Pigeonholed

in The Salon by

The memories of my childhood are all mixed up, but I had to have been around five years old when my mom went to the Navy. My brother and I spent some of the next few years with our dad and his wife and our baby half-sister out by the Brickyard, and some of the time in Logan Square with our grandma — our mom’s mom — and our aunt, who had to have been only 22 or so, the poor woman.

My grandma owned a boutique on Ashland Avenue, just north of Chicago Avenue, called La Reina Fashion. She sold all kinds of crap: tacky sequined dresses mostly, racks of them, but also cheap jewelry, cheap toys, and even greeting cards for every occasion. My grandma had owned or co-owned a string of other stores before, some of them pretty successful — enough to pay for private school for my mom and her little sister — but by the time my brother and I got there, La Reina Fashion was barely breaking even.

Anyway, because my grandma didn’t believe in babysitters and my aunt was starting her career as some sort of accountant, my brother and I had to be at the store whenever we weren’t at school.

Like I said, my grandma sold a lot of crap, seemingly anything she could buy in bulk for cheap and fit in the store. Every Cinco de Mayo she’d set up a table out front on the sidewalk displaying Mexican flags, necklaces, bracelets, T-shirts, knick-knacks, you name it. And she’d have us out there, my brother and me, waving Mexican flags at passing cars, yelling “Viva México!

We’re not Mexican. My mom was born in a mountain village in Honduras, and my dad’s Puerto Rican. But it didn’t matter to my grandma, and my brother and I didn’t care nohow. The way we jumped and yelled and waved el tricolor, you would’ve thought we’d just landed from Guadalajara.

Then, when June came, my grandma would do the same thing, only this time she’d set up the table with Puerto Rican flags and necklaces and bracelets (where’d she get it all?) and whatever else, and my brother and me would be out there waving flags and yelling “Viva Puerto Rico!” — only, admittedly, with a little more gusto.

At that tender age, I’m not even sure I knew what Mexican or Puerto Rican meant. I definitely had no clear concept of Hispanic or, today’s more popular term, Latino. In my five- or six-year-old eyes, the world was divided between white people, black people, Asians, Indians, and people who ate rice and beans, what we were. Latin America was the country our family came from not too long ago, with my mom being from one part of the country, called “Honduras,” and my dad’s family being from another part, an island, called “Puerto Rico.” The people in the those places talked a little different and ate a little different, and their music was different too, but it was all the same country. Just like how a person from California is different than a person from Chicago, and how they’re both different than a person from Alabama — still, all one country.

I must’ve felt that way, and for the most part, I still do.

Since I started writing for Latino publications — what, like 10 years ago now? — I’ve always promoted not merely Latino solidarity, but Latino oneness. Even when writing passionately about the crises in Puerto Rico or Honduras, my ancestral homelands, I never veered into anything like nationalism. On the status question in Puerto Rico, I’m an independentista, but I’m no nationalist, which I believe is something of a rarity in the independence movement. (I may be wrong.) I even wrote an op-ed, long since disappeared from the internet, titled “There’s No Such Thing as Puerto Rican Pride,” which was really about the silliness in being proud of your nationality or culture, things belonging to you by mere accident of birth.

It’s very possible to appreciate things like your nationality or heritage, even your skin color. But to be proud of them? Pride is something much more personal. I didn’t do anything to be Honduran, or Puerto Rican, or black, so how can I say I’m proud to be those things? What does it mean to be proud to be a black Honduran-Puerto-Rican American, or even just a man?

Pride isn’t the point of this post. This is about identity: what it is, and what it isn’t.

A year or so after my mom came back from the Navy, we ended up in the suburbs. There weren’t any Puerto Ricans there, or Hondurans (I wouldn’t meet another Honduran, one outside the family, till I was an adult). But there was something that I hadn’t seen on the north side of Chicago: a lot of Mexicans, and some East Asians and Indians (the dot, not the feather, though I had friends who were feather Indians, too).

All the different kids hung out together for the most part, though we usually divided between the kids who had strict parents (the white and Indian kids) and the kids whose parents were a little looser. (The white kids, I have to say, split the same way, with the rich white kids on one side and the poor or immigrant white kids on the other; the white kids I hung out with were mostly of the second type.) Because there were no other Puerto Ricans around to fit in with, I learned a lot about Mexican culture from the Mexican kids, to the point where my Latinoness became heavily Mexican.

I can already hear a few angry readers complaining, What’s ‘heavily Mexican’ supposed to mean, huh?! Get out of here with that bullshit; you know exactly what I mean. Some people are from Chicago, and some people are from Alabama — same culture, different versions.

So I became a bit Mexican for a while. Then, when I started kicking it with the black kids almost exclusively, I became a bit black. And then I lived with my Ukrainian friend’s family, and later with my ex-girlfriend’s rich Jewish-Japanese family, so I became a bit Ukrainian and then a bit bourgeois Jewish-Japanese.

First I learned Mexican slang and cholo culture, about mole and Mexican candy, Selena and banda music. Then I learned to use cocoa butter and how to play the Dozens. Then I learned to ask Chto ti deleash? and eat cured meats, Russian pastries, and these eggs you opened the top of and ate the gooey insides. And then I learned about flank steaks and sushi, nuts and fruit on salads, lox and bagels, gefilte fish, matzah ball soup, charoset, apple cake, and Manischewitz wine. I went to temple on the High Holidays (the temple had a woman rabbi), watched my girlfriend and her mom light candles and recite the kiddush on Friday nights, read at a few seders (bummed that I was too old to help hide the afikoman), picked up some Yiddish (♫ “Oyfn pripetchik brent a fayerl,/ Un in shtub iz heys,/ Un der rebe lernt kleyne kinderlekh,/ Dem alef-beys.“) — all that good stuff.

To this day, religio-culturally speaking, I’m an atheist Catholic Jew.

Hence, considering everything I’ve just written, I pray you can appreciate the understatement in my saying that I hate being pigeonholed.

In 2016, after writing for a string of mostly Latino publications — though I happily wrote for RedEye, too — I decided to launch my own website. Right away there was pressure to make the site Latino-centric, because, well, the people I was working with were Latino, and so it seemed ludicrous that a bunch of Latinos would launch a website that was anything but focused on the Latino world. Yet I was dead set against launching another Latino website. I wanted to launch a site where people — writers, poets, videographers, whoever — could write about whatever was on their minds and in their hearts. The only requirement was that they do their best work, and not half-ass anything.

Almost three years later, I feel as though I’ve failed in that vision, at least so far. (There’s still plenty of time.) Much of the failure has to do with the fact that, once we’d designed the site and it was up and running beautifully, I got hit hard with writer’s block.

I never believed in writer’s block before: in the idea that a writer, who was completely healthy and free to work, could find it impossible to put words together on a page for any stretch of time. I’d edited at a few places before, at Latino Rebels and Gozamos, where occasionally a writer or two would complain to me that he or she was finding it impossible to write anything; I was writing every day of the week, Monday through Friday, sometimes multiple posts a day — and not silly posts either, never a listicle, but actual opinion pieces where I tried to write as best I could each time. “Just write, dammit!” I remember telling everybody who wasn’t writing — I was such a know-nothing hard-ass.

Now I know writer’s block is real. It’s purely mental, of course, but then again, nearly everything that holds us back is in our minds. All action begins in the mind, so you can’t do something when you can’t even think to do it in the first place. And for the life of me I couldn’t think to write — not really — for a very, very long time.

The main obstacle, however, has been finding writers and other contributors, which stems from the lack of funds to pay said writers. But it also from the fact that, even now, most people don’t know what to make of Enclave. Readers must spot the Spanish names under the masthead and in the bylines and assume it’s a Latino website (though I’ve recently published some very good pieces by Tim Clark).

Last year, still finding it hard to write, I launched a podcast, and then too there was pressure to make it a Latino podcast; there’s still pressure to do that. I’m a host with a very Spanish name, so shouldn’t the title be something Spanish, or a play on something Spanish, and shouldn’t the guests be Latinos, and shouldn’t we discuss “Latino issues”? So far I’ve avoided all that, though I’ll admit there have been more Latino guests than any other kind. We live in an increasingly segregated society, and I can’t help knowing a lot of interesting people who also happen to be Latino.

So while I’ve rejected being pigeonholed as a Honduran or a Puerto Rican or a Latino, I’m beginning to see that pigeonholing is the name of the game, if not in the world at large, then definitely in media. Everything is so niche, so specialized, splintered, bubbled up. And because there’s so much content out there, in all forms, anyone in media or entertainment looking to make a name for himself must first win the approval of whichever identity group he belongs to, whether white or black or Latino or Muslim or gay, whatever. In the beginning, your fellow group members are the only people who pay any attention to you. If you’re any good — or, more realistically, if you do and say the things they like — they’ll vouch for you and start talking you up, and then the rest of the world takes notice. They call it crossing over, which is different than passing on, but just as heavenly. Once you cross over, they promise, the streets are paved with gold and the rivers flow with milk and honey.

If I would just present myself, Enclave and Remember the Show! as Latino — or better yet, Afro-Latino — maybe I could target an audience that would be more willing to consider my work. And then my popularity would grow, which I could then monetize and finally start paying some bills around here.

Maybe.

But I’m not just a Latino, or an Afro-Latino. I’m a man — and more than that, a human being — and way, way more than that, too. So I don’t want to just write about Latino issues, or Afro-Latino issues, though I’ll continue to write about those things because they’re important and I feel some responsibility, or at least the tiniest obligation, as a writer who reads a lot, to bring the world’s attention to such issues. But I want to write about other things that have nothing to do with my Latinoness; my Latinoness is such a small part of who I am, what I am.

Plus I don’t want to play up to anybody or any group, not even “my own people,” so called. My own people, Latinos, at least the ones in media and academia and activism — the people most likely to read my essays and listen to my podcast — want me to use words like Latinx and talk about intersectionality while constantly sneering at the white world. They want me to cheer everything any Latino does and rarely mentioned the European heritage of latinidad. I can never refer to the second Monday in October as “Columbus Day,” or celebrate any aspect of the Age of Exploration in any way whatsoever.

Well, I’ll never use the word Latinx, but as you can tell, I do enjoy discussing the multiple layers of identity. And when I do sneer, it isn’t only at the white world, but at the Latino world, too — at the whole world entero. I want to celebrate Latino culture but also criticize it; that will never make me popular with my own people, but so be it.

I mean to write exactly what I think and feel, and nothing else. And no amount of fame or money can make me do otherwise. (I once got paid a few hundred bucks by T-Mobile to write copy for some new phone. The catch was I had to integrate it with Marvel somehow. I did it, and it was damn good — obviously — but it cut out a piece of me I’m still struggling to restore.) I don’t write to be rich and famous. I might have had those delusions when I was first starting out, but after you’ve been working at something for a while and the fame and riches are still nowhere in sight, and you realize they almost certainly will never come, that you will never be rich or famous, then you have to decide why you’re working so hard at the thing and whether you want to keep going or pick something else to do that can make you rich and famous.

My writer’s block was due to a bit of that lusting as well, during which I realized something very important about myself, something I’ve always told people because it sounds good but didn’t really believe until the light at the end of my tunnel had been snuffed out: I have to write. I don’t have to be rich or famous, but I have to write. Discovering that liberated me from all the pressures I’d put on myself and that had been put on me all along, to be somebody and make money. Now I’m truly free to do what I not only love, but what I feel is my main purpose in life.

We call our planet “Earth,” but it’s mostly water (and more so every day). Most people probably see me as Latino, even other Latinos, but the overwhelming majority of me doesn’t belong to any ethnic group or race or religion or anything like that. Most of me is even undefinable to me. I’m not sure I know who or what I am, so I deeply resent anyone who confidently assumes they do, and have a word for it: Latino.

So, now that we’ve gotten all that out of the way — now that I can write as a human being and not just a Latino — where was I?…

Hector is the editor and publisher of Enclave. A Chicago writer now floating on the edge of Las Vegas, he is also the former deputy editor for Latino Rebels, as well as the former managing editor for Gozamos, a Latino art-activism site based in his home town. He has contributed to RedEye, a Chicago daily geared toward millennials, and La Respuesta, a New York-based site for the Puerto Rican Diaspora, plus a number of publications, including The Huffington Post. He studied history (for some reason) at the University of Illinois-Chicago, where his focus was on ethnic relations in the United States.

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