This MexicaninManhattandecided one cold, dreary New York morning to cook up a good-old stomach-filling desayuno: toast, eggs, and bacon fried extra crispy the way I like it.
After breakfast and ready for the day, I stepped outside my loft and bumped into my neighbor in the hallway. “Mmmm,” she sighed. “I could smell your breakfast cooking. What was that you were making? Some sort of Mexican Chorizo?
“Oscar Mayer bacon,” I replied in a polite deadpan.
My well-intentioned vecina was thinking in what I call shorthand; jumping to the most logical conclusion. She had crunched the ethnic numbers in her head:
A Mexican was cooking. It had to be Mexican food.
The incident is an example of the many times people made an always-uncomfortable detour in cultural confusion. “What are you bringing to the party? Guacamole dip? ¿Frijoles a la Charra? Your famous Mexican Chocolate Cake?”
“Well, no,” I counter, “I can bring some fried chicken, twice-baked potatoes, or maybe even a lemon meringue pie made from scratch.”
Somewhere, apple pie is ethnic food; so always remember it’s chorizo to you, Oscar Meyer to me.
En algun lugar pastel de manzana es comida étnica; entonces recuerde que es chorizo para tí, Oscar Meyer para mí.
Although I do happen to make a guacamole that would make La Malinche think twice about selling out the Aztecs, frijoles a la charra that would make Pancho Villa launch a whole new revolution, and a Mexican Chocolate Cake that has gotten me lucky in the romance department two-and-a-half times (don’t ask), I am perfectly capable of whipping up food that is not necessarily draped in a Mexican rebozo or accompanied by a robust, fully-costumed Mariachi band.
But, if you are identified as ethnic, then everything about you is ethnic; your shoes, hair, clothes, and of course your comida.
Even though tortillas almost outsell white bread in the United States and salsa outsells ketchup … those foods will forever carry the stamp of the foreign, different; the transplant.
I realized that I am in the same category as tacos, tortillas, and salsa — a fourth-generation American that will forever be considered ethnic even if I perhaps one day also outsell ketchup in the United States.
Hot dogs, hamburgers, apple pie: That’s America.
Guess what? In some other country people might find the mixture of flour, apples, and cinnamon exotic, esoteric, and perhaps even disturbing.
Then there’s the combination of a nuclear pink, tubular cylinder of mystery meat coupled with a mustard concoction, toxic in color, all served in a highly processed split loaf that many centuries ago was called bread.
The residents of a faraway nation unfamiliar with that food would immediately and without hesitation label the hot dog as foreign, different; a transplant.
Apple pie here. Yucko pooey there.
So, as my New York City neighbor and I do a tentative “Is it Oscar Mayer or is it chorizo?” cultural tango in the hallway of my apartment building, I realize we have a passion for labeling. “I met this nice Mexican guy.” “I talked with this cool Black guy.” “I hung out with this fun Asian girl.”
All of that instead of, “I met this nice guy,” etc.
Newspapers, magazines, and television reports confirm the ethnic enigma. The people of England but the natives of Borneo. It is rare to read “The people of Borneo and the natives of England.”
What is and is not “ethnic” depends on where you live. You may smell my breakfast cooking and without visual confirmation call it spicy, exotic, and ethnic.
I just call it breakfast.
Mario is the author of The Chalupa Rules: A Latino Guide to Gringolandia.