I read somewhere that more fugitives run to South Florida than anywhere else in the country. Apparently it has something to do with the weather. Since its genesis, people from everywhere have flocked to Miami searching for a new start amidst the ocean and palm trees and sunny skies. It is a land of foreigners. In fact, there is such a fusion of cultures, ethnic backgrounds, and languages that no one, from anywhere, really stands out.
Growing up here, I had no idea how different Miami was from the rest of the world. And I had no idea how different I was.
I learned just how wrong I was a few years ago, while visiting Chicago. And, it wasn’t the absence of Spanish, that surprised me. It was how people reacted to — me. This was my first visit to the Midwest and, everywhere I went, people stared at me.This is not an exaggeration People STARED. And let me tell you, these were not the kind of stares that you enjoy. These weren’t, “Wow, look at her!” stares. To be fair, they didn’t seem like looks of utter fear and disgust either; but, they were STARES.
At first, I thought that I was being paranoid. I tried to ignore it. But when people turn around and look at you, whisper to one another, and then turn and stare some more, it is difficult to ignore.
I became incredibly self-conscious. Obviously it does not help that I’m a woman. Immediately that female disease – insecurity, you know, that disorder that is a result of producing estrogen – rears it’s ugly head. So I wonder, did I spill something on myself? Am I mismatching? Am I wearing something completely unstylish? Is my fly open? I mean, WHAT is it?
I told myself that it was just my imagination. People weren’t staring; I was just being too sensitive.
Then one night, I’d had enough. At the theater, a lady sitting in the row in front of us saw me, said something to the man that she was with and they both turned to look. This was definitely not my imagination. So I finally ask my husband, I try to phrase this question just right because I have also been guilty of that aforementioned female disease — asking “does this make me look fat” perhaps 100 times too many – if he’d noticed that people had looked at me funny.
“Oh yeah,” he replied without hesitation. “They’ve looked at you since we got here. I didn’t say anything because I didn’t want to make you self conscious.” Gee, thanks. “You probably just look different to them. They can’t tell where you’re from.”
I look different? Really? I’d never thought that I looked “different.” Then it hit me. I’m in the Midwest. I look different than most of the people there. Chicago has a large Hispanic population. But, few of them live downtown. Like many major cities, it is expensive to live in the urban core, where restaurants, theaters, department stores and companies abound. And, like throughout the country, there is a wealth gap between minorities and White Americans.
So, on Chicago’s Miraculous Mile, there very well may be few Hispanics. And although the Hispanic population continues to soar throughout the country, many Americans — particularly Midwestern tourists from Indiana and Wisconsin — imagine that we all look the same. And, apparently, I don’t fit that image.
It all made sense. I didn’t have mucus hanging from my nose, I hadn’t sprouted a pimple the size of Mount Everest, and I wasn’t wearing two different styles of shoes. People in downtown Chicago had just never seen someone who looked like me.
There is a lesson in this.
There is certainly something to learn here about diversity, race and ethnicity. There is, I’m sure, a lot to discuss about social stratification, or about the struggles foreignness and belonging.
But, right now, I guess I’m just glad that I’m home with all the other exotic looking exiles, immigrants and wanderers. Even if there are fugitives among us.