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.

Food for Thought [2]: On Teaching

I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say. ~Flannery O’Connor

I think a lot. Often I over-think things and, as a result, get caught up in my own head. I consider myself to be an articulate person, an opinionated person. But I’m not very good at developing opinions quickly. Even if I react to something immediately, a gut reaction if you will, it’s often hard for me to put those feelings into words. Blogging has helped me conceptualize my thoughts and feelings because now, when I hear something that makes me think, I often think about how I would write about it. How I would break it down, how I would express my opinions about it. So I had an idea about a post-series I could start called “Food For Thought” (because a) it is appropriately stimulating and food related and b) the second post I ever made on this little blog was called Food For Thought and consisted of my thoughts on democratization and an egg dish) where I write about something I’ve been thinking about and, per usual, accompany it with something I’ve made recently.

I first heard this story on NPR while driving out to D.C. It is a story about a man named John Hunter. An unlikely teacher who, I believe, truly understands what teaching is about.

He invented an in-class simulation called “The World Peace Game”, an activity in which classroom students solve a series of 50 inter-locking problems of various natures (military, economic, political, environmental, etc.) facing four fictitious countries of which they are the leaders. The students have titles such as Prime Minister, Defense Minister, Secretary General, and they belong to the cabinets of their respective countries as well as other global organizations such as the UN or the World Bank. Their job is to negotiate treaties, wage war, avoid waging war, assess strategic trajectories and trends, implement long-term thinking calculi, and much much more in order to ‘win’ the game (which requires that all 50 problems be solved and that every country be in a comparatively better state than when the game started). These students are in the 4th grade.

John Hunter presents his students with incredibly complex situations that don’t have answers and overwhelms them with information and responsibility. He pushes them out of their comfort zones and confronts them with a likely sense of failure, but also allows them to do what they do best: think and create uninhibitedly.

The truth is that children know no limits. Their minds are not constrained in the ways that ours are and they approach this game with the intention to and the belief that they can succeed because they have no reason to think that they can’t. Pessimism, practicality, and crippling uncertainty are conditions that develop with age.

During my last two terms at Carleton I met once a week with a 10-year-old boy from the local elementary school. His teacher had asked my boss if there was anyone in the writing center who would be willing to work with him on his creative writing. She said he was incredibly talented, but that they didn’t have enough time in class to devote to free-writing and she didn’t want his talent, or his passion, to fade. I said sure. I could write poems with a 4th grader once a week. That sounds like fun.

And it was. It took him awhile to warm up to me and it took me awhile to get used to adolescent boy humor (I never had brothers and didn’t really talk to boys until I was 15, so these kind of jokes were new to me). But pretty soon we were both cracking jokes, telling stories, and throwing old donuts at buildings (it’s a long story, but I discovered that is THE best way to make a 10-year-old boy feel better. I also learned that they will eat anything if you give them a dollar). I was immediately impressed by his creativity, mostly by the sheer speed at which he could produce beautiful poems. What we would do is come up with a topic, take a few minutes to write a poem, and then share them. I always went first because he was shy. While I agonized over word-choice, rhyme, and general coherency…he just wrote. Whatever he felt like. His poems often had structure and some kind of rhyme scheme, but he didn’t care if they did or not. He just expressed himself the best way he knew how, which was by writing down what went through his boundary-less mind.

One time we were playing that game where you make up a country. You know; draw a map, make up a name, and then describe the geography, flora/fauna, language, resources, etc. Stuff like that. We each took a few minutes to jot down our ideas and in the time that it took me to come up with two names (which ended in ‘land’ and ‘stan’) he had come up with ten. He didn’t care about the typical convention for country names. He didn’t care about typical conventions for words. He simply created.

Just like him, the kids in the World Peace Game make up the names of the countries. They are thrust into the shell of a make-believe world and then are told to make with it what they will. They solve problems like global warming, age-old ethnic disputes, and issues of natural resources, and do so in a way that involves strategy, multiple parties and mediation (typically by a UN mediator), assessment, and consequential thinking.

Their earnest creativity and problem-solving capabilities were captured in a documentary called “World Peace and other Fourth Grade Accomplishments” and attracted the attention of someone rather important.

38ea1f64- 0dce-4e3d-d9dd-2058381a9292

Yes, that is Leon Panetta. The kids were invited to the Pentagon so that senior policy-making officials could observe how they play the game. How they come up with solutions to problems that paralyze our government and have remained unresolved for decades.

What John Hunter did, and what I believe all great teachers do, is create a space for authentic, spontaneous learning. Allow the students to come across and discuss complex problems of humanity, of morality on their own. Don’t give them the answers.

The whole time I was listening to this story I was thinking a) this is the coolest idea ever and b) what would have happened  if his supervisor had not given him the liberty to pursue such an experiment? What if she had been too preoccupied with standardized test scores? I don’t know enough about the education system in the United States to truly feel justified commenting on it, but I know it is under-prioritized. I know our nation’s children are not being invested in as much as they need to be and I know that our nation’s teachers are under-valued and under-supported. I think the solution lies somewhere in between the space between structure and creativity.

And solutions are already being thought of and implemented in the invisible classrooms across America. But few are given the attention they deserve. Luckily John Hunter’s is.

Please explore more about the World Peace Game here and watch Jon Hunter speak about it here.

And a very important take-away point: “Don’t ever cross a nine-year-old girl with tanks”. Good advice.

So, speaking of creative experiments….I made something the other day that I’ve decided to call Sticky Cardamom Raspberry Banana Bread.

I was bored, hungry, and wanted to make my house smell like something comforting so I mixed a little bit of everything I had lying around into a bowl and baked it for 20 minutes at 350. Pretty safe bet when experimenting.

I was left with this: a hearty, goey loaf of something that smells like spices.

Sticky Cardamom Bread2

This recipe would have made great muffins, but I don’t have a muffin tin. So I cut them up into squares and that is working just as well.

Adapt this ever way you like because I made the whole thing up as I went along. But here is what I did:

  • 1.5 cups quick cooking oats
  • 1/2 cup all purpose flour (because the batter was runny)
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 banana
  • 2 tbsp coconut oil
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 tbsp maple syrup
  • 1 tbsp raspberry preserves
  • 1 tsp cardamom
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp almond extract

No method, no expectations. Just a small kitchen that smelled like warm spice and a satisfied stomach. I’ve got some other interesting ideas of things to write about and tasty things to make, so stick around!