To celebrate the end of that god-awful winter (and the arrival of the cherry blossoms), I decided to treat myself to a daal saag last weekend. I step into my local Indian hole-in-the-wall. The proprietor, a friend after all these years of daal saag-ing (I'm a creature of habit), greets me with a smile. "Sunil," I say, "the usual table, please!" I take a seat by the window, and he brings me some courtesy papadam.
The restaurant is pretty empty, so Sunil and I begin chatting. As the conversation moves into deeper matters (life, death, cardamom), he suddenly grimaces and apologizes for what will be an awkward question. ("No worries," I reassure him, "I'm used to awkward questions.") And then he comes out with it: "Why are you always nice and polite? The other Puerto Ricans who come in here are so loud and rude."
Two things stopped me from throttling him (well, three if you count the papadam): first, he was sincerely curious; and second, if I got in that habit I would be picking fights every day.
So I begin my explanation: "Well, Sunil, the Puerto Ricans who emigrated to New York in the great diaspora of the '50s were searching for a better life than they had in Puerto Rico. They had a shit time back home, and then they get to this island and have a shit time here, getting called 'spic' and being pushed down by the white Manhattanite. So you have a lot of justifiable anger from past generations being passed down-- "
And suddenly it hits me like a pound of racist bricks: how does Sunil know that every "loud and rude" person that comes in is Puerto Rican? Is he going by their name-plate necklaces and baggy pants? Because that's just a ghetto New Yorker, and god knows they come in all ethnicities.
And not just that: he only knows that I'm Puerto Rican because we're friends. But the guy at the next table (wearing a suit, reading Nature) could be Puerto Rican too, and Sunil would never know -- or even imagine it could be possible. And why not? Because he's swallowed the media's Latino stereotype faster than a red-hot pakora.
It is well known that there is a very limited representation of Latinos in mainstream media, whereas "white people" (I hate that term, being white myself) are depicted in a million ways. We all know about rich white people, suburban middle-class white people, trailer-park white people, but we've been shown -- almost without exception -- only ghetto Latin people.
As a white-skinned Puerto Rican actress with a middle-class upbringing, I've suffered intense discrimination and career setbacks because of this solitary stereotype ("You're so talented, but I just don't know how to sell you..."). I completed a feature film last year called White Alligator about my personal story that resonates with a hell of a lot of people out there. I nearly killed myself making this film (it's a hard job, don't let them fool you) because I am ready - desperate even -- for an all-inclusive American New Wave. Yes, there are Latinos who are drug dealers, maids, and prostitutes, but there are way more who are not. So let's balance the stereotype scales a little bit, shall we? I'm getting bored (and upset).
Ironically, a lot of Latinos are bothered by this call to arms. "You're just acting white," they say. "Where's your Latino pride?"
I was raised in a middle-class household in a safe neighborhood by two professional, well-educated Puerto Rican parents. I went to private schools. I have never taken a drug that wasn't Tylenol, and I have never even met a dealer or a prostitute. Were my parents trying to act white? Guess what, buddy, their upbringings were the same (yes, in Puerto Rico), and so were those of my grandparents. Was someone in my lineage 500 years ago trying to act white?
Or perhaps is it that the Latino population is just as varied as the "white" population, regardless of what Hollywood has told us? (Yes.)
So am I acting white? Am I rejecting my heritage?
Or am I simply living?
White Alligator will screen at the Fourth Annual Art of Brooklyn Film Festival on Saturday, May 10.
Follow Viviana Leo on Twitter: www.twitter.com/WhiteAlligator1