Last summer, I went to a bay area’s women writers’ gathering at a pub downtown Oakland. It was a pub, so just about everyone was drinking artisan beer. I ordered a glass of red wine.
The purpose of this gathering was to network with other female writers. I went by myself with no idea that I was about to come down with a violent stomach virus. I attributed my sudden, but familiar, feelings of standoffishness to a comment from one of the gathering’s organizers, a white woman, just five minutes after I arrived.
“You look like Alice Bag,” the women smiled and shook my hand.
My hair, which parts on the side, was cut in an asymmetrical bob, dark with bright red pieces opposite the part, and I had just told her that I was working on a memoir about being in a female punk band.
“I do?” I said.
I could see the woman’s face fall in a sudden realization.
“Because I’m Mexican? Or maybe it’s my haircut,” my voice trailed off on the word haircut. I decided that I should try to give the woman the benefit of the doubt.
The woman stammered something inaudible, then turned and introduced me to her friend standing nearby. The friend and I exchanged the requisite writer information, what kind of writing we do, publications, and what we’re working on now; then I decided to sit down. I needed to think carefully about what had just happened.
Had I stood up for myself and questioned a potentially rude comment, or had I nearly accused the organizer of being racist, or at least of stereotyping?
It is actually a good thing, in the writing world, if you resemble another writer in some way, writing style, genre, or region because it’s a convenient way to give a frame of reference for your own work, to demonstrate that your style, genre, or region already has an audience, so I know that writers do this, make these convenient comparisons, but telling one person of color that she looks like another person of color, always smacks a little “they all look alike.” Of course, Alice Bag had recently released her own memoir about growing up Chicana and being in a punk band.
This was all getting a little hard to sort out.
When the movie Lone Star came out in 1996, many people told me that I looked like Elizabeth Peña (RIP). This seemed like a convenient comparison too – a Latina in a movie seen by many people that I knew, a film that got attention for its content and good critical reviews, and I all of a sudden looked like her. It felt like the fact that I now supposedly looked like someone in a movie, a woman deemed pretty by the movie industry, legitimized my face, my slightly Mayan nose, my heavy-lidded, almond shaped eyes, my full lips. Most people probably didn’t really mean for the comment to feel this way, but I can’t help having a lot of baggage about standards of beauty growing up in a small town in the 80’s when perfectly blond feathered hair and blue eyes reined supreme.
The irony, I’ve realized, is that while Elizabeth Peña and Alice Bag look nothing a like, I do actually look a little like both of them. I look more like Elizabeth Peña around the eyes and maybe like Alice Bag around the mouth (or is it the shape of our faces?) but perhaps more so because my hair is often cut and died similar to hers and we are both Chicanas who were in punk rock bands, though years and years apart – superficial things?
It’s confusing isn’t it, which is why you might want to be careful. Those of us on the receiving end may want to be careful too, because I quite like the way Alice Bag looks, and looking like Alice Bag, looking like a fierce, not-so-light-skinned Latina is what I look like and what I want to look like after all.