Guilty of Being Colombian
I was really excited to write about Phoenix for BoldLatina. The fry bread was off the hook, I went to great little stores, the vibe was great, and I had zero Arpaio-ish moments of discrimination. I had just wrapped up a great trip with my mother, where we visited my Titi (aunt) and Tito (uncle) and their adorable Tai (Shih Tzu). I felt restored. However, as I walked up to the security screening area of the airport before returning home, the story I was fated to write unfolded before my eyes.
It all began with my surname–Szoenyi. For my entire life, it has been some sort of running joke, with people attempting to pronounce it, not attempting to pronounce it, and asking how it is pronounced. It’s always the head-scratching conversation starter. This day was no different. Upon looking at my security documents, the TSA officer asked if my last name was Polish. He seemed like a spazzy kind of guy, and I felt that maybe he was trying to flirt with me or make conversation, but then again I always think that. After telling him it was a Hungarian last name, Officer Spaz proceeded to ask me if I have ever visited Budapest. I said no, and when he looked perplexed, I pointed to my mom with my thumb and said “well, she’s Colombian,” so he would know that all my loyalties on where to travel are dispersed, and I am not just Hungarian. Big mistake.
“Well we are all American here,” he said as he returned my security papers. Those words didn’t sit well with me from the moment they left his mouth. That’s a novel (and true) sentiment, but I was born and raised here and felt the need to tell him that. I wondered why he would even feel the need to say that after I said that my mom is Colombian. Thinking back, I wondered if he thought I was saying that I could never fly anywhere because of my mother being from Colombia. I did a lot of analysis on how that day unfolded, but realized I never said anything suspicious, at least in my eyes.
You would think that I was Public Enemy #1…
I get a kick out of the security screening portion of flights. That little laser x-ray tube you stand in seems so spy-like, and I don’t have anything to hide, so I just go along and take my shoes off like everyone else does. I put all my electronics in one container and just follow the rules. I understand that there are some really fucked up people out there and I’ll submit myself to being scanned, and possibly getting some weird radiation or feet germs to help protect my country. I was upbeat, cracking jokes. It was all fun and games to help pass the time in that annoyingly slow line…until I didn’t get my bag back.
After grabbing my electronics and shoes, I kept poking my head behind the conveyor belt to see why my bag was being held aside. Each time I did, Officer Spaz kept looking at me. Not normal. My mom got her bags and so did pretty much everyone else who was in line by me. Not normal. Then a female TSA officer approached me. You would think that I was Public Enemy #1 and she was going to get an award for figuring out what was in my bag. “Is there anything in here that could hurt me?” No. “Don’t reach for anything in the bag,” or something to that effect. I thought the whole thing was comical. I rolled my eyes while my mother got upset that this was even happening in the first place.
The major culprit of this whole fiasco was a bottle of super hot habanero sauce that was part of a gift that I was bringing back to my boyfriend. It was over the allowed three ounces for liquids on a carryon, and I forgot about it. Besides, it was sealed. She asked if I wanted to check in my luggage and unwrapped a Buddha head my Titi gave us for our backyard. It seemed like she really wanted to find something, and I was so offended by that. Like the smartass that I am, I turned around and stated to the scattering of people looking at me from the cleared end of security that I’m guilty of having hot sauce and being Colombian. Hot sauce surrendered, I was now just guilty of being Colombian.
Then came the pat down. She asked if I had been searched like this before, and I said no, although I’m sure I have because of all the metallic shit I wear. After refusing a private screening room (I have nothing to hide!), she explained what she was going to do. It’s not the nicest thing in the world to have some random chick feel you up while trying to find drugs or explosives or God knows what. Now I was really looking suspicious of my non-existent crime. I felt embarrassed and pissed off. To add another layer of WTF to this, she then wiped down both of my cellphones with some handy wipe that detects explosives and shocker–drugs.
My Titi, who has worked for an airline for over 20 years, tried to tell me at first that TSA will do random searches (which they do) and that I was probably one of them. She later said that she told me this when I called her so I would make it through security without losing my shit. She reminded me that this was the South (well, Southwest, but it’s still the South), and that even she, an airline employee, gets checked, most likely for being born in Colombia. Total, and utter, bullshit. On the phone with my aunt, I could see random white people look at me and wondered if they were silently judging me. I was so annoyed at how I was treated, bewildered.
I get it, but I don’t. Criminal Colombians have smuggled drugs in everything you can think of, alive and dead, to get it from South America to the United States. My mom says we are crafty–if only they could use that intelligence and creativity for good. This is the same Colombian mother that has never tried any drug–even once–in her entire life. I have never tried cocaine. I have never been arrested. And I sure as hell have never smuggled anything illegal into the country.
I say I’m Colombian because I’m so incredibly proud of being Colombian.
This wasn’t the first time my bags were searched though for being associated with Colombia. In 1994, during the summer between 8th grade and high school, I spent the entire summer in Colombia, traveling there and back alone, but staying in the country with family and family friends. On my trip back, my bags were opened and searched, only to find clothes, probably a ton of Colombian snacks for the fam, and random fruit-based alcohol for my abuelita’s home bar. They must have thought, “of course the clueless 13-year-old kid coming from Bogota alone has the stash!”
After I read back the first draft of this story to my mom, she shared with me her own tale of TSA discrimination. About 20 years ago, when traveling home (note: America) from a trip to Colombia, security agents separated the passengers into two lines: tourists and U.S. citizens. Guess who they decided to search–my mother. “I am a U.S. citizen. If you search me, you should search everyone else,” she remembers curtly telling them. More than likely, they decided to single her out when they saw that she was a native of Colombia.
Still stinging from this upsetting experience, my American-born self waited in line at the airport’s American-based Starbucks to get a frappuccino. Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” was playing, and the irony and moment of synchronicity was not lost on me. I felt not very American at that point. On the plane, a guy who looked like he could be Middle Eastern or Brazilian annoyingly joked out loud that he was stopped and searched for his ultra-scary bag of Sour Patch Kids. I told him, “I know how you feel, I had hot sauce.” He offered me one, which I declined. I felt both better and worse that this also happened to someone else, most likely as a result of racial profiling.
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The easy answer to this whole predicament is to not mention being Colombian anymore. That’s never happening. I say I’m Colombian because I’m so incredibly proud of being Colombian. I have a European last name and a face that doesn’t register to many as Latina. I could easily never say that’s a part of my ethnicity again, and no one would know, but I let people know. I was raised by a Colombian mother and grandmother and aunt and sisters and community. I can dance cumbia, listened to Shakira when she had black hair, am fluent in Spanish, and live my life so that people know there are good, honest, non-criminal Colombians in the world. In fact, there are millions of us like that, more than there are criminals, of that I’m sure. I assume hit shows like Narcos don’t really help us outlive our negative stereotype. I won’t ever stop being who and what I am, and if being honest about being Colombian gets me searched again, well at least I know the procedure. Throw some hot sauce on that.