The phrase is increasingly used to describe biracial people whose names and appearance can’t be easily boxed into a major racial category. It’s been applied to Rosario Dawson, Rashida Jones and now Meghan Markle, the soon-to-be newest member of the British royal family. The former actress often auditioned for roles described as “ethnically ambiguous,” according to The Washington Post. When she tried out for the television series “Suits,” in a role with no designated ethnicity, some in the room questioned if she was Latina or Mediterranean, before director Kevin Bray noted that she was biracial.
“What are you?”— it’s a common refrain in the lives of people of mixed ethnic backgrounds. We are constantly having to confront and explain. It’s like being asked to “show your papers” at every introduction.
As I see it, I’m an ’80s prototype of America’s multiracial future, a group growing three times faster than the population as a whole, according to a 2015 Pew Research Center report. As interracial marriages have become less taboo, these ethnic mash-ups will gradually become the norm. Racial identity has always been fraught, but increasingly, old clues like surnames are no longer a reliable tip-off to a person’s identity.
My parents divorced before I was old enough to walk, and I grew up with my mom in South Florida. When I was in elementary school, we lived in the predominantly Cuban American community of Hialeah, where the air is as thick and humid as it is in the Caribbean islands we call home. I spoke Spanish with my family, and we ate refried beans, eggs and mantequilla for breakfast. My earliest memories are of my grandmother cleaning with a Cuban-style stick mop, blaring Luis Miguel and trying to get me to dance.
In Dave Chappelle’s racial draft, Latinos would have the stronger claim to me, but people are frequently confused by my self-identification as a Latina.
“Your last name is Hatzipanagos, but you say ‘soy Latina!’ ” a Hispanic colleague once said to me, jokingly.
As unthreatening as the comment seems, I wonder if there’s an undertone of suspicion — an accusation that I’m latching onto an identity that doesn’t belong to me.
When non-Latino people question my identity, my cynical side wonders if they simply want to know how they should act around me. Do they want to confirm my background so they can determine whether it’s cool to tell a racist joke?
In a previous workplace, for instance, I once overheard my co-workers perform a cruel parody of a Mexican accent. Since they never got to know me beyond the superficial, they didn’t realize they were insulting people like my grandmother, who does not speak English. I didn’t confront my colleagues, fearing repercussions, but I never forgot it.
My identity is blurred, and I don’t want to have to pick a side at every turn. Going into the hows and whys of my parents’ relationship goes beyond comfortable small talk. While my name causes confusion, it is what I have left of my distant relationship with my father.
As a child, I would visit him for a few hours once a week at the Port of Miami, where he worked as a dining-room manager on a cruise ship. I’d eat food prepared for me by a gourmet chef and ride up and down the glass-enclosed elevators in the lobby.
In the summer, I would travel with him to his home country.
My Greek family was big and loud (the movies get this right). Instead of palomilla steak, we had pastichio. Instead of frijoles, we had tzatziki.
While my younger Greek cousins all spoke English, my older relatives did not. My cousins tried desperately to get me to learn Greek during one of my visits when I was 7. My dad promised to take me to the beach if I could successfully recite the Greek alphabet. I went to the beach, but the language never really stuck.
The time I spent in Greek culture felt much like being a college student on a study abroad program. As welcoming as my Greek family was, the country never felt like home. It wasn’t so much that I chose a side, it’s just I was exposed to one side more.
Still, I recognize that my Greek heritage will forever be a part of me, a part I can’t shed and don’t want to.
Four years ago, I got married. I still haven’t changed my last name; it’s my final tether to my Greek heritage. I plan to become Rachel Chester one day, but I don’t want to give up Hatzipanagos so quickly. I’m comforted knowing that I’m part of America’s “ethnically ambiguous” future, a future where people like me and Meghan Markle won’t have to pick a side and explain ourselves. A future where the question won’t be “What are you?” but “Why does it matter?”
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