“What do you do for a living?”
Not exactly a trick question. Still, I stood there speechless. The clerk at the Verizon store looked up from his computer screen and stared at me with a puzzled expression. When he asked me the question, he probably didn’t even really care about the answer. He was just trying to be friendly while I waited for him to activate my new phone. But since there was a delay in my response, now he was curious.
“I…uh…have a couple of properties I look after.”
He kept staring at me, his brow furrowed. I stammered around some more.
“I mean, I have some rental properties that I take care of.”
“Okay,” he said, looking back at his computer screen and giving a little shrug, as if to say, “Was it really that hard of a question?”
“Well, it’s just not a super exciting job title, like, I don’t know, investment banker or something like that,” I explained.
He looked up from his computer again, locked eyes with me and said, “I work at a cell phone store.”
Although his quip made me realize how shallow I sounded, the truth was I had been struggling with an identity crisis all summer. And his question reflected back to me my own insecurities like a mirror in a fitting room in Macy’s swim suit department. All of my adult life I’ve been something. A student. A lawyer. A stay-at-home mom. And while these jobs didn’t necessarily define me, they did provide an easy, concise answer to a very common question.
But at the beginning of the summer I kicked off a social experiment with myself. After coming to terms with the fact that I didn’t love my lawyer job, I started to wonder if I could make ends meet doing things that I did enjoy. I came up with the following challenge: Could I dedicate my time to doing things I like and actually pay my bills for an entire year without ending up in the poor house?
Figuring out what I wanted to do wasn’t the problem. There were three things I liked doing: 1. Managing rental properties; 2. Buying, fixing-up and selling houses; and 3. Writing. I owned some rental properties that my brother had been managing for me, but he was ready to do other things, so #1 clicked into place. I had a friend who was willing to lend me the purchase money when I came across a house to buy and fix up, so I had #2 covered, too. And the social experiment plus daily life itself provided plenty of material to write about, so #3 was all taken care of. With all of the necessary components in place, I quit my job at the beginning of May.
I expected there to be challenges. Tenants moving out. Unexpected repair bills. Cost overruns on remodeling projects. I mentally prepared myself for these ups and downs. I told myself these curveballs and the anxiety and insecurity that they generated would be part of the experiment, and would make the ordeal all the more interesting to write about.
The fact that I had expected and even prepared for bigger problems made it that much more ironic when I found myself caught flat-footed by such a seemingly trivial question. And it was not having an answer to such a simple question—not the roof leaks at the business park or the tenant trashing the
rent house—that was causing me the most anxiety.
The question came up in casual conversations. It was on forms everywhere from my gym to my doctor’s office. It’s the second or third question someone asks when you first meet. It’s asked so often you don’t even notice it…until you don’t have an answer.
So, how should I answer? Although I still have my license, I’m not practicing law anymore so it doesn’t make sense to say I am a lawyer. A friend suggested I say I’m retired, but that doesn’t feel right, either. I am way too young and work way too hard to be retired. I could say I am a real estate investor, but that sounds ridiculously pretentious. Owning a few rental properties hardly qualifies me to share a job title with Donald Trump. I have my real estate license, so I could say I am a real estate agent. But that usually leads to people asking me to help them find a house to buy, and then I have to back pedal and explain that I only do my own deals. I spend a lot of time writing, but since that doesn’t pay the bills I feel like it’s more accurate to call that a hobby. In short, calling myself a writer seems like complete fiction. Period. End of story.
My boyfriend suggested I respond with, “Nothing,” which was what he used to say when he had just moved back to town after taking a sabbatical and getting a master’s of law in South Africa. But for him it was pretty much the truth; whereas for me, the laid-back Bo-ho persona just isn’t a fit. I’m not okay
with folks thinking I just roll out of bed whenever and bump around from coffee shop to coffee shop all
Other friends suggested answers that were so vague (“this and that” or “I’m in business”) that they implied I was engaged in something sketchy—sketchier even than being a lawyer. And since I am Italian, speculation of ties to the mafia is never more than a couple of (concrete-shoed) steps away. So, I quickly dismissed these suggestions as well.
I was aware that this whole analysis was completely self-absorbed. No one really cared what I said I did for a living, including in most cases the person asking the question. (Just ask the clerk at the Verizon store.) So, why did I care so much? Then I realized that this was not the first time I felt stripped of my identity.
When I was growing up, I was really proud of my ethnic background. My dad was Italian, and my mom was mostly Mexican with a little Cherokee mixed in. As far as I was concerned, it didn’t get any cooler than that. The Italian heritage was just plain bad-ass. I was part of a familia. That meant someone had my back at all times. Who could refuse that offer? And the Cherokee blood? Well, that really requires no explanation. We are a proud people. Most folks know better than to even litter in front of us. But the Mexican ancestry was valuable, too. Although being Mexican in Texas was far from unique, that’s what made it so great. It gave me a shared identity with the majority of my classmates at St. Ignatius Martyr Catholic School and many of my South Austin neighbors.
Life was good until one day when I was about eight, and my mom overheard me talking about my ethnic background.
“Where are you getting the half Mexican part from?” Mom asked, ignoring the obvious problem with my math skills and focusing instead on my lack of understanding of our family ancestry.
“From you. Dad’s Italian, and you’re mostly Mexican with a little Cherokee mixed in,” I explained, wondering why I was having to explain her own ethnic background to her.
“I’m not Mexican,” Mom replied. “I’m Irish, Scotch Irish, English and a lot of other things—including Cherokee. But I’m not Mexican.”
I couldn’t believe my ears. How could this be? She had been born in Laredo, grew up in Brownsville and spoke perfect Spanish. She even had brown hair. How could she not be Mexican? And my brothers and sisters and I even had bit parts on a PBS Spanish-language children’s show where we sang songs in Spanish! How could we not be Mexican? I felt like she had pulled the lana over my eyes for eight straight years. I liked being Mexican. That was a big part of my identity—a full half of it, mas o menos. All of the sudden—with one simple sentence—it vanished as quickly as candy from a ruptured piñata at a birthday party.
It wasn’t easy for me to get past this. But I eventually I managed. Although I didn’t care at all about the
dozen or so other nationalities Mom had rattled off, she was still Cherokee and that was nothing to turn your nose up at. After all, I was pretty sure Cher was Cherokee, and she was really cool. She had that great ballad “Half Breed” and I could really relate to that.
Then, a couple of years ago I was at the funeral for my grandmother on my mom’s side. We weren’t all that close to that side of the family, so there were a lot of folks there that I had never met before. At the pot-luck after the funeral I met this guy who had married into Mom’s family. Every family has a genealogy nerd, and this guy was ours. He had done tons of research on Mom’s side of the family, charting the family tree several generations back—and in Mom’s family, that was no easy task since it was more like a thorny briar patch than a tree. He had huge three-ring binders stuffed full of
information about the family, and he had brought them with him. I couldn’t wait to ask him a few questions about our Cherokee lineage.
“Yeah, I heard that, too--that there was some Cherokee blood in the family from a couple of generations ago,” he explained, “but I’ve never been able to verify that. There just isn’t any documentation of it as far as I can tell.”
Are you kidding me? After my Mexican identity had been stolen from me, the Cherokee blood was all that Mom brought to the ancestral table, as far as I was concerned. Now that was gone, too? A single tear rolled down my once-proud face. I went to find Mom. I was on the warpath now. She definitely had some explaining to do.
“Mom, see that guy over there with pocket protector and all those three ring binders? Well, he says he’s researched our family ancestry and we’re not Cherokee after all,” I said accusingly.
“That doesn’t surprise me,” she answered.
“Wait—what? That doesn’t surprise you? You knew all along that wasn’t true?” I demanded incredulously.
“No—it’s definitely true,” Mom explained. “Your great, great grandmother was Cherokee. But back in those days, being Native American was not something people were proud of. So, families did their best to cover it up.”
I decided to accept this answer at face value. It sounded plausible enough, and if I pressed further in an attempt to determine whether it was in fact true, I might just come up empty-handed. That was a risk I was not willing to take.
In thinking it over, I’ve come to the conclusion that it is time I reclaim my Mexican heritage, too. After all, plenty of people assume I am at least part Mexican based on my appearance alone. And everyone knows Italians are to New York what Mexicans are to Texas, which gives us a similar cultural experience. Plus, the way I see it I’ve taken enough Spanish classes and spent enough time in Mexico to at least earn some honorary ancestry status.
I guess it comes down to this: Who cares what anybody else thinks? To a certain extent, you are whatever you believe. I’ve never done a cheek swab and had the DNA run to determine what my ethnic background actually is. Given my coloring, I could just as easily be Syrian, Lebanese and Greek as Italian, Mexican and Cherokee. But I strongly identify with the last three groups and maybe that’s enough.
So, from now on when people ask me what I am, I’m going to tell them I’m half Italian, half Mexican and a little bit Cherokee. (I’ll probably have to say it pretty loud if I want to be heard over my boyfriend’s scoffs.) And when people ask me what I do for a living, after confirming that I’m not a mathematician, I’ll tell them I’m in real estate and I’m an aspiring writer. Finally, to answer the clerk at the Verizon store: Yes, it really was that hard of a question.