The young lady looks at me expectantly, great hope in her eyes. I look around. Besides her, I am the only other brown-skinned, brown-haired person in the vicinity of the Best Western Plus Kelly Inn, Omaha, Nebraska. I don’t have the heart to tell her that I am a guest at the hotel, in town on business. That I have absolutely no idea whether there’s work there or not. Instead, I smile, and reaching where she cannot see, pull out my honorary membership to Club Latina. In perfect Spanish, I say: “Pues, no lo se. Vamos a preguntar adentro.”
As I guide her through the revolving door, I know that she has no idea that I am not Hispanic. Although Colombians have taken me for a Costena, and I have often been spoken to in Spanish because (as in this situation) I am the only dark-skinned, dark-haired person in a particular place, where many simply assume that if you’re dark-skinned and dark-haired, you must be Hispanic. I am actually Indian. An Indian from India. I was born and raised far away from anything that had to do with Hispanic culture and my upbringing couldn’t have been further removed from it. But I am still convinced that in a previous life, I was a Latina and that past life has granted me a pass to Club Latina in this one.
MORE THAN JUST LANGUAGE
Scores of non-Hispanics, many of them Indian, speak Spanish, I know. But for inexplicable reasons, I am fluent in the cultural peculiarities of Latin America. I can catch onto the individual characteristics of the different countries of Latin America, I know the nuances of Spain. I can think, feel and “live” Latina; I seem to fit right in. I started learning Spanish in the 7th grade. I was a shy girl, but hit it off immediately with my teacher, a young man from Chile, who had left his country for Switzerland—where I was raised—to escape the brutal, right-wing dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. Spanish became my favorite class and remained so throughout school. The language just called me right in, took me to its heart, and quickly caught me in its cadence.
I always stayed close to Hispanic culture as the years went by, and plenty of time had passed when, by complete fluke, I ran into my Chilean teacher again at a brunch place on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. He had completed a PhD in education and now worked for UNICEF. I had traveled all over Mexico by bus, been to a Celia Cruz concert, dated a Puerto Rican, and worked as financial journalist specializing in Latin American economies, a job that required me to speak Spanish every day. I had proudly mastered the usage of the subjuntivo and had read “Cien Anos de Soledad” in the original Spanish. I could even sing-song like a Cubana and say “vos” instead of “tu” when speaking with an Argentine.
PROUD CLUB LATINA MEMBER
I had become a full-fledged, honorary member of Club Latina, a membership I am proud to hold and that I cherish. Because as much as I am Indian by birth and European by upbringing, I feel an indefinable connection to anything Spanish, and having that connection makes me feel good about my life. I feel proud that I am not part of any one place, but can be a part of so many different ones. That I am a cultural chameleon who can enjoy entrecote and empanadas; who can hit the ground running in Bombay and Buenos Aires; who can empathize with different people from different places; who can accept and be accepted by many, despite the differences we supposedly have.
As a member of Club Latina, I can laugh with my Cuban Zumba instructor because we are the only ones in the class who can understand what Pitbull’s lyrics really mean. I can order in Spanish at local restaurants and get an extra smile from the waiters. I can be a friend to the sprinkling of Hispanic women who happen to live in the very White suburban town I now call home, where women of color are a rarity. They are women whose experiences of life and the world are different from most of the people who live around us. Who are not as well off as others here, who don’t have too many people they can call up for a chat because they’ve left behind families in the native homelands. They are women who walk or take the bus, while others tool past them in gas-guzzling luxury vehicles, with all of the upgrades. Hardly anyone who comes across them in their day-to-day lives, who might smile at them—or not—in the school courtyard, knows much about them. Not least how lonely it can be to live as a stranger in a foreign land.
Slowly, these women have come to know that I understand them. Sometimes they call me with good news: Maria has done well in her night-time English class, Dolores feels proud because her child’s friend relished the fresh batch of empanadas she whipped up for their playdate. (I have tasted her empanadas, they are fantastic.)
They also call me when they’re down: Maria’s mother-in-law is ill and it’s hit her that it’s been more than a decade since she saw her own mother. Then, she’ll cry because she’s so far away from home and it’s such a great effort to try and make a new home in another country.
I won’t stay long enough in Omaha to have that kind of relationship with this young lady, but I can still help her fill out paperwork for a kitchen job that she may or may not get. I can smile at her, squeeze her on the shoulder and wish her good luck. “Muchissimas gracias por tu ayuda,” she tells me. “De nada,” I reply. And as I turn to go up to my room, I know it doesn’t matter that she will never know that I am not Latina.