How Latino Can White Guys Be?


Well, hey there guys, it's your friendly Giant Presbyterian Anglo-Saxon Brazilian here. The Giant Presbyterian Anglo-Saxon Brazilian who also speaks Spanish, because of American family in Peru and Chile. Identity can be a problem for the likes of me, having moved and lived all over, especially when people refuse to grant you whatever identity you wish to adopt, for whatever reasons you might have. Yes, it's true, all sorts of people try to tell me I'm not really what I say I am all the time. Sure, what I say I am changes all the time, but I should get to be the one who decides, don't you think? I mean, as long as I'm not claiming to be Russian, which I'm not...yet.

I don't really say I'm Hispanic or Latino (or "identify as", as the current parlance runs), but I'd like to have whatever degree of latino-ness I adopt be respected. When I speak Spanish to you, I like that to be respected. I still haven't decided whether to be flattered or offended when native Spanish-speakers ask me if I'm Puerto Rican. Clearly I'm giving off an sort of American vibe, but at least they took me for some kind of native speaker (which I'm not quite, by the way). I prefer when they simply ask where I'm from, realizing that there's some kind of legit Latin thing happening in my mouth.

This is the part of the post where you learn, if you didn't already know it, that Brazilians speak Portuguese.

My local butcher at El Gran Toro speaks to me in Spanish, but there was a girl there under the previous owners who refused to speak anything but English with me, even though her English was terrible. This is a real phenomenon. It's a thing that happens to me: people refuse to speak Spanish with me even when it's clear that Spanish is our best common language. Brownness seems to play a role in this, too. In Florida, people simply accepted that I speak Spanish, but here in South Carolina the majority of Spanish-speakers are Mexicans with native blood: brown Mexicans. Sometimes they are amazed and delighted that I speak Spanish, and sometimes they're mad about it. They're seldom neutral. Bottom line, whiteness informs a lot of people's standards of latinoness (I'm not only white, I'm 6'9", which muddies the waters). The example I'm going to give is about how brown Latinos receive me, but let me assure you that many's the time I've heard from white or black Americans "I thought Brazilians were like Mexicans." Which means brown, of course, never mind that many Mexicans are white and blue-eyed.

A complete mate set.
The other day I went to a large pan-American market in my town. I go there occasionally for manioc flour, which we use to make Brazilian cheese bread, the most delicious bread you've ever eaten. But this time I was there because I'd sat on my yerba mate straw (bombilla) and broken it, and I wanted a new one. I went to the South American aisle and found several mate sets including gourd, thermos, and straw; I couldn't find a solo straw anywhere. I went to the girl at the counter, a brown Latina, and asked her where I could find a bombilla. I had to briefly explain what it was, since it isn't a Mexican thing, and she ended up having to ask a manager, finally finding some behind the customer service counter. Pretty early on in our long interaction it became clear she would not speak to me in Spanish, even though her English was poor, so I switched to Spanglish.

When the time came to ring the item in, it wouldn't scan. She had to look up the product by name. She struggled with this, and eventually I just had to tell her: here is how you spell bombilla. We completed our transaction in Spanish.

I'm not even from the part of Brazil where they drink yerba mate. An Argentinian friend of mine introduced me to the habit when we were together at the University of Florida. I'm just a dude who likes mate, and that's legit, because I say it's legit.

A couple of weeks later I showed up at the same shop for flour with my daughter Renata, who is the designated household cheesebread maker. I loomed up to the register with my bearded white 6'9"-ness and without hesitation or thought the white Argentinian (I knew by the accent) woman addressed me in complete, polite Spanish. Yes, we talked about where I was from, but she didn't even try English first, which I loved. I loved it because I just want to be some guy buying Brazilian products, not some wannabe buying Brazilian products. So complete was her acceptance that she then turned to my daughter and spoke to her in Spanish. At that point I had to admit that I hadn't been Brazilian or Latino or whatever enough to teach my daughter Portuguese or Spanish. But until that point, it had been glorious: I hadn't had to prove I was Latino, she had simply accepted it.

I understand when the Brazilians I know think of me as being more American than Brazilian. They're right, I am. Most importantly, in my own mind I am more American, but also in my heritage. My parents met at Oregon State. Sure, my mom had just moved up from Peru and was rooming with a Colombian and a Venezuelan, and my dad had just moved up from Brazil, but they were both fluent English speakers educated in English-speaking schools (a Brit school for my mom). And oh, yeah, they both held American passports.

But it took me two years to stop reading the sign over Ingles' supermarkets as inglés or inglês, even though I knew better. My Brazilianness impacts my life to this day in many ways, so I'd like whatever degree of Brazilianness I assume to be respected by those around me. Hopefully that's not too much to ask. After all, Tiago Splitter is taller than I am! And as far as language goes, can we just have some common decency? What if I were some blond Californian who learned Spanish in college? Let's just have a beautiful conversation, please.

One last thing: this whole white Latino thing (i.e. The New York Times) just gives way to American racial categories. Yes, Latin America has a difficult social and racial history, like so much of the rest of the world, but these simplistic skin-color categories are very American. Questioning a Cuban's cubanness depending on whether he's black or white, or questioning a Costa Rican's tico-ness depending on whether he's white or Indian, allows the American way of identifying people first by skin color instead of culture to dominate.

This entire rant, by the way, was set off by watching this video. Nearly all of these things have happened to me. Many, many times. Except that I tan gorgeously. And oh yeah, the spicy food thing. I mean, come on, what kind of Latino doesn't like spicy food? Oh, wait, I mean, if you say you're Latina and you don't like spicy food, that's cool!

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