My Jalapeño Blood

by Guest Contributor Daily Chicana, originally published at Daily Chicana

A few weeks ago, I was at the grocery store buying some jalapeños to make a batch of guacamole. An older white woman watched as I picked several peppers and placed them in a produce bag. “You better be careful with those!” she cheerfully warned.

“Oh, it’s okay,” I smiled, tossing the jalapeños into my cart. “I can handle them. They’re not too hot for me.”

“Well that’s because you’ve got jalapeño blood!” she replied before ambling away.

I stood there for a minute, taken aback at the notion of jalapeño blood. I was unsure of what to make of this comment. Was she a kindly old lady trying to make a silly joke? Or was she making some sort of reference to my skin color and/or ethnicity? I found myself asking, “Is ‘having jalapeño blood’ another way of saying ‘Mexican’?”

It may sound silly to write the question out this way (lord knows it feels ridiculous just typing it), but these are the sort of innocuous interactions that are hard to interpret when you’re a person of color (and Mexican American, in this particular case). If I were to tell my sister this story, I know she’d roll her eyes and tell me that I’m too sensitive, I read too much into these things. She often thinks I’m too concerned about race…but as I explained in a previous post, I can’t help but be that way, because it’s part of my job.

In my experience, it’s not only what is said that matters, but also who says it. A few weeks ago, I was explaining to my boyfriend–who as an Indian immigrant sometimes has a very different understanding of these issues than I do–when someone asks about my ethnic background, I can’t help but take the inquirer’s own race/ethnicity into account. (And I’m talking about strangers or mere acquaintances here; with friends, it’s a different story because I know more about them.) For example, if another person of color asks, “What are you?” I usually don’t hesitate to say that I’m Mexican or Latina. However, when a white person asks, my spidey sense kicks in and I get suspicious. “Why are they asking me this question? And what might they say in response?” I have had too many encounters that end on a sour note because something rather ignorant emerges from their lips after I reveal my ethnicity.

My reticence especially comes through then their curiosity is phrased as, “Where are you from?” to which I immediately reply with the name of my Midwestern town. Usually they continue to repeat the question: “No, I mean, where are you from?” because they can’t seem to understand that (a) yes, I’m from the US; and (b) there is a difference between nationality/where you are born and ethnicity or race. (I’m far from the first to write about this frustrating phenomenon: Check out Michele Serros’ How to Be a Chicana Role Model or this post I discovered at Latin@ Pop.) My sister, of all people, had the best response I’ve ever heard to this line of questioning: after several thwarted attempts to get her to reveal her ethnicity, a white dude asked in desperation, “What do you have in you?” She told him, “A super-absorbent tampon.” And that sure shut him up!

When I first shared all this with my boyfriend, he played devil’s advocate and asked whether, in my own treating people differently based on their race, wasn’t I being racist myself? I don’t think I am, though. First, I don’t think that acknowledging the existence of different races is in itself a racist act. And second, as a woman of color, I don’t really have enough power over anyone else to impact their lives or limit their opportunities on the basis of race. What I mean is, is the inquirer’s white privilege damaged in any way just because I give them a hard time in finding out my ethnicity? No. They will go on to enjoy the perks of whiteness whether they know I’m Mexican or not.

So back to the grocery store lady. She could be right: maybe I do have jalapeño blood because I do tend to get awfully feisty around these issues. But it’s only because I’ve had 30+ years of dealing with people like her. On some days, it’s enough to make a Chicana want to become a real-life Mexican Spitfire. In fact, I’m signing off to begin practicing my Lupe Velez impersonation…. (Check out my favorite scene at 1:40.)

  • Chimalpahin-sama

    Real interesting, heck I can”t even eat anything spicy, which unfortunately makes me less Mexican for most Hahaha

  • Anonymous

    Oh, that “where are you from” question. I always find it interesting when other people of color ask me that, with the same insistence that I must not be from the US because I’m brown like them. I also find it to be a very different question depending on the color of the person asking, but I still don’t feel like I ever know how to react.

  • C

    I LOVE IT when people troll and don’t answer the question directly. After being asked the same thing all our lives, I guess we have to entertain ourselves somehow, haha.

    Personally, I turn the question right around on them. Sometimes they become aware of how stupid the question is and sometimes it just makes them squirm. Either way, it amuses me.

  • Anonymous

    Love this. Usually I’ve found that when people ask “Where are you from”
    or are trying to suss out my ethnic background (I’m Asian-American)
    there usually follows a “compliment” about how they love xyz food,
    beauty, etc something really generalizing. It makes me wonder why it
    has to be such a conversation piece ALL THE TIME.

    Depending on who the asker is, my response usually oscillates between
    “OH THANK YOU FOR NOTICING AT THE NEXT ASIAN PEOPLE MEETING I’LL LET EVERYONE KNOW.”
    Or “I’m white – can’t you tell?” (I credit the great Hari Kondabolu for the second one).

    • dailychicana

      omg I love this: “At the next Asian people meeting I’ll let everyone know”! I’m going to use that line next time!

  • Anonymous

    I am Mohawk, my Dad is Mohawk, my mother is white. People sometimes ask where I am from and I say upstate NY, and they ask, no where are your people from, and I say Upstate NY, and they ask again and again, And I eventually say, if you go back 400 years my mothers side is from Holland, and my fathers side is still from Upstate NY, you can go back 20,000 years on that one. They get very confused, like they forget people where here before columbus. Very annoying.

  • BSKazzy

    Great piece. I’m curious if there is a way to genuinely ask where someone is from that doesn’t risk offending in the manner offered here. For instance, if someone simply wanted to know what part of the country you were from, would they need to phrase it so specifically to avoid the offense?

    • Sidra

      “Are you from/did you grow up in [the state you're in]?” Pretty standard.

    • fox

      “What state are you from” might work. But honestly–up until you’re better acquaintances, why is it anyone’s business? You’re here now.

    • Medusa

      Are you from [whatever state you're in]?

    • B. Durbin

      I think the most neutral phrasing would be something like, “What’s your heritage?” Even then, I wouldn’t ask that of strangers. It’s fairly intrusive in general.

  • Clara Morena

    I love, love, love this article. I have an Anglo USain father and a Mexican mother and I once told this to a professor( after we had an conversion about Star Trek) and he said ” best of both worlds”.
    I know he meant well but that just rubbed me the wrong way.
    I get “what are you?” all the fucking time.

  • http://www.facebook.com/deena.bowman.18 Deena Bowman

    “My sister, of all people, had the best response I’ve ever heard to this line of questioning: after several thwarted attempts to get her to reveal her ethnicity, a white dude asked in desperation, “What do you have in you?” She told him, “A super-absorbent tampon.” And that sure shut him up!”

    Ha! Ha! Tell your sister I’m borrowing this line. And yes, I get exasperated myself with questions that have nothing to do with a genuine (non-judgmental) interest in my genealogy. Ironically, a former supervisor of mine, who was black and female, would give this ultimate warning to us at the workplace about the dangers of raising her ire: “don’t get my scotch-irish-Cherokee up!”

    Hmmmmm.

  • http://twitter.com/ohmyerica Erica Taylor

    “Usually they continue to repeat the question: “No, I mean, where are you from?” because they can’t seem to understand that (a) yes, I’m from the US; and (b) there is a difference between nationality/where you are born and ethnicity or race.”

    This reminds me of an exchange between Leslie and Tom on Parks and Recreation:

    Leslie Knope: You’re not from here, right?
    Tom Haverford: No, I’m from South Carolina.
    Leslie Knope: But you moved to South Carolina from where?
    Tom Haverford: My mother’s uterus.
    Leslie Knope: But you were conceived in Libya, right?
    Tom Haverford: Wow. No. I was conceived in America. My parents are Indian.

  • http://twitter.com/globetrottertex Globetrotting Texan

    This happens to me all the time back home. And I’m Argentine-American, which gets people very confused. First, they over look the whole “American” part, and go straight into stupid question mode (people that feel they have to ask my race/origins/ethnicity are usually not bright either): “Is Argentina in Europe or Africa?”, “Is that in Mexico?”, “Oh, so you’re Hispanic.But you’re so much whiter than average.”

  • Jackson Durand

    I don’t think you questioning why someone would say such a thing was oversensitive or reading too much into it. It sounded like yet another microaggression, and you’ve had to endure a lot of those over the years. And I don’t think it’s inappropriate that you would feel and react differently to another person of color asking “what are you?” than to a white person. I mean, the experiences you’ve had with white people asking that (or the “where are you from?” lines of questions) is different, so why wouldn’t you react differently?

    I prefer the “racism = power + prejudice” definition, so I don’t think your different reaction could, in American society, be racist, I don’t even think it’s prejudiced. White people love to scream that “NOT ALL WHITE PEOPLE ARE LIKE THAT” but if your overwhelming experience with those questions from white people have been unpleasant like that? Yeah, it’s not prejudice to think that when someone asks that question next time surely they’ve got only the purest of motives.

    I’m white. I’ve learned I shouldn’t ask stuff like that indiscriminately. It’s potentially othering. It’s a question I’ve heard a lot of people don’t like being asked. It doesn’t hurt me to NOT ask it, even if my intentions are perfectly friendly.

    If not asking rude questions hurts my white privilege, oh noes!! It’s not like I don’t have more where that came from. :/

  • XiXi Top

    I’d say you have cucumber blood b/c you handled that sitch in a cool, calm & collected manner.

  • kim

    Great read. I relate to everything in this post. I’m Asian and “no where are you REALLY from” over and over and over for 30 plus years becomes the bane of your existence. I too react differently based on whether the asker is white or not. It’s a learned defense mechanism. a white dude asked in desperation, “What do you have in you?” She told him, “A super-absorbent tampon.” lmao

    • Isa

      “a white dude asked in desperation, “What do you have in you?” She told him, “A super-absorbent tampon.” lmao”

      that is REALLY funny.

  • Anonymous

    Believing that there’s a such thing as “jalapeno blood” is the measure of being stuck on stupid. I admire your thoughtfulness and patience in responding to willful ignorance like this, because I sure as hell don’t have it.

    If grown adults don’t understand the difference between nationality and race/ethnicity, much less the fact that food preference has nothing to do with race or genetics, then shame on them.

  • rachel

    thanks for this. as a white woman, i’d never much thought of the question “where are you from?”(though i tended to steer clear of it in casual conversation with folks i didn’t know) until i dated a first generation chinese american from the suburbs of minneapolis. It was shocking to me how many people asked him over and over where he was from when he replied he was from said suburb and who then asked no where was he FROM he’d respond brooklyn and lastly he’d tell them his parents came from china. I’m sorry that people are so stupid. i really, really am. it’s just so disheartening sometimes how really stupid people can be without even realizing it.