A Meditation on the Relativity of Identity

By Donald Gutierrez

In early January of 1958 my wife Marlene and I left Berkeley, Calif., on a Greyhound bus trip to New York City where I was to begin a new life as a professional librarian armed with a University of California-Berkeley Master of Librarianship degree. Marlene hoped to expand in her development as a young modernist artist in the energy and stimulation of the New York art scene. We were both weary of Berkeley and the Bay Area after seven and a half years of it and New York seemed attractive in being over 3,000 miles East and in being, well, New York. We had to travel by bus because we had no car and little money, and Greyhound was then the cheapest way to get anywhere.

We decided to go South, through the Southwest, Texas and the Gulf Coast states partly to avoid bad winter weather but also to say goodbye to Marlene's parents who lived just south of Los Angeles. Choosing the southerly route turned out to be a mistake but it dramatized for me the maze of ethnic and personal identity.

When we reached San Diego and got off the bus to stretch our legs, I was approached by an official-looking middle-aged man who asked me for identification. I was so surprised and offended by this unexpected and unwelcome intrusion on my privacy that I angrily refused to cooperate with the request, instead, just walking away. The man, apparently an immigration official, curiously didn't persist and I boarded the bus with feathers a bit ruffled but my identity still unscathed.

A more sinister questioning of my identity occurred the next evening in a small, drab town in the middle of nowhere in Texas. Marlene and I had gotten off the bus during its coffee-break stop to take a walk around the block and get a little exercise. When we reached the fourth side of the block, we suddenly became aware that an old black pickup was slowly following us, actually driving down the desolate street British-fashion so as to be close to us, perhaps 4-5 yards away. A tall, middle-aged black male was at the steering wheel; at his side was another male, probably middle-aged and Mexican. The latter began speaking to me in Spanish. Not knowing Spanish (despite having Central American parents), I didn't understand what he was saying, but his tone sounded somewhat derisive, perhaps a bit challenging or even menacing. Was he, driven by envy, verbally assaulting or insulting me ("Mexican" Don) for accompanying a white woman? Was he, instead, warning me like an ethnic comrade against the grave danger I was running by strolling along in public with a young, blue-eyed blonde? Glancing a second time at the front car door, I noticed the top of the barrel of a rifle by the window side of the black man. After a few minutes, the car drove slowly on ahead of us, disappearing around the corner, to our relief. When Marlene and I reached and entered the bus depot, we saw the black man. He either didn't see us or did but ignored us.


What did this road encounter mean? What did it say about an external perception of me, or of anyone? Of course, as with all stereotyping, one's inner or complex personal being is reduced to a few traits, hardly personal or individualized; rather, one becomes the object of a minimalist depiction that is not a self but a derogated or despised type. The two men in the pickup obviously didn't know -- how could they? -- that I was an America-born citizen of Nicaraguan and Guatemalan ancestry with two college degrees from a distinguished university. So what? All that was clear -- if anything was clear in the somewhat sinister murkiness of the situation on this deserted, dark road -- is that I was a brown young man walking with a white young woman in a region probably hostile to even the mild association of us two strolling along together. I had come from Berkeley and the Bay Area, a cultural milieu in which it was taken for granted that brown, white, black, yellow, red were all equally acceptable colors. Certainly this ideal was often enough not achieved in the Bay Area but at least it embodied a general cultural consciousness and ideal probably not readily found in this small Texas town.

So instead of having my self-identification confirmed as an individualized libertarian radical and young man with intellectual and literary aspirations whose ethnic identity was not a central issue or concern in his daily Berkeley life, I now had a dark perception on the road South-East that I could instantly be regarded as a serious violator of local racial mores.

But there was another conundrum of identity. I had not emerged from an Hispanic community and thus could not identify with and be empowered by such an identification. My Nicaraguan mother and Guatemalan father divorced when I was around 8, a German-Irish stepfather entering the scene a few years later. For better or worse, I spent the years of youth and young manhood with no connection (except for my mother) with a Latin community. Thus, I lacked any sense of ethnic identification with any group. Moreover, being identified over the decades variously as a Mexican, Spaniard, Frenchman, Italian, Greek, black (by a black acquaintance), Sephardic Jew (by my German-Irish stepfather) and Arab hardly clarified my sense of identity, but occasionally gave me a chuckle, surprised no one identified me as an Eskimo or a Laotian. In any event, there seemed little doubt in the minds of American border officials that I was some kind of Mexican or Latin, possibly illegal, maybe dangerous, and certainly meriting investigation.


At our next stop, in New Orleans, I was again approached by an immigration officer or border cop or at least someone official-looking "White" man flashing his credentials and asking me for an ID. This time I complied, simply showing my driver's license, and thus ending the queries. Some might say, well, that's what you should have done all along, without any resistance or emotional fuss about it. That probably would have made things neater, simpler, clean-cut emotionally. Yet surely not only people of color resist or resent having their identity questioned or challenged. The issue of identity obviously goes far deeper than skin color or whatever essentialness we attach to our particular ethnic or racial being. But when the challenge to prove our identity appears to be questioning our ethnic or racial aspect in a way that also seems to invade our deeper sense of our self, one might almost feel -- rightly or wrongly -- that psychic survival is at hand, that one's ethnicity or race is as basic as not only one's blood but as the very cells of one's body. Conversely, one could also feel that one's basic individual humanity or identity has little or nothing to do with one's ethnicity or race -- having one's identity questioned or challenged could be uncharted territory for more than a few people. I can't say whether I felt challenged on that fundamental level, yet one could wonder how we do measure the depths to which ethnic or racial identity define us, considering the historical ordeal of racism, or, for that matter, misogyny.

Our bus stopped for a meal break in Mobile, Ala., during an evening a few days later (we had spent a little time sight-seeing in New Orleans where I ran into another identity-probe on a streetcar that space prevents me from presenting). After all us passengers had consumed our "Eats" Restaurant fare, and gotten on the bus and everyone including the driver was ready to hit the road again, the driver suddenly turned the engine off and opened the door, allowing another person onto the bus. My first reaction was -- well, just another late passenger. But the man was somewhat formally dressed (tie and coat) and seemed bent on a mission. In fact, I was his mission.

Again, after the badge display bit, he asked if I was a citizen of the United States. When I said yes, he requested an ID. Looking carefully at my now frequently-handled driver's license, he still wasn't satisfied and asked when or if I had been in Mexico. This seemed an odd question in view of my showing a valid American identity credential and I regretted afterwards that I lacked the presence of mind to challenge the propriety of the question. After all, what business was it of his when or if I had been to Mexico?

I wondered why I hadn't challenged him; was it lack of presence of mind? Was it some kind of concern that if I didn't co-operate with his question, I could be taken off the bus and separated from my wife (Marlene insists I was taken off the bus, but, by my recollection, that didn't occur)? Was I being too compliant? Was my own sense of identity, of my rights, citizen or personal, dissolving? Or was my co-operation based on not wanting to hold up the other passengers, surely eager to get on with their trip -- thus my community-spirit side emerging? It's hard to be sure -- almost 50 years later -- what my real motivation(s) were, but it made me wonder whether those Americans who take their civil liberties so for granted would find their layer of citizen self-assurance much thinner if confronted by hostile interrogation by "detainers."

Surely, because of President Bush's War on Terrorism, more than a few Americans today must feel intensely exposed and nervous about their fundamental identity and even the security of their person. They must worry about how that identity is perceived by an American government turning into a police state. For an innocent person to be seen by some authoritative individual or institution as an outsider, an alien, possibly an enemy, even a suspect Terrorist could feel like an assault on one's deepest sense of being -- but who (as Franz Kafka urged so unanswerably in The Trial) is innocent? And in regard to what?

My last border/immigration challenge occurred when exiting from the bus in northern Florida, where I blurted out to the local interrogator that I was not an illegal and met with a fairly nasty reaction. Hardly an international border town, Jacksonville suggests again (as did the stop in Mobile) that my confrontations by officials might have had less to do with a concern about illegal immigration than with something else. It later occurred to Marlene and I that perhaps Cuba had something to do with my being questioned on our trip east ("Cuban Don"). Fidel Castro about a year later overturned the Batista regime; perhaps Washington was already on the lookout for Fidelista agents flooding the States disguised as poor post-college travelers. But maybe not. Perhaps Marlene was really a coyote using the Greyhound Bus instead of a van for an El-Norte trip.

When Marlene and I finally arrived in cold, wintry New York, I felt relieved. New York being New York, I felt no one here would care who I was, when I had last been in Mexico, or where I was going. The main concern one picked up in the pulsating, brutal yet exhilarating atmosphere of Manhattan was to get out of people's way -- they had to Get somewhere, and if you fell down or had a heart attack, just don't block their path. This attitude, common enough in New York, was for the time being liberating to someone uncertain and uneasy about what identity others would project on him. It was a strange and unsettling kind of liberation but liberation it was. I now walked down the cold, blackened-snow streets of the must callously indifferent city in the United States a free man.

Free -- but how free? Two years later in New York I applied for a job as the Head Librarian in the private, posh University Club on Fifth Avenue. I was offered the job, a professional position, but was told that I, like all the "help," would have to enter the Club by the back door of the regal building. I turned the job offer down.

Donald K. Gutierrez is professor emeritus of English at Western New Mexico University. His most recent book is The Holiness of the Real: the Short Verse of Kenneth Rexroth. Email dongut@juno.com.

From The Progressive Populist, June 15, 2007

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