According to my Oxford dictionary, the second definition for “culture” is “the customs, ideas, and social behavior of a particular people or group.” I’ve been thinking about this because it feels like I’m experiencing some cultural friction at the day labor center. In my experience, this friction nearly always stems from the issue of language, and, to a lesser degree, gender. Brian, over at Incertus, recently published an Ask a Mexican question and answer youtube video. In the answer, Arellano made a reference to “symbolic ethnicity,” which is a phrase that works well with my experience. When I was a part-time photojournalist at the Dayton newspaper, my boss was trying to help me get a full-time job at the Florida sister paper. One of my “selling points” was my being a minority. I remember conferencing with him in his office, and discussing whether or not I was bothered by the fact that race could play a role in my getting the job. I told him I’d prefer to have the decision based less on that and more on the work I submitted. He said he believed it was important for a newsroom to include voices and faces that accurately reflect the community it’s covering, and I shouldn’t be bothered if my race is a factor in the hiring process. A diverse community demands a diverse newsroom, he said. I remember thinking (though I don’t think I said it to him) that hiring me was like hiring any white Ohioan because I was raised in a Midwestern culture, surrounded by my paternal (Caucasian) family and had little to no connection with the Hispanic culture at all. I may have had run-ins with racists on occasion, but my mentality was white, working class Midwesterner. Anyone looking to hire someone as representative of the Hispanic community was doing a disservice by hiring me; however, if they only wanted a face that fit the profile, then, yeah, my face fit.
I’ve only recently realized how much I’ve been missing by not paying attention to the maternal side of my ancestry and am trying to make up for lost time. As a kid, my world was Ohio, largely due to financial constraints that kept us from visiting Texas and Mexico with any regularity. Now, as I fumble with Spanish, or interact with workers by speaking English, I occasionally run into a bit of friction with some of the guys. Typically, the workers are amused with or surprised at my inability to speak Spanish, or interested in practicing English. But sometimes there is friction and attitude. When I’ve asked mom about this (my own, personal Ask a Mexican cultural reference), she speculated that some of them may view it as me denying my heritage—by not speaking the language, I’m trying to remove myself from the culture. This all relies on visual identifiers and assumptions, of course, which is problematic. It assumes that if one has a particular look, then one must have a particular experience (she looks Mexican, therefore she must speak Spanish). It doesn’t take into consideration the possible cultural combinations people embody.
When asked, I describe myself as Ohioan—in spite of my Hispanic look, in spite of my Irish name. Perhaps I don’t place enough importance on culture because my family did not focus on it when I was growing up. We had each other, we had our holiday traditions, we had our occasional trips to visit mom’s family, but, for better or worse, we grew up in a vacuum that didn’t dwell on culture or ancestry. So, as an adult, I’m miffed when people get miffed with me for not speaking Spanish (why would I? I grew up in Ohio), and I get miffed when people make assumptions about me based on my appearance (Once, after leaving the Breakers hotel in Palm Beach, I realized I forgot a camera lens and returned to pick it up. As I was walking toward the hotel entrance, some guy came up to me—totally out of the blue—and asked, “Are you here to pick up your check?” Ummm…no, asshole. I don’t work here. Another time, in the courthouse (again, taking pictures), a woman turned me into security because she refused to believe me when I told her my (Irish) name).
In 2008, with all the hoopla over immigration, visual identifiers are as significant as ever. When I’m in the day labor center, I blend in with everyone else there. It was this observation that made me realize the disservice I’ve been doing to myself by not paying attention to this side of my heritage—the one most people would use to categorize me. The qualities that distinguish me from the workers are qualities not discernible by the eye. I may identify myself in a particular way (Ohioan, Midwesterner, etc.), but does that make any difference when so much of experience is based on the visual identifiers others use to identify you?