Lovato? You don’t look Spanish

- June 1, 2011

"Chango threw a fake karate chop. I parried..."

(Some names have been changed to protect privacy.)

My name is Todd Eric Lovato — my father is a Lovato, my mother a Sigstedt (don’t ask) — and in my daily deeds I hear the following statement a lot: “You’re a Lovato? You don’t look Spanish.”

I hear it, or some iteration of it, a lot. Always from Hispanics (or Latinos, or Chicanos, or Chihispatinos, or whatever), never from non-Hispanics (I will pick on them at a later time).

“You don’t look Spanish.”

Now that I’m back in my hometown, Santa Fe, I get it more than ever, most often during casual, introductory social exchanges — the bar, the work, the game, the party, the day trip to Española.

One time, I dropped off some slacks to be hemmed at a local mom-and-pop tailor shop here in town. The older Hispano owner, replete in a veterans ball cap and thick glasses,  asked for my name and took it down. "Todd Lovato." He stopped and peered at me above his bifocals:

“Lovato? You don’t look Spanish.”

The “City Different” is a kaleidoscope of  high desert beauty, grand ol’ history and cultural contradiction. Some people still describe it as a tri-cultural utopia, a rose-colored perspective (usually made by wealthier anglos) that views Hispanics, Anglos and Native Americans as aligned in a kind of culture harmonic convergence. Although the state wasn’t incorporated until 1912, Santa Fe is often touted as the third oldest standing American city and the oldest to the West of the Mississippi River, as well as the oldest state capital in the country. It boasts the oldest standing church; San Miguel Chapel, dating back 1610 A.D.; the oldest public building in the Palace of the Governors; and the country’s oldest standing community get down — Las Fiestas, which celebrates the Spanish “bloodless” reconquest of the area from the indigenous Tesuque Pueblo Indians in 1692.

Back in high school, my city league basketball team, The Skinny Kahunas + Joe (yes, it says that on the trophy), won an important playoff game against a local recreation center’s sponsored team. As we shuffled out of the locker room victorious, the losing team was waiting to receive us in the foyer. By this point, I had been in and around enough fights to know that a fracas was indeed brewing. We walked by, uncomfortable — we were on their side of town, a rougher, poorer quadrant that had yet to be gentrified by New Yorkers. Loud enough for everyone to hear, a young firebrand with a cursive neck tattoo and a family reputation for gang warfare, Chango, emoted, “I can't stand these white boys!”

Any other epithet I would’ve ignored. Instead, my emotions flared, and walked up to him, preparing my best Spanglish accent: “I’m not white. I’m Hispanic.”

Chango threw a fake karate chop. I parried. The room became loud and raucous, and that was pretty much the end of it — I think the cops came or something. But that faux-punch stuck with me. It said something both sweet (not actually hitting me) and sour (fake hitting me). I can still see Chango’s message in those angry eyes. It said, “Lovato? You don’t look Spanish.”

I suppose I should have a boilerplate response prepared for the the old-timers — something witty and self-deprecating so we could both have a good laugh and say “Bueno, bye,” and walk away feeling good about our respective prejudices: Me the over-educated, over-fed, long-haired, leaping gnome of a gringo; and he, the old tithing Spanish viejo, nary far away from a crock pot brimming with the best-tasting pinto beans in the land.

Sadly, presented with this statement again and again, I find myself stunned, feelings hurt and at a loss of words. A salvo of thoughts fire through my head, none more overwhelming than the following rumination: Multigenerational Hispanics in New Mexico who accept nothing less than “Spanish” as their pure lineage are wrapped up in a case of epic denial. In 2011, at the forefront of more than four centuries of colonization, hegemony, immigration and procreation, for one to identify only with a singular strand of what is a lustrous braid of suramericano pedigree is xenophobic and even self-loathsome.

Recently, I was at an outdoor juerga, a flameco jam session, on the outskirts of town. Women in brilliant folksy skirts and dancing shoes laid down on the earth portable dance platforms made from plywood and two-by-fours. The tocaor tuned up his guitar and loosened his fingers with exotic scales and embellishments of difficult rasgueado flourishes. Cajons flanked his sides. Fireside, I was introduced to a guy with a salt-and-pepper pompadour and impossibly tight black jeans.

“I’m…Manuel Francisco de Vásquez.” He delivered his words like he was speaking in the third person. “They call me…”

“Nice to meet, you Manuel, I’m Todd…er,” I already didn’t like the way things were going, “Lovato.”

“Lovato? You don’t look like a Lovato.”

Silence followed. Here we are again, I probably thought. Then I probably forced an awkward smile, kicked the dirt and tugged my earlobe or adjusted my glasses — gestures one makes when they are truly nonplussed. “Cool. Well, nice to meet you, Manuel.”

The cuadro of musicians and dancers performed their impassioned song and dance out of twilight and into the chilly night. Meanwhile, I just sulked, drank too much silver tequila, and thought about what I should have said.

In his retirement, my grandfather, Joseph, tried to trace the Lovato gene pool back to our ancestors. I thought maybe it would be some high-profile celebrity progenitor like Francisco de Coronado, a gold-lusting Spanish conquistador who set out to discover and ransack the mythical Seven Cities of Gold in the name of the Spanish crown. But nearly a year and much collateral damage later, Coronado found himself in what is now northwestern New Mexico with little more than his helmet in his hand, glassing over the staid pueblo huts of the pueblo Zuni people. No gold. Just adobe and a passel of equally confused indigenous. Turns out, we are not related to this reconnoiter — at least not that we know of. Turns out we aren’t related to Oñate (don’t ask) either — at least not yet. But you never know. You don’t see many Oñates or Coronados in the phone book these days. They could be anywhere.