Papacito at the bodega knows how I like my café con leche: muy caliente, no sugar. He nods at me when I walk through the door and begins steaming the milk. I’ve been getting my coffee and Spanish fix at his bodega for the past five months. It took him two weeks to stop greeting me in English.
“Can I help you?” he would ask, even if he’d been bochinchando with the person already at the counter.
“Sí, un café con leche, por favor. Sin azúcar.”
Papacito would look at me suspect, like I was a Jehovah’s witness or from a downtown waterfront highrise and looking to be real in the ‘hood. He began speaking to me in Spanish when I said his coffee was almost as good el café de mi mamá. That’s when he asked the question I hear often.
“De donde tu eres?”
I’m originally from Queens, not Jersey City, but I knew he wasn’t asking about street addresses.
“De Puerto Rico.”
His response was one I also hear often: You don’t look Puerto Rican.
Really? I thought, but I never ask why. What do Puerto Ricans look like? I think the honey coloring, kinky hair and inky features are dead giveaways. I’m obviously Puerto Rican to the people at the coffee shop who ask “Can I help you?” loudly and slowly, and almost gasp when I give my order in English.
I adapt and get by, but I don’t blend. I was born and raised in the U.S., but get go-back-to-where-you-came-from looks in towns where brown people usually aren’t ordering a Starbucks venti. I get greeted in English on la isla and spoken to in loud, slow Spanish when I respond.
I’m not gringa and not quite enough boricua. I’m a unique blend, estilo Nancy: dark, muy caliente, no sugar.