It happens almost every time I get in a cab. “Where are you from?”
The Indian cab driver stares at me through the rear view mirror. “You look Indian,” he says. “Yeah, a lot of cabbies tell me that. I’m not from India,” I say. “You don’t look like an American,” he says.
I let out a deep sigh. I really should ignore this guy. I’m not in the mood to put up with him. But it’s been a long day…I’m tired and irritable.
“Tell me sir. What does an American look like?”
He pauses for a moment ….and then he says it, “Blonde hair and blue eyes.”
I get mad.
“Listen. The Native Americans are the true Americans and they are not blonde or blue-eyed. I think you need to study some more history now that you’re living in America. OK. If it makes you happy to know, I’m Mexican-American. OK. Now just stop asking me questions and take me home.”
“So sorry.” he says, and maybe means it.
That question, “Where are you from?” has followed me my whole life.
I am a brown-skinned Chicana, and people have guessed that I am from many places, including Venezuela, India, Morocco, Turkey and Guatemala. They never guess I am Chicana or Mexican-American. Once when I told a woman in an exercise class I was of Mexican heritage she told me, "You're pretty for a Mexican." In high school a boy in my Spanish class told me, "You're too smart to be Mexican.”
I also heard “where are you from” the summer I was in college and bought a train pass and traveled across Europe. In England, they thought I was Indian, and in Germany they thought I was a Turk. Surprise, even the Spaniards didn’t believe I was an American. One guy I met in a bar in Salamanca insisted I was from Venezuela. I tried to explain that many politically aware Mexican-Americans identify with the word Chicano. He thought it was a bad word, not one born out of pride. He still didn’t get it when I explained that my parents were born in Texas, which used to be Mexico. My parents’ families migrated from Texas to Chicago in the 1950s.
I’ve worked as a journalist in this city for most of my career. One time I took a bus to the Austin neighborhood to do some interviews. Walking down the street, I saw a group of young African-American men. Then I heard the shouts.
“White girl! Hey, white girl!”
I looked around for the white girl. Then I realized they were shouting to me. But I’m a brown girl, not a white girl.
Then I heard a crash. It was the bottle they threw at me.
The question started much earlier for me….on my first day at a new Catholic elementary school.
My siblings and I were the only Mexican-American kids in the school — most of the kids were Irish-American and Italian-American.
My first day a group of girls in red, white and blue school uniforms surrounded me on the playground. At first I thought they might ask me to play, but when I looked at their freckled-faces and into their stinging blue and green eyes, I knew that friendship wasn’t in the cards. They chanted at me in unison. “What are you?”
What am I? It’s a variation on the question, “Where are you from?”
Did they want to know my name or what? So I blurted out: “I’m Teresa. I have two sisters and two brothers. I live at 1101 Rossell Avenue." One of them, a girl with blonde pigtails, shouted back. “No, you stupid girl. What are you? Are you Italian?”
“I’m Chicana,” I shouted with pride.
What is that?” they asked.
“It means Mexican-American and proud,” I shouted back at them.
Today, when people ask me where I’m from I tell them, “Chicago.”
Teresa Puente was born at the former St. Luke’s Hospital on the West Side of Chicago. She is a journalism professor at Columbia College Chicago.