I arrived at BNA on a snowy night at precisely 4am. After spending a not-so-wintery break with my family back home in Brazil, I had just landed in Nashville. Barely keeping my eyes open, I called an Uber, mentally counting down the seconds to dive into my warm bed in the Commons. It took about fifteen minutes for the driver to arrive. He immediately went on to apologize, explaining that he had gone around the airport twice and hadn’t recognized me because I “didn’t look like a Pedro”. I was too tired to say anything: my flights had been delayed for a total of eighteen hours and I hadn’t slept in almost two days. I nodded and replied halfheartedly with the single word that conveyed best what I was feeling: “hmm”.
That “hmm” was not meant to be sarcastic or mean; it was what my tired brain used to express my bewilderment in regards to the situation. Maybe it was the exhaustion speaking, or possibly the gallons of airplane coffee I had recently ingested, but I found it the weirdest thing being told that my name — the name my parents chose for me, the word I had been referred to as for my entire life — was not an accurate depiction of me.
Of course, that was not the first time it had happened. Ever since I moved the U.S. six months ago, I had listened to multiple variations of the same comment, but only on that night did I start giving it more thought. Did people think “Pedro” was not a name white enough to describe me? Or, worse, did they think I was not Latino enough to take on a name as Latino as “Pedro”? Even the thought of it seemed preposterous to me. No, I thought. My name has nothing to do with my racial identity. “Pedro” is just as common a name in Latin America, Portugal and Spain as “David” and “John” are in English-speaking countries, and, fun fact, it is our version of the English name “Peter”.
Yet what bothered me most was not the comment itself, but the fact that it reflected my own doubts about race. Ever since coming to Vanderbilt, I have felt awkward when these discussions come up, since I never seem to know where to place myself racially. I was born and raised in Brazil, living there for the first eighteen years of my life, a descendant of European immigrants and indigenous populations, which I suppose technically makes me a Latino. Yet I am not Hispanic — yes, those are two different things — because Spanish is not my native language, although I actually do speak it. It gets even more confusing: I look white and have been treated as such for my entire life in Brazil. So how would I define my race? Am I Latino simply for being born in Latin America and raised around Latino/a culture, or is there more to it than that? Am I white too, or are those two identities mutually exclusive?
I am an example of how flexible the idea of race can be. Surprisingly, and perhaps unfortunately, such a fluid concept bears too much of a significance in how we see and treat each other, even in 2017.