It's hard not to smile at a man who calls you "Miss Beautiful Lady" every morning when he sees you at 7-11 buying your morning cup of coffee. It's hard not to look for him each morning as you pull into the parking lot for your morning pick me up.
I've begun to think of him as "Mr. Pesonality". He doesn't speak much English but he has mastered the art of flirting with American women. Miss Beautiful Lady - what more do you need? He's the kind of man who'd be comfortable barking on a sidewalk to lure passersby into his club. Flirting to hustle up business. Flirting to make the time pass. Flirting to compete with his buddies (watch me get the lady's number). Flirting for entertainment as he stands shivering in the January cold on the grassy side of the parking lot.
The other Hispanic day laborers all stand back, trying not to be too conspicuous, wary of police attention, some looking like they're trying not to be too scary. Mr. Personality stands forward, takes a few steps nearer any cars approaching that barely-used corner of parking lot, makes aggressive eye contact, and gives you a big friendly smile. (Yes, he's handsome - which doesn't hurt). You want to hire this guy. In fact, he's the first one you choose. He's confident. His English can get him by. You know he's going to ask questions. He's your go-to guy when you want to give directions to the others who speak no English at all.
I have to admit I do wonder about their stories. Not just Mr. Personality - all of them. Those men who show up every morning no matter how cold. Those men who are all probably far from home, cut off from family and so many familiar things. Whatever they've left behind must have been awful if this - risking frostbite, harassment, alienation, imprisonment - is better than what they had before.
I admit I have to guard against my writers imagination. It looks for the story of an epic journey in everyone. And I especially have to guard against my novelists imagination which looks for the good, the hopeful, the redeeming, and the rising against all odds story arc in everyone. I love foreign things (I've been married to a foreigner for - oy vay! - 16 years). The thrill of learning new things about foreign cultures appeals to me like Coach bags to label-whores.
I know this about myself so I have to give myself a reality check. The reality is they're not all good. Their stories aren't all hopeful. They're not all here seeking the dream. Some, I'm sure, are running from something. Some, I'm sure, are just as capable of taking what they need from someone who isn't looking as they are of seeking an honest pay for an honest days work. When you live close to the edge, those lines of integrity, morality, and legality get crossed all the time.
Still, I like to see them there - new Americans - for what they represent. A new America.
Last summer, I was at an event at the Smithsonian celebrating 3 cultures. I spent most of my time in the Spanish culture section, then did the obligatory Black American walk through. The kids were hungry so I looked for food. You'll pardon the stereotype but I love fried chicken. If I'm at an event about Blacks and I see a bunch of people walking around eating watermelon (which I did), I just know they're going to have fried chicken too. I said as much to the older, African American lady standing next to me. She looked at me out of the corner of her eye (you know how we do) and I heard her mumble something that might have been an acknowledgment. Then she quickly moved away from me to join her friend in line.
Looking back, I can just imagine what she was thinking. Who does she think she is? She ain't even Black. She got the nerve to talk about some fried chicken and watermelon. Just 'cause you got Black kids don't mean you Black.
I am "mixed". I know my ethnic heritage throws people for a loop. They need a category to plug me in so they can know what to expect from me. How comfortable to be toward me. Whether to laugh or go off on me. There's a whole bunch of stuff thrown into the batch that made me and you can see it all in my face.
I forget sometimes that other people look at me and don't always see a Black woman. I forget sometimes that Black people don't always automatically receive me as one of them.
My mother never seemed to have this problem. My mother is not Black nor does she look Black. She is Hawaiian. She looks Hawaiian (if you know what the original Hawaiians look like - and most people don't), or Fillipina or even Latina. But she identifies with Blacks. The Black Civil Rights struggle is important to her. She can name famous Blacks in history. Racism stings her as harshly as if she were on the receiving end of all those blows & water hoses in Birmingham & Montgomery, Ala. She was called "nigger" by her own mother. She was the darkest-skinned child in her family. She was the "black sheep" in more ways than one. She had her 1st child very young. Later, she had children with Black men. Though not Black, when she moved to the "Mainland" she found easy acceptance in the Black community.
How strange that my mother, who is ethnically anything BUT Black (no matter how much she might long for it), found her place among the group that I rightfully belong to (rightfully, due to my genetic inheritance and my extensive childhood experience living in predominantly Black neighborhoods)... and yet I still haven't.
And "my writer" wonders about the overlapping threads of our lives. How my mother's journey, her struggle, her story blends, bleeds, and intertwines with mine - a continuation of our universal search for acceptance & belonging. If there is wisdom to be shared from our overlapping life stories, it is the value of finding acceptance among the community that receives you. Make family, make love, make lifelong friends among the people that welcome you.
My mother, as a "polynesian" (Samoan-Hawaiian-Chinese) woman raised in a very foreign land very far from America, was received like a daughter among Black Americans.
As I struggle with my own sense of never feeling truly at home in homogeneous Black American environments, I take a step back and think about the people who speak Spanish to me everyday (and I do mean every day). These people have no problem identifying me as someone who belongs. Someone who is one of them. Someone who fits in.
I, as a "biracial" American (Black-Hawaiian-Samoan-Chinese-Indian-White), am received like a daughter among Latin Americans.
I can see Mr. Personality has a good chance of finding acceptance in the new America. I don't know his citizenship status, but I do know his apparent ease in navigating his current situation & shaping it to his intention, is proof that this 21st century America will one day receive him, too like a son.