Knowing who I am

Reporter Sinthia Mireya Turcios
Reporter Sinthia Mireya Turcios

When friends assumed she was Caucasian, Sinthia thought hard about what it means to be Latina

After the first week of volleyball try-outs ended two summers ago, a few close friends and I headed to Subway to eat lunch.

The person at the counter asked what condiments we would like on our sandwiches – peppers, lettuce, mayo and so on. The server was Latina. She had an accent, brown straight hair, brown eyes, and warm brown skin. I decided to order in Spanish since my mother taught me that it is impolite to speak English to a person who, like me, spoke Spanish first.

When it was my turn to dress my sandwich I said to the woman, “A mi me gustaria tomates, cebolla, lechuga, pepinos, pepinillos, olivos negros y salsa Ranch, por favor.”

The woman asked me where I was from. “Guatemala City, Guatemala,” I said. She seemed surprised: “I wouldn’t have known you were Latina if you hadn’t spoken Spanish. At first I thought you were white. Now that I see your curly hair down I thought you were mixed.”

I was taken aback by her assumptions and even more amazed that she thought I was white. I came to the United States when I was nine, and for a moment, I felt like I had maybe embraced the American way of living too much. I heard my mother’s voice in my head: “You are Latina, mija. We have different customs. You’ll be around other people with different cultures, but don’t forget who you are and where you come from.”

Illustration of a person named
Does Race Still Matter by Mai Chue Lor
I am a senior at Thomas Edison and my passion for drawing grew from the moment I was able to hold a pencil. I can sit all day long and draw stars, landscapes and sunsets. Drawing Mother Nature’s beauties have influences my mission in life: To make the world a greener place.

I was even more surprised by my friends’ reactions when I sat with them to eat our food. They were shocked. “Oh, my gosh,” one girl said, “I didn’t know that you spoke Spanish! You’re Mexican?!”

I controlled my will to shout – No! The notion that people are Mexican just because they speak Spanish annoys me. Instead I laughed it off and told her to guess again. “Puerto Rico,” she guessed. I shook my head. “Spain.”

“I’m Guatemalan,” I said.

“What’s that?” she asked.

I couldn’t believe that none of my friends knew that Guatemala existed. I remember one asking, “Is it an island?”

I had not been in this type of situation before. I went to a middle school that was predominantly Mexican except for a few students who were Salvadorians, Ecuadorians, Puerto Ricans or Guatemalans. Maybe because we were very young and all thought of each other as equals, kids didn’t show much interest in each other’s ethnic backgrounds.

My high school has a mixture of races, and my three volleyball friends are native-born and white. I didn’t feel offended but annoyed by their surprise that I was Latina. I wasn’t going to wear a sticker on my face saying, “Guatemalan.” But I wish that people would take the time to ask me where I’m from.

I had known these girls for almost a year. We would go to volleyball practice together and spend almost every other Saturday together at tournaments. I had classes with them, and we texted each other a lot. But our conversation focused on homework, volleyball and boys. Ethnicity never came up.

At lunch, my friends apologized and asked me to tell them more about Guatemala.

Guatemala is the country beneath Mexico, I explained. I use to live in Guatemala City, and even though many families are poor. the people are very friendly, compassionate and devoted to their religion.

Later, when I asked why they assumed I was white, their answers made more sense than I thought.

One said, “Your skin color is light. You don’t have a noticeable accent. I had to really try to listen for your accent to hear it.”

Another said, “You don’t dress like a lot of Latinas at school do. You keep your grades up and you care about your future, about college. You’re really friendly and most of all you’re not shy. You speak your mind intellectually, not just to speak crap or drama.”

In other words, my character is unlike what they expect from Latinas. Just by being myself and speaking up, I challenge the assumptions people often make about us.

Making assumptions about people may be inevitable. But I think we could avoid some of the hurt if we became more curious and asked questions. Here’s one: So were you born in Minnesota? Or how many languages do you speak? Which one did you learn first? We might be surprised by the answers.

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