Food for Thought [3]: On Empanadas and Racial Profiling

Friday night after work I went to Mi Cuba Cafe, a tiny place in Columbia Heights. The food is cheap and delicious, especialmente las empanadas de guayaba y queso. My mom gave me a tube of guava paste when I was home (apparently they now make it in the the same squeezable containers like smuckers does) and I have been on a guava binge since.

I went with a few of my work friends who had invited some of their friends and ended up sitting across from a guy who works at the IMF. I thought he had an accent when he first introduced himself, but his rapid fire Spanish with the waiter confirmed my assumption that he had some Spanish/Latin heritage in him somewhere. Turns out, he was from Argentina. I told him that I lived in Buenos Aires when I was very little, but didn’t remember any of it. I regretted it instantly because he asked what most people usually do in response to any mention of my connection with Latin America: “Oh, really?? Do you speak Spanish?”

Then comes the awkward explanation of ‘well yes I actually learned Spanish and English concurrently when I was growing up, but then I moved to Texas from Miami where all my Cuban family members live and didn’t speak Spanish anymore so I lost basically all of it and then I studied it in school for 100 years (but still did terribly on the AP Spanish test) and then went to Spain and picked it back up, but it’s been years since I’ve spoken consistently so I am usually too shy to speak it unless I’ve had sangria’. So I just smiled and said “a little” and pretended to be super flattered when he praised my pronunciation of “croquetas”.

This experience was quite the opposite from the first time I ever visited this place, when the waiter asked my friend what he wanted to drink in English and asked me in Spanish. This was completely unprompted, as I had said nothing to indicate that I understood a lick of the language. I responded in kind, however, and that was how we spoke for the rest of the evening.

Fast forward to this year. At the airport going back to Texas for Thanksgiving, as I was checking in, I said I was excited to go home and the man at the counter asked me if ‘home’ was Miami. Granted, I was born there, but when I told him that I was going to Texas he laughed and told me that I ‘just looked like one of those Miami girls’. Did that mean Cuban? I wasn’t sure what he meant and even reprimanded myself for adhering to the categorical assumptions he may or may not have been making.

Two weeks later I attended a lecture series at the Pakistani Embassy called ‘Understanding Pakistan’ (yes, I did receive a ‘diploma’ for successful completion of the course and, yes, it is hanging proudly in my office) and had another similar experience. An older woman was sitting next to me and during our break, as we munched on lemon pound cake and tea, she turned to me and asked me a question. I didn’t understand, so I begged for her pardon and she said something that sounded like “Where are you from?”. I replied, “Texas”.

A girl my age sitting in front of us turned around and interjected. “No, no, she asked you where in Pakistan you’re from. She asked you in Urdu first and then in English”. I would have laughed if there wasn’t tea in my mouth. The rest of our conversation went like this:

Me: “Oh! I’m not from Pakistan.”
Girl: “Has no one ever told you before that you look Pakistani?”
Me: “Nope. Never heard that one.”
Girl: “Hmm, well you definitely do. Where did you say you were from again?”
Me: “Texas.”
Girl: “Ohhhh. You know, I have a few Mexican relatives and they look really Pakistani too.”

I subdued my immediate reaction, which was to say that I was also not Mexican. But instead of being smart, I only smiled. Her comment was innocent and ‘Dark haired girl + Texas = Mexican’ may not have been the superficial logical leap she made.

Some might be offended if these presumptions had been made about them. I find it funny, shrug worthy, and even a little flattering. With a complexion more appropriate to play Snow White than West Side Story’s Maria and the name “Smogard” (does it get anymore nordic?), this part of my heritage is often overlooked by many. Before taking Comparative Politics freshman year, our professor asked us all to write a paragraph explaining who we were, why we were taking the course, and what countries we were primarily interested in. I said I was interested in Cuban affairs because my mother was born there. On the first day of class while our professor was taking roll, he stopped when he called out the name “Maria Rodriguez” and asked if she was the girl who was interested in Cuba. I chucked inwardly and considered shouting, ‘No that would be me…SMO-GARD”.

It is fair and natural to make such assumptions. When people look a certain way, sound a certain way, or have a certain name, we automatically associate those things with what we know. The part I never understood, and still don’t really understand, is the difference between race and ethnicity. I had always thought that race referred to physical characteristics of people, specifically their skin, and ethnicity was a cultural factor that concerned religion, nationality, language, etc. This article articulates the difference well:


The term race refers to the concept of dividing people into populations or groups on the basis of various sets of physical characteristics (which usually result from genetic ancestry).


An ethnic group or ethnicity is a population of human beings whose members identify with each other, on the basis of a real or a presumed common genealogy or ancestry.

The accompanying video is pretty interesting too and very accurately portrays the problem with categories, especially categories that may ‘conflict’ when someone’s physical features do not align with that is commonly considered regular for that identity group. Some people, like the professor in the video, view race and ethnicity synonymously, using both to refer to an inherited ancestry that encapsulates both the physical and sociological characteristics of a person. The U.S. Census breaks down it down by geographic origin and permits the selection of more than one category and has the option of ‘some other race’.

White – A person having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa.

Black or African American – A person having origins in any of the Black racial groups of Africa.

American Indian or Alaska Native – A person having origins in any of the original peoples of North and South America (including Central America) and who maintains tribal affiliation or community attachment.

Asian – A person having origins in any of the original peoples of the Far East, Southeast Asia, or the Indian subcontinent including, for example, Cambodia, China, India, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Pakistan, the Philippine Islands, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander – A person having origins in any of the original peoples of Hawaii, Guam, Samoa, or other Pacific Islands.

But where is the Hispanic/Latino option?

When I was first old enough to become aware of such issues and how I related to them, I remember being so confused by the category ‘White’ and how it was somehow exclusive with ‘Latino’. Was ‘Latino’ a race? Can’t Cubans be white and black and brown? What do I do when the “White” option on forms is immediately followed by “non-Latino”? The Census actually asks a separate question regarding Hispanic identity, which feeds into the earlier discussion of the difference between and separation of ethnicity and race. Before asked about race, individuals are asked if they have any Hispanic or Latino origin and are then asked to mark which main group they identity with. Though this adaptation was an attempt to clarify the categorical confusion, recent reports suggest that the confusion is still there.

Apparently 97% of the 19 million people who chose the option “some other race” also identified as having Hispanic/Latino origin. Unsurprising when you consider how fluid the term is for those expected to identify with it as well as the ambiguity about whether people of Hispanic/Latino origin actually consider it to be something distinct from their race. Regarding the latter point, a study published in February of 2013 attempted to address whatever inconsistencies were leading to such a high response rate of ‘some other race’ by merging the question about Hispanic origin and race. Results show that when the race question was separate, the ‘some other race’ population reporting was between 5.6% and 7.1%, putting it at the third overall race category selected. But when “Hispanic” was listed as a racial option, instead of just an origin question, the respondent percentage for ‘some other race’ went down to .2%, indicating that those who would identify as having a Hispanic origin, also identify with that category racially.

I can only imagine that this issue is only going to get more confusing for everyone–obviously not just people of Hispanic/Latino origin–as America continues to diversify. All of this reminded me of something I saw on National Geographic a few months ago called “The Changing Faces of America”.

Screen shot 2014-01-12 at 5.01.32 PM

This photographer captures the porous nature of race in America today by asking people how they identify themselves personally and on paper. The author discusses these discrepancies and the personal and social implications of having a majority multi-racial nation by 2060. I love the way she ended the article:

It’s also, for the rest of us, an opportunity. If we can’t slot people into familiar categories, perhaps we’ll be forced to reconsider existing definitions of race and identity, presumptions about who is us and who is them. Perhaps we’ll all end up less parsimonious about who we feel connected to as we increasingly come across people like Seda, whose faces seem to speak that resounding line from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”:
“I am large, I contain multitudes.”

Will questions of race and ethnicity become a thing of the past as our histories and groups overlap? Like gender and sexuality, will new categories continue to be created based on emerging identities? Will we see spectrums instead of categories? Or in the face of rapid change, will we cling tighter to what we know and adhere to the basic human instinct to organize, quantify, and differentiate?

And now for the food. This week I finished off last week’s soups and made this tofu scramble, but without the black beans and with eggs and curry. I forgot to take a picture. Sorry. But I did resist eating this banana scramble sandwich long enough this morning to snap a photo! Look at that steam.

Banana Scramble

All you need is:

  • 1 banana
  • 1 egg (maybe 2 if you’re hungry, but 1 makes more than can fit on a sandwich)
  • 1 tsp maple syrup (you can add more or not use any, it is pretty sweet on its own)
  • 2 tbsp milk

Milk all ingredients together until mixture is well incorporated and goopy. Then cook on a skillet like you would for any other egg scramble. I’ve been putting guava spread on the other half of my sandwich because I am obsessed, but I’ve also seen versions with peanut butter. There are also a few other variations of this out there that include strawberries/raspberries in the mixture or that exclude the egg and just scramble the banana.

I was a little skeptical about the banana-egg combo, but the egg made it fluffy and the caramelized banana and syrup made it so sweet. So it was like a scrambled plantain. I devoured it for breakfast, alongside this thing of beauty.


The family I am dog-sitting for this weekend has a new espresso maker and said I can play with it as much as I want. As a coffee lover who is currently experimenting in extreme budgeting, espresso drinks are a rarity so I have had my fair share this weekend. A little extra caffeine has been necessary to keep up with this guy.


Hey there, Moose. This pup likes to wrestle, dig in the mud and then jump on the couch, and eat everything. Literally anything and everything. Paper. Sticks. My shoes. My socks. My scarf. My bra…..

And so ends the weekend. This week I am thankful for Bachelor watching parties at Monica’s, thanksgiving sandwiches, adventurous friends who are doing good in the world, free public concerts by the National Symphony Orchestra, wonderful people who compile web resources for bloggers, dogs named after other animals, and lots and lots of cappuccinos.

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  1. Have been thinking about you and Chantal when the Bachelor started. Even to the point of explaining the my 7th graders in school about how your guys have had Bachelor watching parties, the pictures on the wall crossing out hopefuls with no roses, and the life size picture with you all photo shopped in the picture… proud of my two daughters!!!

    • And I am so proud of you! So many changes for all of us recently. Miss you 🙂 And I hope your students understand the seriousness that is Bachelor-watching.

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