by Michele Carlo

Story Summary

New York City born-and-raised Michele goes on a trip to Paris, France, and learns what it means to be both a Nuyorican (a New York Puerto Rican) and an American in a way she didn't expect. And what does being "an American" really mean, anyway?

Discussion Questions

  1. Michele describes being asked, "what are you," and "where do you come from," while growing up in New York City (NYC). NYC is a place where people from many different places come to live. Would those questions be asked where you live?
  2. When Michele tells her family she's going to visit Paris, France, they warn her the French "don't like Americans." After she sees her U.S. passport it hits her that she is a U.S. citizen in a more global way than she had previously thought. Did you ever have a similar realization about who you were and where you came from?
  3. When Michele realizes she is going to be alone in Paris, she resorts to combining her limited Spanish with her even more-limited French—and finds herself speaking Spanish more freely than ever before. Why do you think that was?
  4. At the bistro, Michele overhears a group of American tourists complain they can't get cheeseburgers and Bud Light. Do you think it was right for them to expect to get the same foods they had at home while they were visiting another country?
  5. When Michele confronts the waiter about spitting in the tourists' food, he asks, "Why do you care? What are you?" When she says she's an American also, he doesn't believe her. And when she says she's from Brooklyn, he says, "Brooklyn is not America!" What do you think that means?
  6. Michele defended those tourists because she realized that even if they were rude and ignorant, they were fellow Americans. She also reclaimed her Spanish by telling her family to quit criticizing her. If you have ever traveled away from home, did you learn something you didn't expect about the place, the people, or yourself? What was it? Did it change your perception/understanding about anything?
  7. Xenophobia is defined as fear of foreigners. What is a foreigner? What does that mean to you? Is it possible to feel like a foreigner in your own family/town/school?

Resources

  • Fish Out of Agua: My Life on Neither Side of the (Subway) Tracks by Michele Carlo
  • Foreign to Familiar by Sarah A. Lanier
  • Pioneros: Puerto Ricans in New York City – 1892-1948 and 1948-1998 by Felix V. Matos-Rodriguez and Pedro Juan Hernandez

Themes

  • Identity
  • Languages
  • Latino Americans/Latios

Full Transcript
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Hi! My name is Michele Carlo and the name of this story is “Brooklyn Is Not America,” and it’s from my book Fish Out of Agua.

Now, I know that this may sound a little weird to you if you weren’t born and raised in New York City like I was, but when I was young it was totally normal for people to ask you upon two or three minutes of meeting you for the first time, “What are you?” Which means, “Where are you from?” Which means, “Where are your ancestors from?” And you would hear this all the time. Especially at a party when there were, there were a large amount of people that didn’t really know each other.

Someone would say, “Well, what are you?”

And the person would say, “I’m Italian and Irish.”

“Well, what are you?”

“I’m Polish and Greek.”

“What are you?”

“I’m Jamaican and Chinese.”

And, meanwhile, I’d be like cringing in the corner waiting for it to be my turn because I knew that when someone asked me, “What are you?” and I answered quite truthfully that I am Puerto Rican, this is what usually happened.

“You’re Puerto Rican?”

“Yes.”

“No, you’re not.”

“Yes, I am.”

“No, you’re not.”

“Yes, I am.”

“Well, I don’t believe it.”

“Well, that’s okay, because most of the time my own family doesn’t either, because I am the Red Sheep of my large Puerto Rican, Nuyorican family. I am the one that doesn’t speak Spanish very well. I am the one that doesn’t dance salsa very well. I am the one that doesn’t do anything Latin well!”

So, when I told my family that I was going to go visit a friend who had moved to Paris, they said, “Why you going to Paris for? They don’t like Americans there.”

To which I answered, “Well, if no one thinks I’m Puerto Rican in New York City, why are they gonna think I’m an American in Paris?”

And I didn’t think any more about it until I received my passport and I saw that gold stamp of the eagle and where it said, “The United States of America.” Now, of course I knew, of course I knew that I was American, but somehow it didn’t really become real to me. It didn’t really hit me that I was part of something larger, a larger entity and not just a redheaded Nuyorican from New York City—until I left the country.

When I got to the De Gaulle airport in Paris, my friend met me with a Metro map, a list of things to do and see, and the keys to her apartment, because her job had unexpectedly sent her to a conference in Dijon for three days. And that meant I would be spending half of my week in Paris alone. Which kind of made me a little anxious because she was fluent in French because she was of French origin.

But meanwhile, me? Ha! The 50 words or so that I had struggled to memorize in French because I know that you should speak, at least attempt to speak, the language of the country in which you’re going. But these 50 words that I had memorized meant nothing when spoken with my accent so horrendous it sounded like a combination of Carmen Miranda and Chewbacca. And for the rest of the day when I tried to speak with people, they looked at me as if I had sprouted seven heads because the words were stripped of all meaning. And I realized okay, uh, maybe I just don’t talk for three days. I just won’t say anything.

But, of course, that’s not going to work because you need to speak to people if you’re someplace. You have to ask for things. You have to get directions and do things and except for the bonjour and bonsoir and merci and s’il vous plaît I could just not wrap my tongue around that damned French.

So, in desperation, I just started speaking Spanish at people and to my surprise most Parisians spoke Spanish. I mean at least a little bit. I mean at least as well as I did. And what’s more, nobody criticized my gringo accent or wrong inflection or wrong tense conjugation. And, somehow, without the presence of a hypercritical family member to take me out on like my limited vocabulary or wrong accent, I found myself speaking Spanish totally unselfconsciously for the first time in my life. It was great! So I would just speak Spanish to all the Parisians and when I couldn’t think of a word in Spanish, I just threw in some of the French I had memorized, creating a whole new language that I called “Spench.”

And, when my friend came back three days later, as I guess as a reward for leaving me alone for three days, she took me to one of the fanciest French bistros in the Fifth Arrondissement, in the Latin Quarter, that specialized in Parisian traditional specialties like Lapin en Moutarde and uh, Onglet Steak Avec Pomme Frite. You see, my French is really bad.

So, anyway, we’re ordering or about to order and I hear the last two words that I expected to hear in Paris, “Bud Light.” And I turn around and I see a group of what can only be described as stereotypical American tourists, men and women probably about the same age then as I am now, and the men were arguing loudly with the waiter about why they could not get a cheeseburger and a beer.

To which the waiter quite truthfully said (in a French accent), “Well, if you wanted to get le hamburger, you could have went to le McDonald’s.”

To which one of the men actually said (in southern accent English), “Well garçon, we didn’t fly 4,000 miles to get no damn McDonald’s hamburger.”

And the waiter said, “Hmpf,” and he walked over to where the barback was and he did this… (makes a snorting sound and spit).

Now, you do not need to be fluent in English, Spanish, Spench, French or any language to know what miming a hock of spit into the palm of your hand means. And at first when I saw this, I was laughing to myself. I was like, “Ha ha! Those idiots!” They deserve everything they get. Because those people embodied very a horrible stereotype of the “Ugly American” tourist: they were crude, they were rude, they were loud, they were obnoxious, they were ignorant—and I was like, “They deserve what they get!”

But as I watched them interact with each other and I was about to turn back and order, but, suddenly, I looked at them and I didn’t see a group of rude, loud, obnoxious, clueless, ignorant, Americans. Somehow, I saw myself.

And I saw all the times that I had been belittled or talked badly about or beat up or maligned in any way. And I thought, “No, this isn’t, this isn’t right. I have to defend them. I, I, they’re like me. I have to defend all of us.”

So, I jumped up and I started walking over to the waiter and my friend was like, “Michele, you have gone fool. You are crazy!”

So, I go over to the waiter and I go, “Garçon, um, yo lo ve…what you did. Y yo escuche…what you said. Y no puede escupe votre in their comida!”

And the waiter looks at me and says, “Huh? Can you speak English?”

And I said, “Yeah, I can speak English. I heard what you said and I saw what you did and you cannot spit in their food.”

And the waiter said to me (in a French accent), “Hahaha! Why do you care? You, they are American. You are not American. What are you? Where are you from?”

And I was like, I, I didn’t know what to answer. All my life I’ve been asked this question: What are you? Where are you from? And it wasn’t time for me to sit down with this waiter with a bottle of Lillet, even better maybe a bottle of Calvados and have this wonderful conversation about the Caribbean and how all the islands were this mix of the conquered, and the conqueror, and the beauty of our language, and our culture, and our food, and our family, and how we just we’re just a rich mix.

And, then, the waiter says to me, “I asked, I said, ‘Why do you care? You are not American. What are you? Where are you from?’”

And, then, I remembered how I felt when I saw that cover of that passport with the gold embossing with the eagle that said The United States of America. And, somehow, I just blurted out the first thing I could think of. And I said, “I’m from…Brooklyn.”

The waiter looked at me, and he goes, “Hehehehe! Baaah! Brooklyn…is not America! But I will not spit in their food.” And he walked away.

And I went back to my friend and I was like, “Unh, unh, unh, unh, unh, unh, unh, unh, unh! Puerto Ricans in Paris: one million; clueless American, ignorant tourists: nothing!”

So, I ordered the Lapin en Moutarde and it was the best bunny that I ever ate!  The next three days in Paris were sublime. And, when I got back home, I informed my family that I would forever more be proud to speak Spanish like the American that I am.

And for the rest of youse: yes, because we are American, you have the right to be a damn, clueless, ignorant fool and I will defend to my last breath your right to be that damn, clueless, ah, ignorant fool.

But I will also defend to my death, my right to call you out on it! And whenever someone asks me now what I am and where I’m from; the answer is now and forever will be, Brooklyn—which I have on good Parisian authority—is certainly NOT America.