Guests of the Inner Sanctum

Author Spotlight: Mistaken for the Help

Here on BB&W, we often discuss the varieties of bias in our interracial and intercultural relationships from one perspective. Here’s another, quite compelling view from a fellow colleague of mine from the American Society Journalists and Authors, Caitlin Kelly. I hope you enjoy her essay as much as I did.


THE AUTUMN day was spectacular: a clear blue sky, the trees glowing with scarlet and orange leaves, brilliant sunshine. My partner, Jose, dressed in his weekend casual wear of jeans and a barn jacket, looked up with pleasure.

“Gorgeous, huh?” he asked a neighbor in our suburban New York City apartment building, standing beside him on the sidewalk.

“Seriously,” the man agreed. “You guys did such a great job.”

The 60-year-old brick building had been recently re-pointed, a long, messy, laborious project that used the labor of many local workers, most of whom were Hispanic.

Jose is not a day laborer. Nor is he illegal. He is a first generation American, as patriotic as a man can be, born and raised in Santa Fe.

But, in New York, as in many parts of the U.S. today, a Hispanic man remains an obvious, easy target. It might be for physical, brutal attack, even murder, as has happened on Staten Island and Long Island.

Or it can mean a smaller, equally vicious blow to the pride of a quiet man with a small crystal pyramid hidden in his dresser drawer, typical of his modest nature. It’s a Pulitzer prize for photo editing.

My partner is not a peon, neither uneducated, undocumented, nor working-class – assumptions some observers still make too easily.

Instead, he’s a former White House Press photographer, who’s photographed three Presidents, five Superbowls, a war and two Olympics. He grew up with little money and few powerful allies or contacts. No Ivy degrees. Like many other minorities who have climbed the greasy pole of professional success, he brings a ferocious work ethic and a ton of talent.

I find this casual brutality unbearable, the blithe racism that unthinkingly dismisses this soft-spoken man with brown skin.

We started dating in 2000 after meeting on-line. His adjectival string read: Mexican-Navajo-Buddhist-Republican-golfer. It all sounded pretty intriguing to me.

My Dad said only: “Republican?”

I’m blond, pale, Canadian, raised in Toronto, a liberal city renowned for its ethnic diversity. I’d grown up taking public transit everywhere, often the only white person, surrounded by Vietnamese or Chinese or Caribbean-born blacks.

Yet I had never dated someone who wasn’t Caucasian. Naively, it never even occurred to me that people might have an opinion about this decision.

People, hearing his Hispanic name, trotted out every cliché. “Does he wear a guayabera? Does he dance salsa?”

You’re kidding, right?

The man wears khakis, boat shoes, polished black loafers, cashmere. A colleague once called him, affectionately, the preppy Mexican. His favorite restaurants are French bistros and his preferred weekend activity playing golf.

Our inter-racial and inter-cultural pairing has up-ended many assumptions. When we went to Mexico for three weeks in 2005, it was I who did the translating. I first went there at two, returning many times since, from Taxco to Acapulco to Merida to living in Cuernavaca when I was 14 for a few months with my Mom and, with her, traveling the countryside. Mexico always feels like home to me, filled with delicious memories of churros and cajeta (goat milk caramel), agave and dusty roads and cloud-covered coffee plantations and dim cathedrals.

For Jose – whose grandfather Pedro fled Torreon, in the far north of the country –- his only trip to Mexico was to touristy Cancun and its beaches. As we traveled together, jumping on and off the country’s excellent first-class buses, (“Buses?!” he said), touring five regional cities, everyone chatted him up.

“I don’t speak Spanish,” he’d apologize, deferring to the blue-eyed gringa at his side. My Spanish was once sufficiently fluent I translated for Chilean refugees and still strong enough I could chatter away for hours.

I was always struck by how un-Mexican Jose was, how little he knew of, or valued, his ancestry. Once, in a museum in Texas, I admired his Mayan nose, a dead ringer for one on a centuries-old pot in the display case.

On our Mexican vacation, we were spontaneously invited to a book party in Patzcuaro, hosted by a famous news photographer we had never met. He gave Jose a copy of his magnificent coffee table book, with the inscription: “To Pepe, whom we have only loaned to The New York Times.”

Thanks to Jose, I now see the world differently.

The youngest male child of a Hispanic family, he likes things his way. I was raised an only child, so we take turns being the most demanding.

We keep pozole in the freezer. We burn pinon incense that smells like the woods he grew up in and desperately misses. On our recent New Mexico vacation we stared into a night sky impossibly studded with stars. His land, his heritage, his home.

Just as much as our New York penthouse.

About the Author:

Caitlin Kelly has been a reporter for the New York Daily News, Globe and Mail and Montreal Gazette. As a freelancer, she has written for The New York Times since 1990 and is the author of two books, “Blown Away: American Women and Guns” (Pocket Books 2004) and “Malled: My Unintentional Career In Retail” (Portfolio, spring 2011.) She was a paid blogger at True/Slant for a year before it was sold to Forbes in May 2010. She lives near New York City; her passions include antiques, cooking, reading and foreign travel (37 countries so far!)

Her website:

Her blog:

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