Yesterday morning I walked into the new Columbian bakery that straddles Queens and Long Island. I was expecting to be transported into my grandmother's house; a place where I would be warmly welcomed into a blur of Spanish-English conversations between cousins and titis. Upon entering the storefront, the quick Spanish chatter had temporarily died down and I was greeted with questioning pairs of eyes. It was my turn to order. "Yes, how may I help you?" The woman behind the cashier was not rude, but I could not help but feel the temperature drop from warm to chilly. I wanted to tell her that I was Hispanic too, technically half. Instead I asked, "What has guava inside?" My question, I knew, had only served to further their misconception of me as an outsider.
My mother is Puerto Rican and therefore, I am Latina. If you were to see me walking down the street, however, you wouldn't know that I checked off "Hispanic" on applications. With long dark hair, a round face that is centered by a prominent nose and is framed by naturally defined eyebrows, I look completely Punjabi. I have inherited my physical appearance from my father who is from the northwestern Indian state of Punjab. Practically speaking, I can understand that someone who has never interacted with me before will have no idea that I am Puerto Rican. What is more difficult for me to understand is having people I have told, forget or disregard my mixed heritage.
At the beginning of my sophomore year in college, I auditioned and was admitted into a South Asian dance troupe. During the interview round that followed try-outs, I was asked, "What makes you different?" My go-to answer was of course being mixed. Fast forward to my senior year in college: Someone who heard my answer at the try-outs and with whom I had spent at least 40 hours a week in dance practice with, for the past 3 years, overheard me speaking and was in shock to find out that I was half Puerto Rican. He swore that he had no idea despite the fact that I told him on multiple occasions. The scenario was a classic case of, out of sight, out of mind. That is to say, when I have no physical feature to reflect my Hispanic heritage, it is easy to assume I'm not Puerto Rican at all.
The most interesting phenomenon is that my own family members don not associate me with Puerto Rican heritage. This past summer I attended a barbecue with my Indian side of the family. Not unusual for my competitive family, we were discussing college admissions and careers. As an Ivy League grad I constantly find myself in a position where I have to explain how I got in. How did I format my essays and what were my studying techniques? While I can explain all of this, to this day I cannot explain what my cousin had said: "Yes, you know all of the Hispanics get into elite colleges because of affirmative action." Did he forget that his aunt, my mom, and me, his cousin, are Hispanic? I cannot help but think that if I looked a little Puerto Rican, I would not be subject to culturally insensitive comments. Then again, it's not much better having these snide remarks said behind your back.
If I don't have the face of a Latina, I could always master Spanish to prove my ancestry, no? Growing up in a mixed household, English was the only language that my parents, brother and I, could, communicate in. As a result, Spanish language acquisition only occurred in school. Always an over-achiever, my exam scores gained me a seat in the AP Spanish despite the fact that I had trouble carrying a conversation beyond ¿Como Estais? The class was intensely competitive and had about 15 students, all of whom were Spanish speakers at home. Every time English was spoken, the teacher would deduct points from your grade. Already an exception as the only half-Latina, my teacher also made me the exception to this rule: "Por Favor, speak in English. I never know what you're saying." The weakest link of the class, no one had expected that I would achieve the highest score for an exam that required 2 full conversations only spoken in Spanish. I guess you could say that I'm a Latina disguise.