On being the other

The concept of "the other" is something that is studied in school in history, sociology, literature, psychology and a whole bunch of other fields.  I don't remember ever hearing about it until I was an undergrad in Mayaguez majoring in Political Science.  At that time, a Puerto Rican studying at one of the campuses of the University of Puerto Rico (the best one, btw) it was hard to feel my "otherness".  In the only way I could truly relate was in being female in a male centric world, especially in such a sexist Latin society.  Alas, I was a feminist.  Really, my brother would say I was a femi-nazi because I was a bit extreme at times, I admit it.

Later, when I moved to Georgia I realized what it really meant to be "the other".  All of a sudden I was considered "a minority" because I was Hispanic, something I never really had to face before.  It is not like I sat around thinking about it.  Truth be told with a name like Lisa, and such fair skin most people in meeting me assumed I was white, so I can't say I felt that different most days.  Georgia does not have a large Hispanic community- other than Mexican so once people found out I was Puerto Rican they really did not know what to do with me because they had no point of reference.  I try not to think about the scores of stereotypes that must flash through their heads, but I always do my best to break stereotypes so I am not too worried about it.  When your last name is Ayala, you cannot escape your otherness in this society.  Latin people recognize Ayala immediately as one of their own, but other cultures do not know what to do with it.  Most Anglos do not know how to say it initially, and you know they wish you had an easier name to pronounce like "Lopez". The first real "other" shock came when working in Russell Hall post Olympics in 1996 and my friend Juancho was visiting.  He stop by my work to get the house keys, and as we do we spoke the whole time in Spanish.  The young girls in the office all stopped and watched.  I was the only Hispanic there, so both the white girls and the black girls were stunned.  When Juancho left one asked "Um... are you just really good at that?  what's the deal?"  I said of course I'm good at that I am Puerto Rican, my Spanish is better than my English.  After that day the white girls were a bit more distant, the black girls more friendly.  I was offended by both of them.  I don't want my Ricanness to make you like me more or less, you know?

As I have matured, and lived in many places I have embraced my otherness more.  I realize now that I have always been the other in most groups.  I was that girl with the coke bottle glasses who got picked on a lot.  When we moved to Puerto Rico I started the third grade and I was obviously "newyorican" and my spanglish was evident.  It didn't stop me from making friends, but I have been correcting English homework all my life.  My father was an atheist and we were never taken to church.  This suits me fine now, and I believe my dad did me a huge favor by allowing me to grow into my own belief system rather than forcing one on me.  However, when I was 7 my girlfriends were all in the same catechism class and they were getting white dresses and rosaries and practicing for the first communion and I wanted desperately to do it too.  I asked my dad, and he said very plainly "We don't believe in that.  If you want to do it when you are older, you can." End of story.  Well, religion- or lack of religion - just made me an "other" to my classmates.

So I now see that I was the other throughout my life, and I appreciate it.  It has definitely affected my world view.  I usually root for the underdog, I can't help it.  I strongly believe that the majority should not impose itself on the minority, and I will always stand up for the little guy.  As far as I am concerned my sexuality is the only area of my life in which I have always been in the majority.  The way I see it it would be terribly hypocritical of me to make homosexuals feel like less because they are in the minority, and so I will stand up for gay rights anywhere, anytime.  Their love is as valid as mine and they should be able to live in society and express it as I do, end of argument.

When I hear about the so called "ground zero mosque" which is neither a mosque nor at ground zero, my blood starts to boil.  It is so plainly discriminatory that I can barely keep my food down if I watch the news during dinner.  America seems to suffer from collective amnesia, or maybe it is true that this country is so poorly educated that they just do not know the hysteria that followed Pearl Harbor that led to putting the Japanese in internment camps.   

When 9/11 happened I was living in Germany, on an army base with my ex husband.  I was shopping with my German friend Shawny out at a German mall, and we both got called back to base by our husbands with the "something bad is happening, get back" message.  We had no way of understanding the magnitude of it all, even though Shawn was translating what the German news was saying.  Once we got to the base we got scared.  The regular civilian German guards were not at the gate.  The Military Police was, with guns and tanks.  Whole areas of the base were blocked off, most of the office and stores were closing and it was only 5 pm.  I ignorantly asked a guard: "Is this because of the twin towers?" His response was: "It's not just the twin towers ma'am.  It's the Pentagon, too." Gulp.

I got home, put down my bags and sat on the sofa and watched the images for the first time.  Do you remember that feeling?  I was scared for what would happen next.  The base closed down all operations for a few days.  A curfew was in place.  The feel of war was all around us.  German civilians were leaving flowers of support on our gates, it was all very touching and very scary.  Slowly we got back to business.  Security was tighter, but life must go on or the terrorist win. That's what President Bush told us, remember?  A few weeks later there was already hate crimes reported against Arabs.  I remember feeling a deep connection with those poor people whose only crime was to be born with an Arab last name.  You see, I immediately took it to my otherness.  What if the hijackers had been Cuban? Venezuelan?  Puerto Rican?  Then all of us would be the ones profiled.  Then when a TSA agent saw an ID with the name "Sanchez" he would be suspicious.

The proposed cultural center in Manhattan should go forward because no matter how many people feel like it is "insensitive" to the victims' families, no matter how some people say it would be a slap in the face, it really is not.  Muslim- Americans died in those twin towers too.  There are Christian and Jewish places of worship as close as this Muslim place of worship will be.  We need to honor ALL faiths regardless of the extreme elements within them.  The importance of this constitution, and why is should be respected even in tough times, is because it defends us from ourselves and unintended consecuences.  Your intention in opposing this center may be respect for those who lost their lives.  The unintended consecuence though, is disrespecting the 1st amendment, something that should truly be sacred.  Let me remind everyone one one simple fact: there are sex shops, peep shows and bars on the same block.  If you think a Mosque is more offensive than a sex shop then obviously you are not being rational.  I'll say this for my Michael: All places of worship are considered holy ground for the immortals like Duncan McCleod, even the Muslim ones.

Now, what I want to say is that this is connected to the talk of repealing the 14th amendment.  It is not a coincidence that these debates are happening at the same time, the same time when we have a president that is not 100% white.  People are scared.  Most won't admit it, but they are.  Good people, who are not racist or mean, are truly scared.  Of what?  Of the other.  The have never really thought of themselves as "the other".  They have always been in a safe comfortable majority and are deeply afraid to be in that minority.  Maybe because they see how minorities are treated?  Well let me tell you it is not easy being the other.  It is not easy being the butt of jokes, it is not easy to see in some one's eyes that they like you a little less for something that you are, that you cannot avoid, or change, or would not even want to avoid or change.

I am a rare breed.  I know I am in the minority most of the time, and I embrace it.  I am comfortable here; I like it; I call it home.  I married a southern, conservative white man!  I could have changed my name to Lisa Davis and been done with it.  Could have moved comfortably into the mainstream, no one would be the wiser.  But I refuse.  I will not give up my hard to pronounce Puerto Rican last name and blend in.  Lisa Davis?  How vanilla!  And as the femi-nazi is still alive - why should I take his name?  Why can't he take mine?  No sir.  I hyphenated my name because I think it has a nice cool ring to it: Ayala-Davis.  And because I love him dearly and am proud to be a part of the Davis clan, but I am still in the Ayala clan and will be forever. 

I think these subjects are connected because, well, I'm an other.  I can feel it in my gut.  If the president was not brown, all of this would sting less.  I am sorry, but it is the truth.  How do I know?  Because President Bush said hundreds of time we were not at war with Islam, and it didn't make the news that much.  Because the deficit under President Bush almost reached 500 billion, but there was not Tea Party screaming about "big government".  You see, big government is only scary if the man doing the spending isn't white.  (If, like Michael, you were screaming about government spending in 2005 or 2006- you get a pass on this one.) You know why else this is all ridiculous and a sign of the times?  Because there is an Imam performing Islamic services at the non-denominational Pentagon Chapel since 2002.  Yep.  There is no official church of any kind in the Pentagon, because it has to remain non-denominational out of respect of all the service members (yes, there are Muslims dying in our Army too).  But the Army has chaplains of all faiths, and they are all welcomed in this place of worship inside the Pentagon right where the plane hit, as it was built in part as a memorial to those who died. You see, no one secretly believed Bush was a Muslim, so this didn't make the news back then.  I guess the Twin Towers were sacred, but the Pentagon is not.

I am a leftist on most issues, most of you know this about me.  So believe me when I say President Obama has NOT been governing from the left.  He has been such a centrist is makes me a little sick.  I get it, he has to tread carefully.  But I see it as further proof of this country's ignorance, or fear/racism that he is constantly referred to as "too far to the left".  If you believe he is too far to the left, you obviously need a political education.  Email me, I'll give you some reading material.  If you are one of those people who is constantly saying he is too far left because you heard it on fox news, I can't help you.  I, like Marc Maren (comedian, wtfpod.com, love him!) believe they call him a socialist because they cannot openly call him what they want to call him.  Obviously, I am not saying that all who disagree with the president feel this way.  We can agree to disagree on the issues.  But those people screaming on the top of their lungs that he is not an American, who seem to have been bitten by one of the monkeys in 28 days later, those are who I speak of. This rage runs deep, so deep that most people cannot recognize where it's coming from.  But the fact remains it is rooted in his race, in his background, in his otherness.  Because he is not just half black, but he was raised by a white family.  His father was African, not African-American.  Those of us who actually know African people know how deeply and beautifully proud these people are.  There is something different in Africans than in African- Americans that comes from knowing your forefathers were not slaves.  There is something different when you grow up in a place that does not consider you an "other", that I know.

So, I leave you with this thought.  I know most of the people who read this are friends or family members and you are all good people.  Most of you are intelligent, educated people.  Look at your life, I am sure you can find a circumstance in which you were "the other".  It is not always obvious.  It took me a long time to see my blindness as a kind of otherness.  We all have them.  Think about how awkward it was for that one time being in a minority and how scary it was, and try to imagine that feeling all the time.  Think about Marilyn Munster, living with the Munsters, I don't care what it is, but try to relate to the difference, instead of trying to highlight it as something bad.  Try to move past your prejudices, and yes we all have them.  Or do you think 15 years ago I would have thought I'd be living in Elbert County Georgia?  Those people probably eat Puerto Ricans for dinner...


  1. You are getting very good at this. You should go global.

  2. Lisa, you are an amazing writer! I agree with the other comment- you should publish!!!

  3. Lisa, I have never heard about "otherness". I certaintly felt identified. So the whole thing of being the other for me is like not being with the "mass", being "different".
    This blog entry is excellent, your thoughs were neatly organized. You could't express better the whole "fear" thing. I found out about your blog late. I am not getting on the internet frequently. But I will follow your blog more often for now on. Please excuse my "English", you know I preffer to comment in Spanish.
    Big Hugs from Puerto Rico, Gloria


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