As a substitute teacher in public charter schools throughout Los Angeles, I have the honor and pleasure of meeting young students (K-12) – America’s future! – almost everyday. All of the schools I work at are 98% Latino/Raza (except when I get called to work in Inglewood, and rarely do I take the job – too far!).
I’ve worked in East LA, Northeast LA, South Central/LA, Pacoima, Inglewood, Crewnshaw, Korea Town, MacArthur Park and Downtown. The most fun I have and maybe the students have when I’m in the classroom with them is when I introduce myself. First, they have trouble with my name. “Kraus,” I say, “Miss Kraus. It rhymes with mouse and house. If you can say house, you can say Kraus.”
Then it goes into an impromptu Q&A session. “Where are you from, miss?” or “Where are your parents from, miss?” and sometimes just bluntly, “What are you, miss?” Elementary school students don’t care as much as the high school students. I say, “Guess.”
I let the guessing game linger today with the students from East LA/Boyle Heights as they played some Valentin Elizalde and Diego Rivas corridos from their iPods as background music. These were the places they thought I was from.
Guadalajara, Chihuahua, Sinaloa, Durango, Zacatecas, Nayarit, Sonora, La Barca/Jalisco, Las Feas/Guanajuato, Rosarito, Oaxaca, some puebla, Aguascalientes. The last guess was Tijuana.
“Ok, miss,” one guesser said. “You gotta be from Tijuana.”
“Why?” I ask.
“You know, miss. La frontera… all the [white] people from San Diego go to Tijuana y… pues, they come out looking like you.”
I have only lied about my nationality and ethnic identity, and that was in Morocco and France where I said I was Mexican – out of fear. Today, I was tempted to go with Nayarit as my ancestral origin but couldn’t go through with it as I am a terrible liar. When I revealed to the kids my Jewpanese-ness, echoes of “Whoa!” and “What?!” reverberated the classroom.
“Dang, miss,” a guesser said. “You still look guera, though.”
Growing up throughout the San Gabriel Valley in Baldwin Park and Boyle Heights, I was always mistaken for Latina. At Food 4 Less, King Taco, the botanica stores, El Taco Nazo, the post office, and all of the Japanese markets and stores like Marukai, Yaohan/Mitsuwa, Yuki Discount Shop, everywhere. At the bus stop, abuelitas would ask me for the time in Spanish. At King Taco, the cashier would greet me according to the time of day and ask me what I wanted to order in Spanish. I knew enough Spanish to tell abuelita the time and order my “tres tacos de asada con todo y salsa verde aparte, por favor.”
For the longest time, until I left Boyle Heights for college, I resented my mistaken identity, and more so among my Japanese gente. They were haters. In Japanese school (every Saturday for 8 years), my Asian punk/gang classmates would call me and my brother “dirty Mexicans.” This is true. I got into a fight with one of them and shoved the metal-mouthed skinny bastard really hard on the chest. (Too scared to punch people in the face.)
I wanted to be recognized correctly. I wanted it to make sense to my teachers and classmates in Baldwin Park and Boyle Heights that my small Japanese mother was not Chinese nor my babysitter. I wanted it to be a cool and understood thing that there were such people as “hapas” on the mainland.
Then came college. I’d never been around so many Japanese and Japanese Americans at once. It became an unspoken contest, especially among the Japanese Americans to see who was the most Japanese. By my junior year, I just wanted to be the mistaken Latina/Chicana guera again and move home.
How Mexican are you?