The last time I got my hair cut I went to a cheap place I found on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, right across the street from a nightclub where Beyoncé has been known to frequent. Could I find her there? Would she compliment my haircut? New York is a bastion of possibility.
The hair salon was in a basement, politely soliciting for recognition with fluorescent lights that called out from a narrow staircase. Inside smelled like yummy chemical hair products and some kind of food that had been stewed for many hours with lots of spices. Hits of the 80’s, 90’s and today quietly shouted from a dusty stereo system from 2003. Every surface was white — the floors, the walls, the countertops, the sinks, the cabinets, the ceiling. Every woman was colorful — Puerto Rican, Costa Rican, Dominican, Cuban, Mexican. Mid-40’s, chunky highlights, lots of lipstick, tight jeans, sleeveless tops with chipping rhinestones. They were all inconceivably kind, even when they prioritized their own gossip-laden conversations over you telling them how angled you want your inverted bob to be, exactly. No exaggeration is possible when describing the culture of hispanic hospitality. I can’t tell you how special I feel when a strong Latina woman calls me mama or mami with sweet authority, gentle possession.
I have pale skin and and green eyes and hair that is naturally brown that I recently dyed blonde. I love Kate Spade and I listen to Americana folk sometimes and you’re damn right I’ll be sitting in a park this October drinking a PSL and Instagramming a picture of the leaves beneath my boots, captioned with something along the lines of “omfg this weather is life [sparkle emoji, yellow heart emoji].” I am much more than that girl, but that girl is still a part of me. But even if I didn’t enjoy any of those culturally white things, it’d still be impossible to tell that I am, in fact, only part basic white betch. The other half is Dominican, from my father, a half that is invisible to those who don’t know how much I secretly love Bachata and incorporate cilantro into as many meals as possible.
While Nellie, the salon owner, is cutting my hair and we’re talking, I mention I hadn’t eaten since breakfast for some reason (it was past 6:00), and a smaller older woman in the corner (I don't know if she worked there or was just hanging out) asks Nellie, gesturing to the metal tin of stew she was eating from, in Spanish: “Maybe she wants some of this…ask her.”
I responded in English: “Oh, I’m fine, thank you.”
“Ahhh habla español!” Nellie grips my shoulders with the fingers that aren't holding scissors and a brush and smiles at me through the mirror. I’m a person constantly fearful of coming across as knowing more than I actually do (whether that’s attributable to my existence as a woman, or just being humble — I can’t say; sometimes, for me, there is no distinction).
So I’m sheepish: “I’m not good. It’s not that great. I understand more than I speak.” If the women in the salon were kind to be before, I now felt like David Duke vacationing at a Trump property. The tin of stew is pushed onto my lap, amused laughter echoes off the walls, and they begin an enthusiastic interrogation about my heritage. I’ve transformed in their eyes, and the haircut isn't even finished.
The truth is, when I was growing up I didn’t look at my dad as a Dominican man in the way that kids don’t really recognize race or ethnicity, or even in the way that people don't really recognize anything unfamiliar about something or someone with whom you share personality quirks, hair color, a household, a lifetime. But I didn’t understand him to be an immigrant, I didn't understand him to be dark skinned or Hispanic or foreign. He was just dad to me, and that was all I needed to know.
As a young girl and frequent brat, I made up a fake mom who I liked better at the time than my actual mom, because she was nicer and lived in a pink house and let me get frozen TV dinners for no special occasion. I never invented a fake dad, though, probably because I still hadn’t figured out if I was discontent with my actual my dad enough to warrant a substitute. As a chef, he’d work more often than he didn’t. I was homeschooled for 1st through 3rd grade — on weekday mornings I’d hang around the kitchen table, putting off my math assignment, and he’d walk in, freshly showered, hair slicked, wearing a black Cubavera. He might eat an egg my mom would have boiled for him, or take a Zantac at 9:00 am. He wouldn’t be back for likely another ten or eleven hours, but his cologne would linger until late morning. In the story of how he would eventually leave that job, and move his family across coasts from Miami to Sarasota to open a restaurant, I always tell people it wasn’t until then when I really got to know him as a person, past the constant he represented.
Nowadays, to say your upbringing was a mosaic of cultures is completely un-noteworthy in the best way. Time has allowed America to become that kind of place for everyone who lives in it, seemingly, where a Chinese, Puerto Rican, and Italian restaurant can all exist on the same block, the kind of place I wonder if a bunch of dudes with powdered hair would have ever conceived, the kind of place I’m grateful to wake up in each morning, even if it’s the only kind of culture I’ve ever known. When my parents brought their litter of five to Sarasota in 2004, a city that was 87% white at the time, I was part of a multi-cultural household — my four siblings, my parents, various animals, and me — in which the food we made and ate together was the dialect of our tribe, as inherent as English, the only language my siblings and I spoke.
But in every aesthetic sense, I, too, was white white. I was part of the 87%. Because my dad worked long hours during those precious years of language acquisition, I never became fluent in Spanish beyond classes in middle school and high school, and then later some slang and curse words I’d pick up in the kitchens of his restaurants.
But in food language, I spoke and still speak with a Hispanic accent. I grew up eating traditional ceviche, mondongo, sancocho, pasteles, ayacas, yuca, arroz con gandules, platanos, tostones. For the most part, these were dishes whose names I didn’t learn until I was older, because back when I was younger, it was all just dinner. Quartered limes were a condiment on our table like ketchup is for America. We roast a whole pig for Christmas every year, marinated in mojo and sour orange juice, his charred head on a giant sheet pan resting atop a beach towel on our dining room table. Sometimes when I visit home, I find random jarred or canned ingredients in the cabinet — “cashew in heavy syrup” once, but Goya black beans and Badia spices always and forever.
I moved to New York a little over two years ago — first to an NYU dorm, then to the middle of Herald Square, and now I’m in Bushwick as of last September, in the 2nd of 3 apartments in a little gray building on Menahan and Knickerbocker. It’s a far cry from living in a former 26-floor hotel on the same block as three H&M’s (yep), but I suppose there was only a limited amount of time I could have deluded myself into thinking that was normal. (Plus, there were no good restaurants nearby.)
Bushwick, Brooklyn is 69.9% Hispanic, 16.8% Black, 8% White, 1.8% Asian, and 3.4% “other.” The majority of families are middle to low income, the majority of families know each other and stop to talk on the sidewalk when they cross paths on Sundays. Streets are unpaved but populated with kids on their scooters, tables covered in beaded rosaries, cages with small birds for sale, a woman cutting mangoes and portioning them up in ziplock bags. It’s the kind of neighborhood that makes you forget there is a Manhattan or Times Square, in which you get a true education on what it means to be a New Yorker (answer: doing what it takes), if you’re willing to pay attention. Here and there are pockets of stereotypical Brooklyn hipster culture that’s actually pretty close in reality to the exaggerative nature by which it depicted. There’s a café a few blocks from my apartment that sells acai bowls and smoothies with kale (and fruit!) in them, and then another place a few blocks over that sells a $12 grilled cheese. I have nothing against those items. I’m just pointing out that they do exist.
All of the Latin markets, however, are what feel like home to me. There isn't just a part of a shelf in one aisle for Goya products — it’s the most prominent brand they carry. The price labels are handwritten and their lights are also fluorescent. Just like Nellie’s salon, there’s no pretension or bougie produce display fortresses, just the ingredients I’m looking for, dirt cheap. Families come in packs because this is the time they spend together, shopping and cooking and eating, maybe a stew that has been cooked for many hours with lots of spices, maybe even sharing with the aesthetically white girls that come into their salons, too. They all look at me as I walk through with my basket on arm, clearly not just visiting for the novelty. I am a minority in my own neighborhood for the first time in my life, but I still need groceries, and I’m shopping, too. We both shop here.
When I approach the butcher counter, I’m not acknowledged until I speak. I request in my version of Spanish: “can I have una libra de pollo, por favor?” It sucks, and I’m pretty self conscious, but my accent is authentic and more than anything else — I try. This guy, the butcher, is probably in his mid-30’s, he probably grew up a few blocks away, his mom probably works in the same store or another one like it, because yes, his mom is probably still working. We both kind of laugh at my attempt, he points to the breasts and the leg quarters without words, silently asking what cut of chicken I would like a pound of, exactly. Just like at Nellie’s salon, I’ve become a new person to him, and his reservations kind of melt away. I've been back a few times. Once, he lifted my bag of chicken slightly to take some pressure off the scale. When he handed me my discounted poultry, he smiled warmly in a way that said, “thanks for coming in,” in a way that neither English or Spanish could.
My hair looked great when I left Nellie’s that night. “Besitos, mama. Hasta la próxima,” she said with a peck on my cheek. I called my dad on the walk to the train. We talked about what delightful content Fox News had been spewing lately, he asked about the weather in New York. I told him how much I miss his cooking and ask if he can make a few specific dishes next time I’m home: this creamy red pepper seafood stew with scallops and shrimp and jasmine rice, snapper ceviche that’s ice cold but humorously spicy. Watercress salad with lots of onion, arroz con pollo with lots of cilantro, roasted pork shoulder with lots of time and love and garlic. “Yes, punk,” he said, probably not knowing that my mouth was watering. “We’ll make it all.”
After we hung up, both my Dominican half and my white half rode home on the M together, kicked off our leopard print flats and watched Legally Blonde with a 99 cent tube of Goya Maria cookies in bed.