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Shopping for What it Means to be an American Girl

women shopping at zara clothing store
Shopping for What it Means to be an American GirlJames Leynse - Getty Images

One day, when I was in the eighth grade, my mother came home with a big black trash bag full of Gap clothes—hand-me-downs, from a family whose house she cleaned on Wednesdays. Digging through it, my sisters and I found Christmas, birthdays, back-to-school, all occasions, in one giant bag. My mother had us stand in the front yard, beside the oak tree, as she put film in her camera and snapped us into permanency—her American dream.

Each item had G-A-P stitched on the back, like a badge. Some of the clothes were ugly. There was one maroon and navy-blue striped sweater; I didn’t even like it, but I wore it once a week because it was Gap. There was a power in this sweater: I raised my hand in class, I used color-coded index cards to study French vocabulary, I laughed at Danny G.’s joke even though it wasn’t funny. I wore these clothes because I wanted to be like the rich, straight-A, preppy girls who did gymnastics after school and attended sleepaway summer camp. Like a white girl.

Our family worshipped the Gap so much that when one of my sisters was old enough, it was the only place she wanted to work. She was suddenly the coolest person on the planet, coming home with her “fifties” and “thirties”—monthly items she could purchase at 50 and 30 percent off the regular price. She also came home with new lingo—boot cut, relaxed, khaki. We had never heard these words before, even though we lived in the suburbs of Boston. Our parents had grown up in Guatemala, and they hadn’t either. When they were teenagers, they hadn’t been working at their favorite store in the mall in the hope of a discount, but plucking hot feathers off of dead chickens in a factory in Guatemala City, or cleaning children’s bottoms as a live-in nanny in Los Angeles. They both came to the U.S. looking for new lives. Their dreams included buying a house, painting its fence white, and sending their future daughters to college. They succeeded.

When I turned 16, like my sister, I got a job at the Gap. There were so many rules: how to fold jeans, where to stand in the store, when to punch in and out in the back room. And the rewards! Twice a year the store hosted a friends-and-family Sunday brunch—we could invite up to three people for an hour before opening, and we’d all shop while eating bagels with cream cheese and drinking orange juice from plastic cups. Always, ours was the only Latinx family. Always, they checked our bags and receipts with more attention than they gave to the next pair of friends, the next family.

Inevitably, someone in the dressing room would ask for help getting the next size up or down, and when I returned, the customer would look at my face for just a second too long before asking, “Where are you from?” I would stand there, mumbling something about “Here, but my parents are from Guatemala.” It was true. But every time someone asked me the question, it felt like I was explaining my face to a stranger. I thought of the Sesame Streetsong: One of these things is not like the others. One of these things doesn’t belong.


One day, while I was folding a shirt with the clear plastic folding board our managers made us use (that’s how they create those perfect stacks on the tables), an assistant manager called for me. “Maria! I need you in Zone 3.”

I looked up. “My name’s Jenn.”

“Oh.”

After that, I began giving discounts to every person of color who came to my register. I accepted returns well after the 30-day limit. One month, I sacrificed my “fifties” to purchase jeans for my uncles, who came into the store speaking Spanish, a magnet for raised eyebrows from the managers.

My freshman year of college, a boy holding a red Solo cup full to the brim with frothy beer asked if I lived in the international dorm. When I shook my head no, he said, “Wait, where are you from?”

Even when I thought I could escape the question—I was 28 and living in the western highlands in Guatemala—the hairdresser stopped moving her scissors and stared at me in the rusted mirror before asking, “¿De dónde eres?” I wanted to respond to her in that small salon with a simple “Boston,” and leave it at that. But I knew that answer wouldn’t suffice. She, like everyone else who asks where I’m from, wanted to know where I was “from from.” What had given it away? My khakis? My baggy T-shirt? Or was it my accent in Spanish? I wanted to belong in Guatemala just as I’d wanted to belong back in middle school. To feel part of the group, a most basic human need. But I didn’t pass the test there, either. The hairdresser didn’t bat an eyelash at my existential crisis. She winked at me in the mirror and snipped away. We talked for an hour. I told her about my parents and how I had moved to Guatemala to improve my Spanish, and to write a novel. “You’re a writer?” she asked. “,” I said, and she immediately called over another hairdresser. They wanted to know more. Really? Really. Even if I didn’t fit in exactly, I suddenly felt included.

Where are you from? has followed me around the world. In France people thought I was half-Algerian. In Vietnam they thought I was half-French. In Nigeria they thought I was Latin American. In Guatemala, they called me Americana. Traveling allowed me to crack open this question; it gave me the freedom to respond in different ways—American, estadounidense, Latina. Still, in Boston, without fail every year on the first day of school, my students would ask, “Miss, what are you? You Spanish?” I would grin. Because the effect of those six words depends completely on the way the question is asked. The tone. It can be accusatory or polite, genuine or suspicious—or all of these things simultaneously. Once, while I was visiting a playwright friend in New Mexico and we were at a dinner party in Santa Fe, a white man who stood behind me in the buffet line lifted a plastic utensil and told me, “We need a better knife.” When he realized I wasn’t the help, he apologized, looking mortified, then curious. Where are you from?

Sometimes, though, people don’t ask. Like that time when I was 19, my thick, black, frizzy hair falling down past my shoulders, my face and arms tan with summer, no makeup, no preppy Gap outfit, just me in a tank top and shorts over a bathing suit. I drove up to the entrance of a state park to join my relatives for a barbecue. As I handed $5 to the gate attendant, he looked at me. Here we go, I thought. But then he handed the warm bill back to me. “You don’t have to pay,” he said. He made a fist and brought it to his chest. “This is our land.” I got a better look at him. Indigenous, maybe. I didn’t know what to do or say. So, I thanked him, took back the five bucks, and bought a lime slushy from the ice-cream truck. I joined my family by the water, the meat sizzling on the grill, potato chips and chiles rellenos set on paper plates, as the tall pine trees hovered over us, and I shared the story and listened to our laughs echo in the distance.

I still think about that bag of Gap clothing in the trash bag on our front lawn. How much power I gave it. How it was, in many ways, like a uniform. Or a corset. How I wish during those years I’d had the courage to say: Don’t assume because of my brown skin and dark hair, or my high cheekbones and Mayan face, that I am somehow different in a way that is less than.

Because the truth is, everyone is from somewhere. Because the truth is, I have many answers to the question. Because the truth is, I like all of them.

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