“Where are you from?”
“Where are you from?”
“Brooklyn, NY!”, I respond with the pride of any New Yorker aware that they come traveling from the best city in the whole fricken world.
But as I stared into the eyes of the inquisitor I saw a look of dissatisfaction from my response. Not an angry or annoyed look, but more of a “No, no…that’s not it” look.
And the more I was asked this question during my travels cross country this summer, the more I realized that the curiosity of where I am from is based on the assumption that I am not from here.
Tons of my ethnic friends responded in annoyance when I shared this realization with them. But I am used to it. I have traveled my entire life, and I have been brown, and Latina, my entire life. I only picked up Spanish around the age of 9 and Italian and French came much, much later for me. People, even my own, have been curious about me, my entire life. When I lived in the Dominican Republic, I was a “gringa”, my Spanish was horrid, and I wasn’t acclimated to the Dominican culture at all. When I lived in Italy, I was Brazilian, my Italian, also horrid, and the lack of knowledge of what a Dominican was, caused everyone to assume that the curly hair, and brown skin was by way of the South American country.
Outside of New York City, I could be anything, African American, Indian, Brazilian, Mexican (cause what other Latino is there?) and recently, Polynesian (though I was also told I was incredibly beautiful).
Dominicans in New York will argue that I am not, in fact, “Dominican”, but rather “Americana” for the same reasons island Dominicans think so, though at this point I speak perfect Spanish, can cook a delicious Dominican anything, and know plenty about my cultural roots…but “gringos” would never assume I am actually American, because, well, look at me!
So, when I travel, and someone asks, “Where are you from?” and I realize that it is a question relating to where “my look” is from, and not where was I born, I don’t get upset…and happily talk about the Dominican Republic and why it is that I speak English so well, because, that is also a topic of great surprise.
I could get angry, I could be offended. But, I am very aware of how I am different, and am very proud of my heritage, and take pleasure in the opportunity to share with others what I can about my culture.
But, bottom line is I am, in fact, from Brooklyn, NY. I’ve been from Brooklyn before Brooklyn was cool. When Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam where rocking the parachute pants, I was in Brooklyn. When rap was something urban kids did on the stoop of their buildings, I was in Brooklyn. When subway cars where covered in graffiti, I was in Brooklyn. I was there eating Italian ices, and slices of pizza while standing on the sidewalk after school, or fighting with the Puerto Rican girls who hated me cause I was Dominican, living in my grandparents’ brownstone, which they owned, overlooking Sunset Park. Yeah, I was in Brooklyn. And then, I moved to the Dominican Republic.
But my family is from many places: My father, from San Pedro de Macoris in Dominican Republic. My mother, from Carolina in Puerto Rico, as were my grandparents from her side. (To add to the confusion, I also spent a nice chunk of my childhood living in what used to be the shanty town of La Perla, in PR, and was very influenced by my experiences there). My paternal grandfather also Dominican, his family from Haiti, their ancestors desendents of African slaves brought to the island by Spaniards to help build the colonies. My paternal grandmother, also Dominican, had a Greek ancestry.
I speak English, so well, because it is my first language. And I am so articulate because I had great teachers and parents, who taught me well, all through Graduate School. Oh, yes, I graduated from college too. MBA in International Relations in fact.
You can close your mouth now. I know I’ve rocked your world and shattered the stereotype in your head.
But that’s why I love traveling, and I love all the silly questions that only someone like me would ever get asked. Please ask, never hesitate to, because I assure you, that when you walk away you will be filled with more knowledge and wisdom than you ever expected to receive from the one simple question, “Where are you from?” And I will never, ever make you feel bad for not knowing. We might even become friends.
A friend of mine sent me this poem which I thought perfectly described my experience.
Firebelly by Andrea Thompson
I was once
a nappy headed
straightened hair initiation
skin grown fairer
with hormone change, and
less playing in the sun
brought passing accidentally
getting dates, being in
on nigger jokes told
by a soon to be embarrassed
smarty pants kid at the party
who doesn’t know my history
Mr. Man on the street
this girl will not
give you the answer
you may want to hear
when you ask:
WHERE ARE YOU FROM?
I will not
banter in Swahilli
or the long drawl of Patwa
will not enthral you
with captivating tales
of the Ivory Coast
lazy days spen’
wit muddah an sistah
singin’ folk tune
weavin’ from dah loom
while bruddah an fadah
smile, eatin’ wadahmelon
showin’ dere big white teeth
spittin’ out dah seed
getten d’ere belly ready
for dah taste of rice and curry
aftah playin’ bongo all day
undah de broad shade
of dah coconut palm
not this girl
this girl will tell you
that she is a woman
from the land where
the people share
a firebelly ferocity
about their belonging
of strip malls
K-Tel, Kleenex, Kool-Aid
skating rinks, barbecues
backyards, swimming pools
of coming home
when street lights go on
of hide-and-seek after dark
if any further questions
do not insinuate exile, I will
a biographic explanation
will expand upon the blood
newly brewed in this nation
it’s from the land
BBV, Royal Brigade
and a little
nosh with tea
and, that the blood that is
from the rest of me
tells a tale
of North Star, railroad
of hundred years
working this land
born on / burried in
I am slave
and slave master
but I am not
a hot chocolate
I am not dinner
at the afro-congo
down to the bone
where am I from?
no, really from?
no, my parents?
no, my parent’s parents?
no, before that
I come from the land
of snow job
where the neighbors
and the natives
* * * *
Kim Tracy Prince
This post made me cry. It's so awesome. I'm glad it is not about what I originally thought, and the fact that that was my first thought is scary.
A. I am impressed by your grasp of other languages and your Master's Degree.
B. It had never crossed my mind what your ethnic backround was. I just knew that you are NYCITY Mama, a friend and soothing rocker.
Huh. All this other info has just confused me about your heritage. Dominican, Puerto Rican, Greek??? I think it's easier if I just think of you as NYCITY Mama.
Kim: Luckily, what you thought wasn't my experience, but I know it happens!
WeaselMomma: Aw, thanks! I actually don't give these things so much thought, but after my trip and all the "explaining" (lol), it sorta came to the surface. Thanks for loving the plain, ol' me.
what an amazing post. As a fellow Dominican from Brooklyn (also from before it was cool!) I completely relate! I was too blanquita to be from DR and when I spent my summers there people picked me out as the "new yorkina". In Brooklyn I was sheltered by being surrounded by fellow Dominicans ( I lived in Los Sures, Williamsburg…before williamsburg was cool lol) and when I moved to western new york I was slapped in the face with the ignorance of people here. I have been called Laotian, Hawaiian, Chinese…but never was I considered Latina. I remember a lawyer who worked in a building where I worked was taken by me. One day in the elevator he asked me where I was from and when I answered him he looked disappointed like that's it? Just dominican? My parents are from Barahona my paternal grandfather was full German and I do think there is some kind of Asian on my mother's side. But we come in all shapes sizes and colors and that's why I think Dominican people are absolutely beautiful!
Great read. I can relate :-)) thank you for writing this!!
Sing it baby 🙂
I hear you. I have been asked the WAYF? question myself, and people's guesses were mostly: Mexican – because of course, what other kind of latina or olive-skinned people are there? Dorks 😀
Some also asked if I was Egyptian. Someone the other days asked me if I was Albanian, which in Switzerland is actually something offensive to assume about a person, considering their opinion of Albanians.
And I wonder why nobody ever asked me in LA or NY if I was Italian – not until they heard me speak my mother tongue with my daughters. I wonder why, where most people look similar to how I look, where I'm from.
I love that you are so proud of your heritage, and so open about it. And that it's part of who you are but you don't let it define you. This owning who you are, not being shy and not apologizing for being gorgeous, exotic-looking and having a strong, incredible personality is such a great part of your charm. I adore you babe!
Carol, I love this…It somewhat mirrors my experiences…me of the American name and Cuban/Miami upbringing. Me, who lives in Nashville, a place where there were few Latinos until about 15 years ago. Me, has been asked why I don't know more about tacos and chalupas and Cinco de Mayo…Me, who has been told too many times I don't look Cuban, but I look exactly like my Cuban mother.
I've written a lot about this identity thing on my blog…but, I will share this new one: My beautiful, exotic Cuban-born cousin, her American husband and my elegant Tia bought a gigantic bed and breakfast in an historic little town in the South. The neighbors kept asking where they were "from'' and my family insisted in only responding "Miami.'' When I was there and met the neighbors, they asked me too. It was great to see how confused they were and they were too polite to say, well, like what country? My relatives eventually outed themselves.
Thanks for sharing your experience…and like you, I welcome those kinds of conversations. It's all about education and talking/meeting/learning.
OMG, we are sisters from different countries, but the same city! I too am form BKLYN-before-it-was-cool and from the super-uncool section of Sheepshead Bay. I grew up eating pizza and italian ices, knishes and platanos. Hanging out at block parties, the beach and Prospect Park. I have heard the question: "Where are you from?" 1000 times and each person has always expected a different answer. Sometimes it's because I have a heavy brooklyn accent even though I've lived in LA for awhile now. Sometimes it's because they sense some kind of ethnicity, but can't place it. Sometimes it's because my last name is Torres and I don't look Mexican, so they ask me if I am married to one, LOL!!
And then I explain (if I'm in the mood), that I am half Puerto Rican, half Jewish. And then they say, but your weren't born, there, right? And then I say yes, actually I was born in San Juan, but raised in BK. That my father looks black, but my half-siblings are brown and I am the blanca of the group. My eyes are blue, but my hair is thick, curly and unruly. Spanish was technically my first language, but after we moved to NY, English came first. I grew up to become a writer and write only in English because my Spanish isn't good enough to be published 🙂 I have traveled many places and been called Israeli, Creole, Brazilian, Colombian and a few other random things depending on where I am. Friends say I missed my calling as a CIA agent.
Naturally, we don't have time to launch into these explanations at every cocktail party or chance meeting at the Coffee Bean. So, when people ask me where I'm from, my first – and shortest answer – is always, New York.
Thank you all for sharing your experiences with me…it's always comforting to be reminded I am not the only one, tho' it is sad that I am not the only one : ) Maybe we can educated the world, little by little…one "Where are you from?" answer at a time : )
This post is great!
Like many, I have also had similar situations in which people ask me, "where are you from?" due to total confusion.
They don't quite know what to do with an educated trigueñita with long curly hair from Washington Heights. =)
Your story epitomizes that of so many Latinos living not only in NYC but in places where there isn't a significant Latino population.
Thank you for telling it!
I agree with chicmom and Jai–what a great post.
As for me, I never had to identify my "race" when I lived in the Bronx but it was a whole other story when I moved Upstate 8 year ago. I wouldn't get the WRYF question but what I got were stares.
I think my son was the first Puerto Rican or any hispanic for that matter in his school–no joke! I hated that but now I am seeing lots of "colors" so I'm feeling like I'm at "home" now.
–I also can't wait for part 2!!!
I absolutely loved reading this. I relate to this post in many ways also.
The classic "where are you from?". Love it. Living in LA I don't really think about it but when I travel I always get this.
Great post. Love it.
Hey, Carol –
Love the post and the poem. I actually go straight to "El Salvador" when I'm asked. Because in my case, and like Carrie, I look too "gringa" for it to be so. I'm a proud Latina and glad to see all of us coming out here to share our stories 🙂
"White people can live anywhere." -Tales of a Latina's Travel-Part 2 of 2 |
[…] arrived to Missoula, and had a great time. Everyone was awesome. Yes, I was asked the famous question a few times, but a lot of people I met had left after school had expanded their cultural boundaries […]
Road Trip Survived | Traveling Mom
[…] stared at, a lot, especially when walking with my family down the street, and I talked about “where I am from” a lot, more than anyone should ever have to talk about these things in a two week period. […]
Thank you so much, this was very interesting. I was actually born in Madrid ( not telling you when though!) but was moved around various parts of europe and lastly settled in England when I was 5. I dont remember much of the few years I was in spain, but the smell of spanish food always seems to ring a bell in me or something. Funny, how I dont remember anything except the smells,isn't it! I even found a internet site dedicated to spanish recipes, which gave me great delight and thought I ought to share. Anyway, thank you again. I'll get my husband to add your cast to my rss app…
Love this post. The Where Are You From question is one that bothered me when growing up but entertains me now as an adult. As a kid I hated being asked if I was half white and hated having to explain that the region in Mexico that my mom's family is from is full of light-skinned people. As an adult I just laugh when I hear all the places people think that I'm from. These places range from the Italy, Argentina, Middle East, to even the Philippines! But no, I'm just a little Mexican American girl from LA with 3 of 4 grandparents que son gueros de rancho! The other grandparent was a beautiful mestiza with roots from the Huichol Indians of central Mexico and the Basque Country in Spain.
I'm also "from" New York. I think part of this is the meaning of "from", depending upon where you grew up. For a New Yorker, it refers to where you were born, but also, what's your heritage. So as a child, this question really meant where were my grandparents from; what countries. And as an adult, I expected it to mean where was I born, but it fact, it often seems to mean where do I live. Totally confusing. I always ask for clarification! 😀
Great post! Whenever I get asked this question I always answer Puerto Rico. I guess it has to do with the fact that although I was born here I was raised in Puerto Rico. My kids get this question too especially my daughter because of the way she looks. Whenever she speaks Spanish she gets the look You are Latina? She finds it amusing but that wasn't always the case.
Looking forward to the second part!
Carol CainIsolated Existence
Thanks! I wrote this awhile ago, and part two came shortly after : )