Habla Espanol?

menu_crispy_tacosI was at Chipotle this weekend, waiting to order my favorite fast food (crunchy chicken tacos with veggies, heavy on the corn salsa).   The man behind me in line spoke fluent English to a child with him, but when it was his turn at the counter, he looked at the young female employee and began ordering in Spanish.  The glitch in the plan was that while he was talking to a woman with brown skin (who, according to popular identifiers, might have a better chance of being a Spanish-speaker than others), she was not a Spanish speaker at all; in fact, as she pointed out to him, she was Asian.  After a few embarrassing laughs the burrito bowls and extra guac were ordered, and everyone scooted out the door.

What I witnessed there in the checkout line was another stunning example of the fluidity of identity’s construction, or more fundamentally, the forces that create the differences that we call “identity.”  Like most of the examples that we discuss in this blog, there are many levels on which this particular example might be analyzed; in this case, for instance, we could talk about the power of white privilege to homogenize “others,” or the commercialization (and preceding construction) of certain ethnic personas.

But I suppose what really caught my attention here was how the man likely entered the restaurant expecting to speak Spanish because he already had a preconceived notion of Chipotle as a place with Spanish-speakers.   Because he anticipated a certain sort of difference — and thus identity — he found it.  This, of course, doesn’t mean that an Asian woman wouldn’t necessarily speak Spanish, but I think it’s fair to say that because he saw at least some of what he expected (brown skin on a Chipotle employee), his perceptions of difference were provided enough data to align with his expectations, even when those perceptions were inaccurate.

Rather than being a rare event, it seems to me that this is the way that so many of the distinctions that we craft into identifiers work.  It’s incredibly easy to label something in a particular way when we are lacking the context to see it as anything else.  I hang my head in a bit of embarrassment when I report that I have, on more than one occasion, mined my local thrift store for treasure, only to figure out that what I’m hauling up to the register is stuff that I donated to that same store just a couple of weeks before.  Why do I not see my own cast-offs as the junk they once were?  The answer is that, in this new context, I’ve mentally remarketed the thrift store as the place where exciting, affordable goodies are found, so that those ill-fitting pants don’t strike me as “things I’ve already owned and didn’t like enough to keep” but become transformed into “fun, cheap stuff!”  In this sense, it’s interesting to consider how our anticipation of a certain identity is perhaps more fundamental to the labeling process than concern over the “accuracy” of the identity we’re crafting.

Photo credit: Chipotle

12 Replies to “Habla Espanol?”

  1. Leslie, so much to say about this!! But a few random thoughts. The food context is important here, as the food studies folks like Lisa Heldke argue that “exotic” foods, especially Asian ones, are used by westerners (whites) as opportunities for orientalist consuming, tourism and colonialism — literally eating the other. Here the “adventure” for dad includes showing off to his kid that he can communicate with the natives and render the experience more “authentic.” Now, “burrito bowls” are not exactly “authentic” in any universe but the marketplace, and so go the ironies.

    Your use of the term “homogenizing” here is so incredibly apt: “to blend (diverse elements) into a uniform mixture” here speaks to both the process of Chipotle, Inc. creating the “burrito bowl’ for white people consumption, and the totalizing of browness by Dad to render the Asian woman Latina. The burrito bowl is kind of like riding safely in the air-conditioned tour bus….

    Finally, my daughter’s first grade teacher, Miss Chang, teaches in the Spanish-immersion program. She is Chinese, raised in Nicaragua and so is a native speaker!

  2. HA! I really like your allusion to the burrito bowl as the “air-conditioned tour bus,” and the next time I eat one, I shall pretend to feel the air blowing on my face with the smell of diesel in the background. Yes, the very existence of Miss Chang demonstrates the fluidity of it all — and how searching for an “authentic” anything is a really fruitless endeavor, for what is authenticity, really? Rather, thinking of authenticity as a strategy used by certain groups rather than a static essence is perhaps a more realistic approach, in my mind, in much the same way as many others have pointed out that the perhaps overused category “strategic essentialism” is a bit redundant since all essentializing is typically strategic, even when used by those “natives”!

  3. Rudy, you may be presuming too much, after all, for unless I missed something in Leslie’s post, I’m not sure we know anything about the identification of the dad in the story, his language skills. Jumping to a white guy showing off for the kids might lodge this episode in quite the wrong setting, no? For all we know it was someone relieved to find another non-white complexion and presuming this person necessary had Spanish skills like him…? Unless the restaurant’s name says to us that no right thinking Spanish speaker would go there…? But I’m not so sure about that assumption either.

  4. Russell, the presumption that the dad is white has to do with the “unmarked” nature of his identity in Leslie’s narration where the “other” here is marked as either (falsely, stereotypically) Latina, or, as it turns out Asian. In this context we can presume to be here in the United States, “unmarked” = white. We might ask why it is dad speaks fluent English to the child (can we presume it is his child?) but assumes that the darker-skinned person behind the counter is a Spanish-speaker. It may well be that he is homogenizing darker others, especially in the context of the overrepresentation of Latin@s in service sector, restaurant work. Why does he assume that the counter person speaks Spanish in a job where surely English is required for working with the public (they’re serving “burrito bowls”, not “tacos de lengua” for heavens sake!).

    Leslie’s post may not be so much about fluid identities, as it is about the ironies of the search for an experience of the authentic. (See Dean MacCannell’s, _The Tourist_ for more about this idea). Irony 1: That anyone would go to Chipotle for an authentic Mexican food experience (sorry, Leslie!); Irony 2: Lets say Dad spent his LDS mission years in central Mexico and knows that Asians can and do speak Spanish aplenty), why oh why would he go to Chipotle when he knows what good (note I did not say authentic) Mexican food is? Irony 3: that dad’s attempt to speak Spanish, whether to show off, “be down” with the homies, or practice his 2nd Semester onlline Spanish assignment “Order food at a restaurant,” ends in his embarrassment in front of his kid — who now has a great story to tell mom (if we can presume dad isn’t partnered with another man).

  5. P.S. Oh, and because Leslie writes in the blog about the incident: “…we could talk about the power of white privilege to homogenize “others,” or the commercialization (and preceding construction) of certain ethnic personas.”

  6. Yes, the dad was white, and my reference to white privilege was in reference to that, but of course, the man could have held any number of identities and still have “homogenized” the Chipotle worker.

    I think the larger point of what I was trying to get across was that the anticipation of difference was what *made* difference in the mind of the man, rendering the Chipotle worker’s identity for her, a phenomenon that I’m suggesting is really common. Since the ability to homogenize others and determine their identity apart from their own agency is a form of power play, this situation demonstrates that the sometimes abstract conversations about identity construction are narratives about power and its very real impact (Of course, we could talk endlessly about the constructed nature of notions of personal agency. In a very practical sense, though, when others impede my otherwise-constructed personal agency with their otherwise-constructed personal agency, it’s still a little less mine, even if “I” am constructed and so are they).

    When I’m speaking about the fluidity of identity, I don’t mean that in the sense that everything is up in the air and thus all persons operate with roughly equal agency. Rather, what I was meaning was that we are all shaped by the constant fluctation of the political forces that create our social contexts, but these remain contexts that are dominated and determined at the expense of some and for the benefit of others. Searching for an “authentic” anything at all thus becomes more of a signpost of power than a “real” state, as when groups argue over who is more authentic than the other, and which also piggybacks on the previous comment about “consuming” the “natives.”

  7. Maybe I’m over reading you, Rudy, but I can’t help but read the man as you describe him as somehow being at fault or shallow, or in some way illegitimate (making your description actually a curiously normative judgment of him) rather than just studying him as a site where, as I read Leslie writing, an identification practice is happening.

  8. Russell, Leslie provided the narrative. She notes “Yes, the dad was white, and my reference to white privilege was in reference to that…” I will let you decide if privileged behavior is “faulty,” “shallow,” or “illegitimate” as described here (for the record, I use none of those words in my comments).

    “Studying him as a site” is oddly dehumanizing, don’t you think?

  9. Dehumanizing…? Curious charge, given how this dad seems rather — in my reading, at least — demeaned in the motives that you attribute to him, for example: “Irony 3: that dad’s attempt to speak Spanish, whether to show off, ‘be down’ with the homies, or practice his 2nd Semester onlline Spanish assignment…” Is attributing such intentions to this man what respecting his agency and humanity looks like?

  10. I’d be happy to talk more about the manner in which human behaviors, claims, institutions become interesting to us given assumptions and curiosities we bring to the things we study, something I’ve written a fair bit about, actually. For nothing, as far as I am concerned, comes pre-packaged as interesting or significant in and of itself, but far too many people in our field assume just the opposite and thereby nicely remove themselves from the picture, as if their interests did not exist, as if the subject under study was already interesting before they arrived. I see this as very problematic and thus my preference to own the interests that I have which enable me to find this or that significant and worth talking about. It strikes me as a move that humanizes scholarship.

  11. Oh, I’m hardly in disagreement over the constructedness of self,”others” and all the contextual stuff that impinges on said constructedness. I just find it interesting that the focus in this narrative is the dad and what that might mean vs. any interest on the impact his Spanish had on the female Asian counter worker. As Leslie notes in her post, it is about white (here, male) privilege and the presumption of creating the world out of stereotypes within a context of power arrangements. I wonder if Dad would have broken into Spanish if he was in a job interview and broke into Spanish to his potential employer who might be Latino.

    Let me put myself in the picture, lest I be accused of abstracting …. so last fall I’m giving a talk at the Pacific School of Religion (in English) about, among other things, the the winning SF Giants World Series team. After the talk as we 4 panelists are packing up to leave and audience members are coming up to talk to us, a very sweet white woman comes up to me, thanks for me for the talk and then launches into a stilted Spanish. I smile and nod and continue the conversation in English. Why was this woman compelled to speak Spanish to me?

    Actually this happens fairly frequently and by now I’m rather immune to it as I see it as a gesture of “solidarity” or some kind of signal that the speaker has experience in Latino communities, That’s my generous interpretation. Other times I think they are trying to make me feel “comfortable” by speaking in “my” language — which is silly or even racist because I was born and raised in an English-speaking family, have no accent in my speech, and in such situations introduced as having degrees from American universities and teaching in a non-language department. It is also true that only white people have ever done this to me. What might it mean that only white people have ever done this? Or the reverse: when I was in Boston in graduate school a white person asked me why my English was so good. Imagine what “America” existed in that person’s head that compelled them to ask me that question. One more? When I was an assistant professor meeting with a rather well-known sociologist of religion about the progress of a student, the student later reported to me that in said sociologist’s notes he had penned, “met with Professor Busto, no discernible accent in English.”

  12. Fascinating–since I don’t know you at all I have no idea why she started speaking Spanish to you. I gather they’re keying into visual or auditory cues that they take to signify your Spanish-speaking ability? Should those cues be evident (e.g., a series of well pronounced Spanish terms in your talk…?) then perhaps it is white guilt among so-called progressives, trying to identify with your — to them, at least — marginal position? That is, it might be understandable as a typical move whereby their perhaps well-intentioned effort to include functions as an effective marker of difference and thus superiority. Seems likely… Brings to mind my continued fascination with the way NPR correspondents who share Hispanic identifications move back and forth between various pronunciations in the same report. The trilled R appears and then disappears — how they navigate this strikes me as interesting and I should likely write a post on it.

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