Salsa music danced in the air of the new little Mexican restaurant off the freeway. Never mind that salsa music isn’t Mexican; the foray of papel picado hanging from the ceiling and little Mexican trinkets adorning the clay-colored walls almost compensated for the inauthenticity in sound. The Modela and Dos X neon bar lights didn’t hurt.
A petite blonde girl approached us as we hung around the hostess stand.
“How many?” she asked.
“Three,” Jimmy said.
Jimmy was Jean’s husband. Jean was my supervisor —the kind of grandmotherly woman that gives you retired elementary school teacher vibes. Straightforward but sweet. Warm as her knitted sweaters. Jimmy, sometimes he did some business at the dealership as well, though I don’t recall ever knowing what it was exactly. He seemed nice enough, though. And he was until he wasn’t.
It was a big deal that Jean invited me to lunch with her and Jimmy. I exalted her as I tend to do with people of authority, and I felt honored that she would want to spend her only working hour free from me, with me.
Our hostess guided us to our table and we sat down and browsed the menu for the first time.
“I’m gonna get the fajitas,” Jimmy said in his Texas drawl. He closed his menu, quick and assured.
Our waiter, a lanky middle-aged Hispanic man with prominent dark circles under his eyes, came to take our orders. Ever the gentleman, Jimmy insisted the waiter take our orders first, so I made my order and then Jean followed.
“I’ll have the fajitas,” Jimmy said. “Can I get an extra thing of sour cream too?” and he motioned his hands to indicate a small ramequin.
Our waiter smiled, shifted his weight from one foot to the other and mumbled something to Jimmy.
“Ehhh…I’m sorry…” and he leaned in to look at Jimmy’s menu as if to get clarity on what Jimmy was asking for.
“More sour cream. Can I get some extra sour cream?”
Jimmy turned red in the face and started sighing and rolling his eyes.
“Sour cream. Can I get some extra sour cream? You know what, where are you from!?”
Jimmy didn’t give our waiter a chance to answer before he pressed.
“WHERE ARE YOU FROM?”
“Eh, Puerto Rico.”
At that point I was pretty sure Jimmy thought Puerto Rico is a place in Mexico and I wanted to expose his ignorance, but I didn’t have an ounce of courage at the time so I sat, frozen as I watched a brown man turn red and his body language shrink in front of our big, pasty Texan. In hindsight, I could have translated with my half-assed Spanish and nipped this thorny situation in the bud, but I wilted in shame right with our waiter.
“Do they speak English in Puerto Rico?”
“Jimmy…” said Jean, visibly exasperated.
I’m sure she was embarrassed. Not surprised or anything. Embarrassed. This was the man she had been married to for decades, and surely they had discussed things like this is American and we speak English here. But he was showing his ass in the company of a Mexican-American —one, I believe, she genuinely liked and cared for.
Flustered, Jimmy said “Nevermind,” and, in essence, shooed him away like you do when flies are coveting your summer barbecue.
We sat in an uncomfortable silence until our food came and I stewed over his treatment toward our waiter. Number one, Jimmy, Puerto Rico is not in Mexico like I know you’re assuming. Number two, yes. Many people in Puerto Rico do speak English as it is an unestablished U.S. territory; however, the official language is Spanish, which means they are not required to learn English though they are completely welcome in the U.S. Number three, would you like some Wet Naps to wipe that asshole where your mouth is supposed to be?
I used to wonder how people expect non-English speakers to learn the language so quickly. They complain that they don’t speak English, but then they roast them for trying. Are they allowed room for error? To learn? To get comfortable making mistakes in their new language cause that’s the best way to learn anything? No. Because it’s not really about any of that, now is it?
The horror is not the opinion, whatever it is. We’re all entitled to them. But for god sakes, how hard is it to be kind?
Jean was my homie, but I was eighteen at the time. If Jimmy broke bread with me today…
(This post is an oldie. One of many uncomfortable moments re: racism and such that remain with me.)