Friday, October 28, 2005

'Don't cry for me, Argentina?'

The onions stopped me dead in my tracks. They didn't call my name, they shouted out their own.

¡Holy cebollas! I didn't expect the roots aisle of Supremo's produce section to be where I'd encounter a question of allium cultural identity. Yet there they were: "Hispanic" onions 69 cents.

When I was a kid those big yellow onions were 'Spanish' onions. And the giant white ones were Bermudas. But whether it was big round onions or scallions or leeks I didn't make much of a distinction, I hated them all. I didn't like their smell, I didn't like their taste.

One summer helping out at the church rummage sale my assignment was cutting up onions for the hamburgers the minister was grilling. That was my pre-teen idea of hell. Onions were miserable condiments and I spent a very long hot morning in the church kitchen slicing and crying and slicing and crying.

Flash forward to the 'politically correct' 21st Century and a cart-stopping moment at the grocery. In my heart I knew something about the sign was wrong. If it was a translation that would be okay, but that's not what this was about.

Why not allow Spanish onions to remain Spanish? Or maybe call them cebollas de españa. After all that's their origin which is not true for the many people who now call Plainfield home. And yes, I have been well-schooled to use the term "Latino," yet in our city the popular word is "Hispanic." In reality, neither is correct when applied to either onions or people.

Hispanic is about a language and a proper Latino could be Italian. If we were to follow this pattern, why wouldn't Americans and Australians and many South Indians be simply "English?" Clearly that doesn't work, so what's missing? The fact that our 'Hispanic' neighbors are Spanish-speaking tells the rest of us very little about who they are.

A few years ago I was in Twin Cities, my closest grocery store. Standing there, head and shoulders above my fellow shoppers, the blatantly obvious finally hit me: The Maya had moved to Plainfield! Wow!

The reality is that our growing 'Hispanic' population includes individuals who are indigenous people and of mixed blood. They come from many distinct cultures with long histories in Central and South America as well as from islands in the Caribbean. Look around the next time you go through the city and take in the richness right under your nose. Plainfielders' roots have grown to include Columbians and Cubans, Mexicans and Guatemalans, Peruvians and Salvadoreans, Hondurans and Equadoreans and Puerto Ricans and...

Or picture for a moment the family who recently moved to my block:

Edgar is Columbian and his first wife was Spanish. His children from that marriage live in Spain. Go ahead, you can call them Spanish.

Maria was born in South Carolina to a Mexican mother and Irish-American father. At the age of five her family moved to Mexico and little Maria didn't speak any Spanish. Then, as an adult, she returned to the U.S. not speaking a word of English and these days she still has a definite accent.

Together the couple have a 5-year-old son who is fluent in Spanish and English. If you were to ask Andres who he is my guess is he'd say he is an American, just like his mother.

'Hispanic' onions? I don't think so.

--Barbara Todd Kerr

FURTHER UPDATE (11/15/05): I finally asked Andres where he's from, "Englewood," he said.