Many Latinos I talk to, here and abroad, have had trouble believing that I'm American, born and raised. In a way, it is a compliment because it says a lot of what they think of my Spanish and how well I immerse myself into their culture.
In Ecuador, people thought I was from somewhere in the Caribbean (Cuba, Puerto Rico, The Dominican Republic). In Peru, some thought I was from Panamá or Brazil. And because my Spanish is perceived to have a Nuyorican (New York Puerto Rican) accent, one woman simply assumed that am Puerto Rican. Even in Mexico City. I had to show my passport and bust some English because a group of men I was conversing with did not believe that I'm American. They thought I was a Cuban immigrant.
Here in the US, Latin-American immigrants with little knowledge of English really tried to dig into my roots. They wanted to know if my parents or grandparents are Latino. I would simply tell them that my father's family is from Mississippi, and my mother's family is from Georgia.
Today, I was riding a commuter train to my job in San Francisco and noticed a family speaking to each other in clear, well-articulated Spanish. I figured they were tourists, and I asked one of them, con permiso, ¿de dónde son ustedes (excuse me, where are you all from)? When she said Ecuador, I reacted like she was a home-girl as I told her of my personal experiences in her country and of my plans to go back.She immediately asked me where I am from. I assured her that I'm from the US.
It just so happened that another passenger on the train joined in on the conversation (in Spanish) saying that she too has been to Ecuador. One of the men in the family made me bust out laughing when he shouted out to everyone one the train, in perfect English, “ANYONE ELSE BEEN TO ECUADOR?” As I departed the train at Montgomery Street station, the same gentleman and another family member told me that they hoped to see me again (in Ecuador!).
As I walked from the train station to my job, I began to take note of my feelings and how uplifted I felt after talking with that family. I then thought of my feelings of exhilaration that comes over me when I hear salsa, bachata, and other forms of Latin-American music. A friend brought to my attention of how my eyes would light up when I start speaking Spanish.
I also noticed that in my trips to Venezuela, Peru, Colombia, El Salvador, Mexico, Costa Rica, and Panamá how excited I felt before, during, and after my visits. In the El Vedado District of Havana, Cuba, and along the malecón (waterfront), I was engulfed with feelings of déjà vu. When I returned to the US, I felt so homesick for Cuba that it took several years before I could stop talking about it. I thought that, perhaps, I may have been Cuban in another life.
Many African-Americans also get confused about my ethnicity as well; asking if I'm black,” not taking into consideration that Latinos come in all colors, including “black.” I faithfully tell them that I'm African American, born in St. Louis' famous black community known as The Ville and raised in the world famous black community of Harlem, New York. I suspect that I simply must have a Latin soul.