"You don't look Peruvian," I was told once. What does a Peruvian look like? I responded. "Well, they are like this," the person answered signaling with his right hand someone who is way shorter than me.
What would an American think if I were to say: "You don't look American." Why? "Because you aren't blond, tall, have blue eyes, wear jeans and a flannel shirt."
Things are not that black and white, or better said in this particular case, that brown and pink.
We Peruvians, Mexicans, Argentinians, Latinos in general come in different heights, skin and eye colors, shapes, hair textures. Latino is not a race. Finally, the U.S. census has acknowledged that. However, most people continue calling it a race in our need to classify everything in this world.
What makes someone a Latino? Their ethnic background, their culture and the values that are associated with it.
I'm sure this is not the first time you have heard a statement like this one. So why do we insist into categorizing everyone and place them in different boxes? Well, for one, we need to identify what is around us, as a defense mechanism, an understanding of what surrounds us. The problem is when the classification becomes so basic and simplistic.
Fortunately, for my well-being and blood pressure, people's ignorance amuses me. Whether if I am asked if in Peru there are French fries, chewing gum or nightclubs, or if Lima is in the mountains, or how I am going to celebrate Cinco de Mayo.
I am glad that little by little my fellow Americans, at least in metropolitan areas, are realizing that not all Latinos grew up eating tortillas, wearing sombreros or listening to Mariachis. We are not all either Mexican, Puerto Ricans or Cuban. That not all of us dance salsa, or eat hot salsa.
Fifteen years ago I went to a Jewel supermarket to buy cilantro. I found it; it was three times more expensive than parsley. When I paid for it, the cashier rang it as parsley. I saved one dollar due to her ignorance. I am glad that won't happen anymore: currently cilantro is half the price of parsley and cashiers have developed a better eyesight and sense of smell.
There are twenty Latino countries south of the Río Grande, nineteen of them speak Spanish and the largest of all of them--Brazil--speaks Portuguese. Each country has its own history, customs, beliefs, governments, heroes, foods, geography. There are similarities as well, specially the idiosyncrasy imposed by the Spanish and Portuguese conquistadors, the Christian--Catholic mostly--religion, and the language.
For us, North, Central and South America are called America, and it's just one continent. We live in the United States which is located in America. Once I read that the big difference between the United States and Latin America is that while the Pilgrims came to this land in search of religious freedom to build with their hard labor a new home, the conquistadors came to the southern lands to take the goods to their European kingdoms. While in the U.S. indigenous people were killed and placed in reservations, in the south they became a servile class. That created a different work ethics. While in the U.S. anybody who works hard can achieve their dream, in Latin America we grew up used to having someone to serve us, so climbing the social and class ladder is much more difficult. Also, while freedom of religion is a staple of this country, Catholicism and its repressed teachings play an important role in the mindset of the Latin American.
Later waves of immigration --Italian, German, Japanese, Chinese--developed different subcultures. The native inhabitants and their different levels of progress, the diverse lands, contributed to the formation of a specific country. So not all Latinos do the tango, eat spicy hot food, or practice Santería.
Most of us speak Spanish but can't understand every word, so we may need a little time to understand each other. What is completely true though is that when we meet, a sense of warmth and comfort is achieved with ease. Whether is the longing for the original land, the laid back atmosphere, the closeness of our bodies or the understanding of basic life, we share the Latino pride.