Who Am I, Really?
By Sofia Maugham
Where are you really from, they ask, when I tell them my name or the state where I was born.
I’m a United States citizen, I answer, with a grin.
No, I mean, where is your family from?
Take a guess, I say.
He extends a hand after holding the door:
“Nice to meet you. What sort of name is that? It’s very unusual here in the United States. It’s Arabic, isn’t it?” “Yes, it’s Egyptian.” My new friend smiles, eager that we have found common ground. “Are you first or second generation Egyptian then? I definitely see it now…” “I’m not Arabic at all…My parents just liked the name.”
“That new girl, where is she from?” I hear underclassmen whispering around the corner from where I am sitting with my lunch. “I think she’s the French exchange student,” “Oh yeah, I can definitely see that. She looks European. Something about her nose and the way she talks, you know?”
“Everyone complains about the weather,” the young man sitting next to me on the bus comments, “but where I’m from, it rains all the time.” “Where are you from?” I ask, making a feeble attempt at conversation in the early morning fog. “Germany,” “What part?” My interest piques. “Umm, the northern part.” “No, I mean what part, specifically?” I’m half German, and everyone I meet is always from Berlin. “Hamburg.” “Really?! My family is from Hamburg!” “Ah, Sprechen Sie Deutsch?” He grins, waiting expectantly “I’m afraid not, I’m third generation.” The smile on his face fades, to be replaced with disgust. The conversation dies, the silence interspersed with the occasional raindrop against the bus window.
After school, I talk on the phone in rapid fire Spanish. We need to pick up clothes from the cleaners before heading off to the airport and I’m calling my father to let him know I’ll be a little late getting home.
“Wait, you speak Spanish?” My classmates stare at me in awe. “You don’t look like you speak Spanish.” “Yes, it’s my first language.” I grin and blush slightly. They are impressed by my fluency. “Wait, does that mean that you are Hispanic?” “Yeah, you didn’t know that?” They look at me strangely now, cocking their heads at odd angles, judging the awkward olive-yellow of my skin, my freckles, my light brown hair streaked with blonde and red, my height, my intelligence, and how this correlates with my Latina heritage.
“You don’t look Hispanic,” they decide. “My dad was born in Uruguay,” I protest. “But where’s your family from?” “Europe, Basque country, Germany and Wales mainly.” “That explains it. You aren’t really Hispanic.”
Years of speaking only Spanish at home, of checking boxes for college applications as Hispanic and Latina, of feeling at home among chile and tortillas and tapas and fainá and maté, of reading Don Quixote and being caught up in the plot of sordid telenovelas, of tracing my heritage to the original Spanish settlers of the Americas and the biographers of Spanish Enlightenment Authors, only to be told that I don’t really count.
Walking into the library during the summer, skin tanned, hair pulled up and out of my face, I take a bite of Ghirardelli chocolate and look over to see a family friend examining me carefully.
“You know, you really look like a Mayan princess.” “I’m not Mayan,” I answer snappishly. “But you LOOK Mayan. Those cheekbones, that dark skin. That Indian part of you really shows.” I want to cover myself up, hide inside until my skin reverts back to its original pale complexion, which, when untouched by the sun, does not betray my Mediterranean and Native American heritage by tanning a deep olive colour. Months later, I’m talking to a Native American friend after dinner. She asks me, do I know anyone else who is one hundred percent Navajo.
Actually, I’m part Pueblo Indian, I answer.
Did you live on the reservation she asks.
No, it’s just on my mother’s side.
See, that’s different. You wouldn’t understand.
I finish my speech, step off the stage, and adjust my blazer.
My professors introduce me to the leaders of the conference.
What an interesting name, they say. We noticed when you were talking that you have an interesting cadence in your voice. Are you British?”
I shake my head, no.
“Were you born in one of the colonies then? Because you sound very British. You have very proper elocution.” “Thank you, but I’m American.” “You don’t sound American.” “I know. Part of my family is Welsh.” “That explains it.”
Where are you from, they ask me at dinner, after class, when I give my name at the bank.
It’s complicated, I answer. It’s also a long story. I’ll make it easy. I’m Hispanic.
You don’t look Hispanic, they say.
What do I look like then?
Who am I?
Sofia is a sophomore at Duke University.