Last night, I had what might be called “a moment” at the laundromat.

I was sitting with my book, waiting for my 5 loads of laundry to dry when two women entered and began conversing in Spanish. Central American Spanish. With my mother’s accent. Whenever I hear this, I become homesick.

I wanted to say hi, ask them where they were from, tell them we have something in common, but I stopped myself. I stopped myself because I’ve done this many times before, and almost always the reaction has been the same: an expression tinged with surprise, embarrassment, and skepticism followed by a–very polite– response of acknowledgment. In English.

My spanish is not perfect, but it is my first language. I have a very neutral accent–not quite Central American, but certainly not “gringo.” It’s the kind of accent that leads people to assume, correctly I suppose, that I learned the language at a very early age. When I visited Mexico last winter, it drew compliments. It does not, however, draw assumptions that I am a native speaker.

Fact is, I don’t “look” Latina. I don’t. I am the spitting image of my father, a Polish-German rust belt boy. We’re alike in other ways too. We’re both writers. We both left our nascent homelands to spend our early 20s charting lives in other places–he in El Salvador, myself in Canada. I grew up six blocks away from where he did. We both drink beer.

My mother is from a different world that feels very foreign. She grew up riding horses and making bats smoke cigarettes, trapping tarantulas and peeling mangoes with her teeth. My father told me that she can still do this.

I don’t look much like my mother. My brothers do a little bit more, or at least have more of an appearance of being “mixed.” My only visible tip offs are my eyes, which are also hers: nearly black and paisley-shaped, with eyelashes in the tear ducts. We also have similar mouths, but people don’t notice that sort of thing.

Being of a mixed cultural, racial, and/or ethnic heritage is a strange thing, because people like categories. It’s hard to make anyone–even yourself–convinced that you straddle more than one point of reference in the way you approach the world. Often, it’s just easier to go with however you “pass.” This, for me, is Caucasian. North American of European descent. Whatever you want to call it. I identify as a “secret Latina,” because I grew up eating lots of rice  and tortillas and longingly watching talent segments on Sabado Gigante, wishing I too could belt rancheras like the show’s featured child prodigies. There was no Paul Simon in my childhood; instead, I had Juan Luis Guerra. This, regardless of how I look or the interests I now have, is part of who I am. It is as much me as the oversized feet and too-loud laugh.

The book I was reading last night  at the laundromat, when I had my moment, coincidentally happened to be about multi-heritage identity issues. It’s a memoir about a mixed-race girl whose white mother gave her away in the 1950s once she became too old to “pass” as white. Of course, this narrative is radically different from my own 21st century (and white privileged) experience, but I’m finding some similarities between the author’s childhood grapplings with “place” and identity and my own. It’s interesting to consider, particularly in a multicultural city like Toronto where there are “mixies” and “halfies” on every other corner (I know this because we’re all part of the same Facebook group).

Identity is a funny thing, but it sure is fascinating to ponder.

My very wonderful parents and I, post-graduation

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