want to become a real-life Mexican Spitfire. In fact, I’m signing off to begin practicing my Lupe Velez impersonation…. (Check out my favorite scene at 1:40.)

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10 thoughts on “My jalapeño blood

  1. I really really enjoyed this post. My gut reaction to what that woman said was to immediately get pissed off and feel offended. Wether you over-think the incident or not, what she was doing and saying is pretty basic—–she was being offensive. Little old lady my butt. She knew exactly what she was saying. Plus there is no other reason for her to say that to you other than your “obvious” ethnicity. It wouldn’t make sense for her to say it to anyone else but a latina/o.

    And I think we should give people a hard time for being pushy when asking about your race. What point would they have to be pushy about it other than being snarky? 9 times out of 10 thats exactly what is happening…at least in my experience. And see what I love about some of these people is that they don’t expect that you’re a smart or intelligent person at all. In fact they don’t even consider it, they don’t expect you to have a remark or to quip back at them. Or even for you to realize that they were offending you. They usually just think you’re a “stupid mexican” and you won’t get it. This is exactly why you should give people like this a hard time, or say something in return. Because they don’t expect it and it will catch them off guard.

    Im definitely not criticizing you for your response. I have encountered this same sort of thing so many times—and Im usually initially so shocked that someone would actually say something that ridiculous out loud and in public—–that Im speechless. And by the time my emotions catch up with me, the person has walked away and the moment is lost.

    Sort of similar example that I learned something from : I used to work at an upscale salon. One day, one of our manicurists cut her hair REALLY short—like boy short. And she liked it and it looked great on her. Well one of her clients, who happened to be a wealthy regular at the salon, gave her unsolicited opinion of the manicurists new do. Of course it was nothing short of unbelievable. After saying over and over that she couldn’t believe what the technician had elected to do to her hair, she said, ” I dont think it looks good—-you look like a dike!” The manicurist—–shocked and possibly under a little pressure as thin woman was a long-time client—-said nothing. Later after the client had left, she began to cry. At that moment the CEO of the company had happened to be getting her nails done by one of our other technicians and noticed her crying. She asked her what happened and the technician began to tell her story. Soon all of us began to huddle around her in support.

    And this was the lesson (for me anyway) : our CEO put her hand on the technicians and said, ” listen to me all of you, it doesn’t matter where you are in this world—at work, buying groceries, at the park —-what ever. When someone disrespects you to your face, possibly insults you—it doesn’t matter if they’re joking or communicating it in a joking manor—you owe it to yourself and those who might come after you if you don’t speak up——to say something. Call’em out!! say, ” you know what so-and-so…that really hurt my feelings. Why would you say that? What do you mean? Are you trying to offend me? ” Catch them off guard—i guarantee you they aren’t expecting you to speak up. To many people navigate their way through this world without manners or tact. I’m not saying its your job to teach them, but if they hurt you or attempt to offend you, you have every right to put them on the spot. And yes I’m telling you to have respect for yourself in front of your clients and in your dealings with them. Our work is only as good as we are inside. ”

    I have to say, since that day I’ve put my former superiors words to good use. And you know what? I’ve found that she was right. People get caught off guard, start to retract or apologize. And hopefully tred lighter steps throughout the rest of the world.

    So i don’t think you were over reacting or being to sensitive.

    And I love that you recommended Michelle Serros! She is awesome and amazing and from my home town of Oxnard, Ca. ! I actually had the opportunity to be her assistant for the day at a local community college lit-faire. She is even better in person. <3

    sorry this response is so long and nutty and probably full of spelling errors. I just really enjoyed this post and it stirred up a bit of passion inside. I just found your blog and am really enjoying it! Can't wait to read more!

  2. Hi Candace–thanks so much for reading and for sharing this thoughtful, passionate response! You’ve inspired me to keep this conversation going with a “part two” I’ll post later today. I hope you won’t mind if I quote part of what you say above.

    Yes, I totally love Serros! That’s so cool you got to meet and work with her!

    It’s nice to “meet” you here in this cyber-fashion and I look forward to hearing any future feedback. :)

  3. Ugh, I see you have the same response I do! I just discovered this blog and am reading your posts backwards, I see. Let me add that I often turn the question on them, asking them, “Where are you from?” And if they ask, “No, where are you really from?” I do the same. Sometimes it gets them thinking, often I get responses like, “I don’t know, mostly German and English, I think.”

  4. Definitely not overreacting. My sister would have never had this kind of exchange because she is sooooo white, but this kind of thing happens to me alot. Please permit me to share a funny story. At one of our local grocery stores, there is an aisle dedicated to “Hispanic Foods”. Yep, big sign hanging above the aisle for all to see. What exactly does that mean? That’s a query for another time.
    Anyway, one day I was in the aisle looking for some salsa or something. There was no one around but me. Then, a gal I know from going to school with her brother and her little boy, probably about 5, come down the aisle. They are looking for beans. He starts saying in a sing-song voice, “Beaner, beaner, beaner, beaner.” They are Latin@ by the way. His mom gets a mortified look on her face and tells him to stop saying that. Then he looks at her and says, “Mom, I don’t like beaners.” I had to laugh out loud. That made her laugh too and we started chatting. That kid had no idea what he was saying. I wonder what may have happened if there were a white person around….

  5. at the end of the day, when it comes to those ethnicity/race questions it’s about “why aren’t you white/why are you brown”. i remember feeling really frustrated the other day about how people of colour who are citizens in western countries persistently face this questioning – not because that white person is interested in where you are “from” (whatever that is – i begin to draw out hundreds of years of nomadic/diasporic history that have led my ‘pakistani’ family to Britain) but because it is about your unbelonging and unlocatedness the melanin of your skin presupposes. having jalepeno blood (also whatever the hell that is) falls into that very same line of questioning…

  6. Love the tampon remark! I tend to use glaringly fantastical “backgrounds” when I’m confronted with similar nosiness. Djinn, Vulcan, Ixian, Narnian, Numenorean, etc.

  7. What if someone is truly interested? I care about my personal heritage and I’m interested in the heritages of others. I think by generalizing all white people as racist because they are interested in your race is definitely a racist connotation. Are some people interested simply to marginalize you? Sure. But that doesn’t mean all are asking about your race in order to demean you. I can tell you about the various heritages that make up my physical manifestation and I truly find those things interesting about people – no matter what color their skin is. White people ask these questions of each other all the time. There’s a huge difference between genuine interest about a person and using personal knowledge to discriminate, demean, or marginalize.

    • Ashley, I appreciate the point you are trying to make. I’m sure there are individuals–as you imagine yourself to be–who see themselves as genuinely and innocently interested in discussing racial and/or ethnic heritage. However, in my follow-up post, “Jalapeño Blood (Part Two),” you will see the kinds of ignorant responses I have heard even from the most well-meaning of folks who have inquired about my ethnicity. Perhaps if you also experienced a lifetime of such responses, you would feel much like I do.

  8. @Ashley : uuuuh no disrespect but theres also a huge difference between ANYONE asking politely about your background and heritage—-and—making a crackpot remark about you having “jalapeno blood.” Making a statement or remark like that is not genuinely asking about heritage or background. Thats just being facetious. And Im pretty positive The Daily Chicana was referring to the latter type of comments.

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