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.)