WHO AM ¿I?
Recently the IRS sent me a polite letter requesting my cooperation. Nothing ominous. The tone was business-like but friendly. I could even detect a faint trace of apology or perhaps perceive the vaguely decorous attitude of someone who is afraid to pry into my personal life. A short questionnaire was enclosed dealing almost exclusively with “national origin” and listing the various categories of citizens that make up this great country of ours. I was asked to identify my race and was given several options. One of them was “Hispanic”. Since there is no such race that I know of — and as an Anthropologist with more degrees than a thermometer, I know my races — I decided to talk to the Regional Director who signed the letter.
After a couple of hours spent going from electronic menu to electronic menu, system mail boxes, electronic drops, automatic reception and silent voice mail terminals, I finally got him on the other end of the line.
“Geesh! Your phone system is as laborious as your 1040 form!”
I heard a gentle sigh on the other end of the phone before the voice of the Regional Director said: “Yes, I know. I guess our communications people have overdone it a bit. They always figured that people who call us will have nothing pleasant to say. They forget that there are a number of citizens who often call to thank us and even to announce that they are sending back taxes, amazing as that may sound. So what can I do for you?”
I gave him my social security number and referred to the letter and its appropriate file number. In a few seconds he was back on the line.
“Ah, yes. We sent you a classification form for our NRRO&N program. Any questions?”
“Uh, yes, sir. I can’t decide on my racial origin other than I am sure I descend from either Adam and Eve or a couple of monkeys from a baobab tree.”
“Hmm, what is your last name?”
“Aha! That is a Spanish name. You’re therefore an Hispanic.”
“Sorry, the name Miranda could be Catalán, Basque, Italian, Portuguese, Greek, French, Swiss, Philipine, Indian, or even Scottish.”
The Regional Director, being of Scottish blood himself, was surprised by this last designation. “Scottish?! How could it be Scottish?”
“If I remember correctly, there was this noble Scotsman in the 1800’s who changed his last name from McMiran to Miranda after having read Shakespeare’s Tempest. He was infatuated with the character of Miranda. In time, a whole generation of Mirandas were roaming the British isles and perpetuating a noble strain of Scottish descendants.”
“Well, okay. Now, do you speak Spanish?”
“As a matter of fact, I do. I even write in Spanish and think in Spanish. I also sing songs in Spanish and curse in Spanish and my best catcalls are in Spanish.”
“Aha! Then you can be classified as Hispanic!”
“But I also speak French, Italian, Quechua, Latvian, Punjabi, Cantonese, and Yiddish.”
“But your first language was Spanish?”
“No, it was Latvian. My mother is Latvian. But I express myself in Spanish better than any other language.”
“Then you’re Hispanic!”
“Sorry, but my girlfriend, who is one hundred percent French from a family dating back to the time of Asterix and Obelix, also expresses herself better in Spanish, especially when we’re making love. Should she be classified as Hispanic? And Ikumi Zen Ichi, our Japanese gardener, chauffeur and valet also speaks a superb Spanish. Are they both then Hispanics?”
“I think not. She would be classified as a Caucasian. Mister Ichi would be classified as an Asiatic.”
“Actually Mr. Ichi looks slightly Indian,” I pointed out. “Apparently his mother was a geisha who fell in love with a Bollywood star.”
“He’s still Asiatic, no matter what, even if he speaks impeccable Spanish and excellent Punjabi.”
“What if he were born in Sao Paulo or in Zimbabwe?”
There was a moment of silence and then the Director spoke: “But let us go back to you. What do you look like?”
I took out my wallet and looked at the picture on my ID. “You know, it’s hard to say,” I told the Regional Director. “When I’m in the sun too long I look Ethiopian, when I tan a little I look like a Cherokee. My complexion blends in different skin tones. Some people take me for Italian, Spaniard, British, French, Brazilian, Peruvian, Californian, and even Palestinian when I don’t shave for a couple of weeks. I even look Asiatic when I drink too much Sake wine and eat too much Sushi. So what can I say?”
“Okay, okay, let’s try a different approach. Where were you born?”
The Director let out a short exclamation of frustration. “I don’t know what to tell you. Suddenly I’m not sure I know what the blazes an Hispanic is. Before I thought they were all Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, or Cubans. So let’s make a deal. What would you like to be classified as?”
I grinned. “Well, I’ve always liked to be the inconspicuous type. I never liked being grouped in a category. So if I had my choice I’d go for the Hispanic because apparently nobody knows what it is.” I could hear the Director emit a short puff of relief. “But if I had my say,” I continued, “I wouldn’t try to distinguish the races of people in this country. I’d rather try to honour those that have something noble to bestow, no matter what race they belong to.”
“You’re right. In the end we all belong to the same race, the human race, and we still have mucho to learn about ourselves,” the Director said.
“¿Mucho? You speak Spanish! That’s wonderful! Are you Hispanic?”
And that’s when the bloody Scotsman hung the phone on me.
(© M. Miranda 2008. All Rights Reserved.)