I sank into the car’s backseat, immediately greeted by Jorge, the Uber driver.
“De dónde eres?” - Where are you from?
“No, de dónde eres realmente?” - No, where are you really from?
“Ten cuidado de cómo respondes a esa pregunta.” - Be careful of how you answer that question.
I never felt as though telling someone my nationality was particularly troublesome. Why should I have to be careful?
My parents are both from Venezuela, and I was born in the United States, but I’ve never thought of myself as a Venezuelan-American. For me, these respective cultures rarely clash or blend into one another like the hyphen might suggest; rather I feel as though I’m straddling them, being pulled to a side when necessary.
But Americans rarely regard me as a fellow American. I was born in Miami Beach, and my English is perfect; I can hold a conversation about anything the average American would discuss (except football). I stand up to pledge allegiance to the flag and celebrate July 4th. Yet, somehow, my Venezuelan heritage revokes my Americanism.
I’m Venezuelan. I grew up speaking Spanish with family and friends. I eat arepas Saturday mornings and hallacas every Christmas. I’m pretty sure my dog doesn’t understand English. I attend rallies protesting Nicolás Maduro. Whenever I visit Venezuela, my heart swells with pride and anguish for my country, dilapidated by mismanagement, corruption, fear mongering, and ignorance. However, when I’m in Venezuela I am regarded as an outsider. I am viewed as a diluted form of their culture: my Americanism revokes my Venezuelan heritage.
Then there are people like Jorge urging me to pick a side. He never said it explicitly, but I think he was trying to warn me that when I declare my nationality, I am defining myself – and therein lies the danger, because once we hear a particular nationality, we immediately look for the norms that we have internalized about specific groups of people.
I understand that I don’t live up to the stereotypical expectations of American or Venezuelan, but at that moment, I realized that this wasn’t just my problem. It’s unfair to apply labels to people and define what they are and aren’t before they get the chance to figure it out themselves. If you ever have the urge to ask someone where they’re really from, take a minute to think about the implications of what you’re doing.