Like any compelling story, it all started at a Subway.
What, you’ve never had a memorable anecdote come out of a visit to your neighborhood Subway? Just me? Okay.
I was probably a sophomore in high school, and my mom and I were grabbing a quick dinner when we noticed the girl making our subs staring intently at us. At first, we tried to brush it off, but her gaze was unwavering. By her excitement, she must have been of Indian descent, because when she finally broke the tension she asked, “Are you Indian?!” My mom and I politely explained that we were not, but she insisted that we must be, that we “looked Indian.” She was eager to talk to us about the heritage that she assumed we shared, but wouldn’t listen as we tried to explain that she was mistaken.
This wasn’t the first time I had experienced this type of confusion. My whole life has been sprinkled with inquiries from people who are most times trying to be polite, but sometimes come across a little blunt and forceful, that are trying to figure out what I “am.” But this Subway trip was the one that stuck with me and made me more aware of my identity.
Being mixed can be frustrating. I carry privileges that come with being white, but I’ve also experienced the marginalization that can come with being Latina. I find myself sliding between the two, sometimes apathetically allowing people to just label me as white because it’s faster than explaining, but also being the one my friends rely on at Mexican restaurants when they don’t know what something on the menu means, regardless of the fact that I’m not Mexican. There’s also confusion that comes with being simultaneously “neither” and “both.” I’m “too white” for Latinos and “exotic” to my white friends.
Yes, having tan skin year-round oftentimes carries the title of “exotic” in Georgia. Living in the South can be a real treat.
It feels like I’ve spent my life balancing on this tightrope, tiptoeing back and forth and trying to keep my footing. On one end are the white friends from my childhood who stuck up their noses at the food my family ate; the people who would speak English loudly and slowly at my grandparents, as if just talking to them like they were underwater would make my grandmother, who did not speak English, suddenly and miraculously understand what they were saying; the friends who roll their eyes and tell me to be grateful when I complain that I’ve gotten pretty pale over the winter, as if the fact that I’m always a few shades darker than them invalidates the fact that I too get paler during the cold months, as if somehow my inherent color takes away my right to make a comment.
But on the other end of the tightrope, it isn’t any easier to stay upright. On this end is my Latino family telling me that my accent in Spanish is “cute;” the Latinos in public that label me a “gringa,” or white girl, assuming I don’t understand that they’re talking about me; the Latino students in college that never accepted my experiences as similar to theirs because my last name is Cargin and rolled their eyes at me when I explained that I’m also Latina.
It hurts when you try and explain who you are to someone and they roll their eyes. It immediately causes you to feel invalidated, unaccepted, and fraudulent. Many times, it has caused me to retreat to the center of the tightrope, unsure of which direction I’m supposed to go.
Up until that slightly awkward meal at Subway, I just absorbed all of these experiences. I stored them all up inside of me and never realized that they were confusing and, quite frankly, exhausting. Now I still take them all in, but I’m learning how to work through them. I’m fighting for my inclusion in each part of my identity. My family eats lomo saltado (which is delicious and you should try it immediately) at least once a month for dinner, but we talk to each other in English while we do. I live in the US, but a part of me will always be in Lima, Peru.
Basically, I’m finally starting to understand that I’ll always be moving back and forth along the tightrope. In the past few years, I’ve learned how to move across it without losing my footing, without wobbling and constantly worrying that I’m going to fall off. There will be days when I feel shaky, but I’m starting to feel comfortable finding my balance in the middle. And I’m also starting to understand that the ability I have to balance in the middle of these two very different identities that have created me has also become an integral part of who I am.