The man’s words to me
are not offered, but flung. “So, what are you? Where are you from?” I say, “New York.” “But your name is Carlos. I mean, where are you really from?” I say, “New York.” “Bueno, yo soy latino.
Mi padre es colombiano. Mi madre es estadounidense.
Nací en New York City. I lived in four countries.
Moved 12 times. Went to 12 schools
before I graduated high school” is not what I would say in 12,341 years because I don’t owe
a damn thing to anyone. What am I? What am I, a financial aid form?
A vegan red-velvet cupcake recipe? Dude discovers his first Latino
with green eyes and suddenly appoints himself
the authority on Latinidad. Like, “But you totally
don’t look Mexican.” “Oh, Colombian,
but like what percentage are you?” “You speak it, though? Fluently?
Dance salsa well?” “Oh, but not both parents.” “You’ve been there, but not lived there,
because you weren’t born there.” I’m not a government questionnaire. I’m not an anecdote
for your homogeneous social gathering of your homogeneous friends. I know, everyone you hang out with
looks like you, has a name you’re able
to pronounce and/or share, and/or sounds pulled directly
from an episode of Leave it to Beaver. Here’s the deal. Latin America is not just Mexico, actually pronounced Méjico, pero whatever. Central America
is not part of South America, and Mexican is still not a language. The question “Where are you from?”
in our current America is a slur disguised with a question mark, a passive-aggressive microaggression
saying you are other, saying you are not from here, saying you are not
nor will ever be one of us, saying go back to where you came from. But I… I am from a place beyond place, a place where, once you’re from there,
you can never leave, because it exists beyond dirt and flesh, beyond your linear
and limited concept of time. I am from bloodlines unkillable as water. I am the return that is only earned when absence has stretched its greedy void across a passage as stoic and sacred
as an abuela’s hard-edged love. I am my black and Latina daughter’s grace, chimeraed into the cobalt pulse
of these once-too-often fists. I am a boy without a word
of English in his mouth in a Catholic school classroom
in South Florida, his son on a stage
58 years later, tonight, reading this poem for him. I am the steady ray of light
unlocking my mother’s teeth tossed skyward in a laugh, what hard-earned joy looks like, carved from the wreckage
of a lifetime’s worth of grief. You are not ready for the answers
to the questions you ask, not ready for the worlds
these words might shake free. You could never understand what I am, or where I am from. (cheers and applause)