“Where Are You From?”
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The question is always the same. The speaker is different. “Where are you from?” In the beginning, dating back to the sixties, I would say proudly, The Bronx. And I would think, that was it. But, the questioner, sometimes some white guy from Manhattan or Queens or even Brooklyn, would dryly ask again, “No, where are you from? Porto Rico, or are you Dominican?” I would, without a hint of being insulted, proudly proclaim that I was from the Bronx.
It would only be years later that I would understand that merely stating your place of birth in this here United States wasn’t enough. The questioner wanted proof that you weren’t from somewhere else because, well, since you didn’t look like them, were not like them, they couldn’t be sure that you were, like them, good old red and white and blue Americans.
It didn’t matter that my father was from Puerto Rico (the P.R.), where its residents have been American citizens since 1917. Yes, my mother was from the Dominican Republic (the D.R.), but she was legally here and later became an American citizen. Not that any of that mattered because I was born in this here U.S. of A. South Bronx, at the old Lincoln Hospital, a citizen of this great country. Not that I give a hell what you think of this.
I didn’t think much of all this nonsense as I moved through life. It didn’t matter because, in the early seventies, I hung out mostly with people who looked like me or were other people of color who didn’t give a shit where I was from. They might ask, “Where are you from?” which usually meant like what city are you from (they figured New York) because I had this accent that I never noticed years after leaving the city. When I moved to New England, I would occasionally be asked the question “Where are you from?” by people who would claim to trace their ancestry back to Plymouth Rock. And I would dryly answer again, “New York.” I would forget the South Bronx part because, by that time, the South Bronx would be on fire, and I was trying to make it sound like maybe I was from a better part of the city to impress them so they would leave me the fuck alone.
“No, really, where are you from?” they would ask again, and I would immediately know what they were asking. You don’t look like us, so you must be from somewhere else. Like from another country maybe. I would get a little annoyed because I knew it was a question centered on what crack of the Caribbean or South America or Central America I hailed from. “I was born in the United States,” I would indignantly state. Still incredulous, they would walk away or change the subject. As the years went on, my American English was enough to qualify me as an American. I mean, no foreigner talks like that. To most, it became apparent that I wasn’t from around there, but my patois of New York, New England, and semi-Southern accents inherited from spending nearly ten years in Washington, D.C., answered their question before it got out of their mouths. Although some would stare at me wondering, I was convinced, “Yeah, but what is he?”
After I moved to Southern California in 1984, I saw graffiti in big ass letters on a low wall on the 405 freeway at the Santa Monica Boulevard exit, “MEXICANS GO HOME.” It wasn’t long before, as I worked my way through low wage jobs to pay the rent, that someone inevitably would ask me, “Where are you from?” And they weren’t just white people but mostly. “I’m from New York, but I’ve lived in other states, and I just came from Washington, D.C.” like they gave a shit about my residences. “No, where are you really from?” And I would just mumble something about New York and move on.
In the eighties, I worked as a bartender at a German-themed restaurant. It was full of ex-pats from Germany (before the reunification), the former Yugoslavia, and the U.S.S.R. (before the fall of the Empire). Some could barely speak English (well, American English), and they would sit on their stools in front of me and in accented English or broken English or straight out English (obviously here a long time), “Where are you from?” And again, I would dryly say, “New York.” There was no need to break down the city’s geography to explain boroughs and the Bronx. After all, I knew that this question was not about where they thought I had lived but was about where I was born because I was obviously not from around here. I don’t mean like from New York or Southern California. “No, where are you from? Where were you born?” I was born in Lincoln Hospital in the South Bronx, a borough of New York City.” They had no idea what the fuck I was talking about. There was a pause, and then it came again. “No, I mean, where are your parents from.” Oh, now we’re going to talk about my parents.
I was born in the U.S. of A. Raised in everything America, believing that qualified me to be called American. The United States of America is a feel-good fairy tale, an exceptional one even. When we want to feel the exhilaration of patriotic music and blood-boiling flag-waving, we all stand and sing the Star-Spangled Banner and dutifully recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Some residents of this country who believe that there is a sacred halo surrounding the good old U.S. of A. love to invoke images of America the beautiful to justify why this here America is their America. They believe it is an exclusive club from sea to shining sea, over large expanses of wheat and corn and mountains and rivers and small towns and big cities and the powerhouses of growth and industry and our exalted majesty, and we are not members.
I consider myself lucky as hell. I have lived in multicultural communities: New York, Washington, D.C., Southern New England (more than you think), and Southern California. I move very freely between many ethnic and racial communities and economic classes, selfishly sometimes absorbing all I can from them. I listened to their words and speech patterns. I am interested in what they’re feeling and thinking. Their religion, ethics, philosophy, politics, music, culture, writings, all are sources of information that I suck up through a straw. It doesn’t matter if they are American born or foreign-born (No, I don’t ask them where they’re from that way). Or whether raised on a farm in Iowa or a five-million-dollar condo in Manhattan, New York. I just want to swim in this here diverse America, soaking it all up to be always growing in life and the people I know.
I’ve been to many parts of this country. I have met many great people who have never once asked me where I was from. They might instead say something nice like, “You ain’t from around here,” but not in an insulting way like I wasn’t an American but knew that I was not from around there and would light up when I told them I was from New York or that I was from the South Bronx. They never once questioned my Americanism.
Nativism, nationalism, xenophobia, small minds, small worlds are a disease that suffocates your ability to see and experience the whole spectrum of humankind, and that’s a goddamn shame — your loss.
Now, ask me again where I’m from.