When my mother taught second grade, she would regularly return home around 8:30 p.m., working late hours as part of an afterschool program designed to provide underprivileged children with additional writing instruction. As she worked the nights away, my father and I were usually tasked with fetching dinner from a local pupusería. My father is a tall white man boasting subpar social skills and an expressionless face that mistakenly comes across as angry. Although he understands Spanish—the result of his marriage—his accent renders him all but incomprehensible. My task during our regular dinner trips was to serve as his translator, given that most of the employees at the local pupusería could not understand my father’s broken Spanish (or his English, for that matter).
Our interactions with the pupusería were comical, to say the least. My father would enter donning his stoic face and silently direct me to the cashier. Casually, I would approach the register and order the usual with my pubescent voice: “dos con loroco, dos de chicharrón, dos de queso, y una bolsa de curtido, por favor.” The restaurant would fall silent for a moment as everyone wondered what a man as white as sour cream and his pale son were doing in a tiny pupusería, but eventually the sounds and smells of fresh food and good company refocused everyone’s attention. Minutes later we’d happily walk away, pupusas in hand (and sometimes an horchata or two), eagerly awaiting my mother’s return from work.
From an early age I understood that my identity was odd. Although my mom is your typical short Salvadoran woman, I inherited virtually none of her physical attributes. The closest anyone has ever come to identifying me as Hispanic was when my mother commented that my military haircut reminded her of MS-13. My father disagreed, arguing that my hair (or lack of) gave off “white supremacist vibes.”
My younger brother, on the other hand, closely resembles my mother’s family in terms of figure and skin tone. Oddly enough, my mother agreed with my father’s condition that their first child be granted an “Anglo” name, so long as their second child would bear a “standard” Hispanic name. As such, my parents forewent a major opportunity to mess with the world order by boringly naming their white son Nathan and their darker son Diego.
Nevertheless, my mother was adamant that neither Diego nor I would lose touch with our roots. When we first got cable, my mother ensured that all the channels were broadcast in Spanish. My brother and I were forced to watch poorly dubbed Spanish renditions of Star Wars and “Ed, Edd, n Eddy,” the latter proving especially disturbing in Spanish. My mother went as far as to set our video games in Spanish. Hence why Diego and I took over two hours to beat the first level of Lego Indiana Jones on the PlayStation 2; neither of us understood what the goddamn game was trying to communicate when our avatar kept prompting us to use our “llave inglesa” (Spanish for “wrench”).
At my mother’s insistence, Diego and I attended a K-8 bilingual school. Half my classes were taught in Spanish, and my mother did her best to ensure that we spent as much time as possible with her friends from the “motherland.” Consequently, the birthday parties we attended largely consisted of bounce house wrestling, piñatas filled with poorly labeled Mexican candy that unnerved my father, and singing “las mañanitas” at some random park.
These festivities quickly established that Diego and I were different, despite our shared bloodline. People typically assumed that my brother spoke Spanish, whilst generally placing me in the “gringo” category. Whereas whites never asked where I was from, Diego’s heritage was frequently a topic of conversation. As we grew older, Diego and I learned that the Hispanic identity had not been conferred equally upon us. Diego proudly shared his Salvadoran roots with his friends, taking stronger stances on issues of identity and social justice. I, on the other hand, disliked attending Hispanic heritage events; I always felt like an impostor of sorts. After all, my name is Nathan Luke Williams; you can’t get much whiter than that.
Every so often Diego and I discuss whether it’s wrong to claim our mother’s identity for ourselves. What does that even mean, to “claim the Hispanic identity”? To speak Spanish fluently? To be dark skinned and trace one’s roots south of the border? I didn’t witness the Salvadoran Civil War like my mother. I didn’t have to cross a border or start from scratch in an alien nation. Am I somehow cheating if I claim the Hispanic identity without having shared in its suffering?
Since my mom switched schools, my father and I no longer frequent the old pupusería. To the disappointment of many Salvadorans, my family now almost exclusively consumes Mexican tamales, given the dearth of Salvadoran tamales in my neighborhood. Personally, I feel no need to rank tamales; each kind has its respective home in my stomach. However, my family’s shift in taste marked the end of my brief career as a translator; the tamelería we now order from boasts pretty pictures of delicious tamales for my father to point at. This past summer, I accompanied my father on his weekly tamale run and was surprised to find a cream cheese strawberry tamale on display. After all, it’s not every day that I find food that accurately describes me: strangely gringo, oddly Hispanic, and 100% American.
P.S. For those interested in acquiring a cream cheese strawberry tamale, simply stop by the California Tamales House in North Hills.
Nathan L. Williams ’18 is a Government concentrator in Mather House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.
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