What Is Your Ethnic Heritage?”

Passionate Latin Woman

If asked, “What is your ethnic heritage?” I reply without hesitation, “gypsies and wolves”.  I turn quickly on my heels knowing without seeing there is a quizzical look on the face of the person who asked me the question.  I don’t bother looking back over my shoulder to confirm what I already know to be the fact, nor do I offer any explanations.  These are supercilious requests, questions for which the actual answer is of no interest.  I have Latin undertones, but I am oft confused with someone of Italian decent, which is palatable given my accomplishments and explains the irreconcilable differences with the classic stereo type and who I am.  I am not misreading, reading into, or being melodramatic; my assessment is based on years of intel.


If asked, “What is your ethnic heritage?” I think about my Apache grandmother.  She was the daughter of a Chief, and sold at an early age to a Frenchman for two horses and a pelt of bear furs.  Her name was Hinuevea.

I reply without hesitation, “gypsies and wolves”.  It’s not entirely a lie.  My family history is exotic, if not eclectic.  My foremothers, didn’t have the opportunity of choice when selecting a mate, and often found passion in the arms of others.

I turn quickly on my heels knowing without seeing there is a quizzical look on the face of the person who asked me the question.  Explaining my heritage is complicated, and misunderstood by those with long illustrious pedigrees.  Not everyone’s great grandmother was Apache, married to a fur trader who loved his whisky, and for sport nightly beat his squaw.  In return, Hineuvea ground glass until it was a fine powder. She mixed it in the Frenchman’s food until he eventually bled to death.  It’s family folklore, but I hope it is true, says the gypsy in me.

I don’t bother looking back over my shoulder to confirm what I already know to be the fact, nor do I offer any explanations.  I can’t be bothered with casual connection sort of conversations.  It’s not information that will cement our relationship.    And, honestly it’s a gift I give another, sharing of myself, and my family history.

These are supercilious requests, questions for which the actual answer is of no interest.  I am empathic.  I’ve learned over the years to discern between true interest in who I am, and speed dating types of questions.  I am labeled on first glance by most, so I walk the line of polite casual until kimonos are mutually lifted.

I have Latin undertones, but I am oft confused with someone of Italian decent, which is palatable given my accomplishments and explains the irreconcilable differences with the classic stereo type and who I am.  I don’t speak Spanish.  I finished college, and climbed the corporate ladder and lived in multiple countries.   I don’t save my money under my mattress, have a wide range of interests, did not grow up on a farm, run in a gang, and am tattoo-less.

I am not misreading, reading into, or being melodramatic; my assessment is based on years of intel.  In the formation days of self, when I was asked the ethnic heritage question, and I responded, “I am Hispanic.”  The responses ranged from, oh, so you’re from Mexico; you went to college-incredulously.  You skin tone is light, are you sure you’re not Italian.  Why don’t you speak Spanish?  And on and on and on.

My favorite question has always been what are you? How do you answer a question like that?   I am a person.  I am woman.  I am a human. I am an American.  I am me.

I close with a quote from Popeye.  I am what I am, what I am. 

How would you answer the question, what are you?”


I am participating in Beverly’s, from Writinginflow’s, MLK Blogfest.   Please visit her site and discover other writer’s views.    Share your thoughts with us.



I’m a writer and hoarder of one-size-fits-all panty hose. Until the hose fits over my bum, I write to provide an alternative view on writing and perfection.

67 thoughts on “What Is Your Ethnic Heritage?”

  1. Brenda, love this post. I would love to think I am *emotionally* descended from gypsies and wolves, if not genetically so.

    It’s funny how people feel they have to “place” one another by skin color or ethnic heritage. Even people from the same family are different – why should people be the same because they share an ethnic background?

    • Many thanks, Bev. I wonder the same thing. I like the way Claudine put it, we all carry the same bones. Loved that line because, well, it’s true.

    • Hi Karen, I confess a part of me chooses to believe the story, but you know with family tales it’s hard to know for certain. The women in my family are an interesting lot. I have to remind myself when I say things like this I am also talking about myself.

  2. I always say I’m a true American because I’m six different nationalities. And as my mom always told me, if you factor in who invaded whom, we are probably a lot more nationalities than we even know. 😉 I’m proud to be a mutt.

    • Oh Kelly, I love your Mom’s comment. I think the same about me, the mixture is vast. It’s hard to say what and how much, but the writer in me picks depending on my mood.

  3. You are not a gypsy or wolf my finely fashioned girlfriend, you are a FABULOUS gypsy-wolf and once again you have raised my hackles at how I allow myself to be tempered.

    I hail from the British Isles and am dying, simply dying to say, out loud, with the burning fire of the ages in my eye and a spell or two at hand, that I’m a god-damned Celt so don’t mess with me or I’ll lock you inside an oak tree for eternity! Instead, I confess I’m British with a sigh, averted eyes and a red flush of what may just be shame …

    • Cathy – loved what your inner self wants to shout out and I say GO for it. I really hope you are a god-damned Celt and hope even more you actually say it – with a smile. I bet you won’t have a red flush of shame in the least.

    • Cathy, Cathy, Cathy, you do know that I adore you comments. You never fail to make me stutter. I say to your hackles being raised, about time you let yourself soar. Nothing to lose, not really, although when soaring the air is thinner and the body sometimes free falls. Hugs…

  4. k~

    I love the gypsy/wolf blend. Many of my friends would claim the same with a touch of pirate. Stereotypes at least let a person see what others are looking at, and for, and let me know which ones to walk away from, snuggle up to, or run from.

    The red hair on my head lends an overwhelming conclusion with people I meet, that I am Irish, or of Celtic origins. True enough that there is plenty of the leprechaun blood running around through my veins, but that is not all there is to the mix that makes me. (Looks up at Cathy’s post… and laughs just a little) I’m not sure how to lock someone into an oak tree for eternity, but I am linked to nature and the Universe in ways that have brought other nick-names to the forefront over the years.

    When people ask me, I usually ask them “What do you think?” and then remind them politely that the Universe is a mirror, and their view on the world around them is a reflection of their inner workings as a being. It works nicely, and makes them think a little bit beyond the initial conversation.

    I enjoyed your post…

    • K- I’ve grown accustomed to the question since I have been asked more times that I can count on toes and fingers, but as I stopped to write up the post I did wonder about the question because.. it never enters my mind when I am meeting someone knew. I am more interested in the books they read, their music preferences, movies, likes, dislikes, what makes them tick. I think that tells what they are…that’s my thought on the subject of a person. Glad you stopped by, again. I enjoy meeting people through their words – I should have added this to my list as well.

  5. Edi

    Part of me wishes the question didn’t ever have to be asked but I think even more so, I wish people who asked were willing to accept the answer they’re given.

    I haven’t been asked this since I was a teenager and I remember answering “an American” and the guy says “you know what I mean” and I just walked away.

    • Edi- I was asked last week, rather a co-worker exclaimed, “WOW, your Latin, had no idea. You don’t look like one. Where are you from?” My CEO walked out of her office wearing ten shades of red shaking her head. People still ask, and like you I wonder why. Enjoyed your post, btw.

  6. I’m everything, and I both enjoy asking and being asked where my ancestors came from, so I can answer ten different times. I’m American Indian on both sides of my family (so I’m just as Indian as my parents, interestingly enough), and I may even be Jewish–there were rumors. Other than that you can find at least one of my ancestors among just about every European country other than Spain. I am the definition of American :)

  7. Marilyn

    Terrific blog! I had a good friend years ago that I finally asked what her heritage was. Sh was so beautiful and incredibly exotic looking. I couldn’t pin point her heritage. It turned out she was Mexican, Spanish, Italian, and African American. Wow what a combination! I wish I had a picture of her. Me I’m English, French, German, and Jewish.

    • Ah, thanks, Marilyn.. I think Kelly’s mom (below said it best) we’re all a bit of something, each of us has a touch of exotic running through our veins.

    • Hi Stacy, it’s not a bad thing, it’s just a question, harmless enough on it’s own, but I pondered it in the bigger scheme of life in response to MLK. Glad you stopped by.

  8. Brenda – wonderfully written! I liken this to the often asked question that drives me crazy: What do you do Mike? What do I DO? I do lots of things. I ride my motorcycle, write, exercise and I’m learning to draw right now.

    At that I offer my biggest smile and walk off. I refuse to be judged on my occupation and the immediate association that may go with it.

    After reading your post if I’m ever asked what my ancestry is I think I will say: I’m not entirely sure but it seems there is an Irish prostitute somewhere back there, a Native American, and a German scamp that ran off with a Dutch housewife. Don’t laugh – I think it’s true – I HOPE so.

    • Hi Mike, thanks kindly. I wouldn’t laugh at your heritage, because, well, I am equally exotic, a bit tainted, and there are too many scamps to name. As I said previously, I like or dislike a person based on what is inside.

      • I love that word – “tainted” and it leads my mind to plug in “tinted” instead. I’m proud of who I am which is a combination of everyone in my family who has come before me. Take out even one scamp or the Irish street walker – and I would not be the same. As for tinted – I prefer looking at people and life through various colored filters. Clear is dull but add some tint and everyone can be fascinating.

  9. I tend not to think of myself as anything. See, I had a sperm donor who I’ve never met. He was Jewish and while I look very Jewish, don’t feel Jewish at all.

    My mom is Irish, but I don’t look a thing like her. I feel sort of Irish, because of my name, but because I look so Jewish, it’s hard to associate myself with the Irish.

    So, as a result, I just don’t think I’m anything.

    • McKenzie – I never thought of ‘feeling’ as something, other than me. I know in my brand of ethnicity there are as many flavors of Latins as there are ice cream flavors. I never fit into one of those buckets either, although I searched and searched. I don’t know if everyone wears a label. I think in truth, some of us are just who we are.

  10. Wow, Brenda, top stuff here. Hinuevea’s story fascinated me. Your self-identification engaged me because it is so strong and clear, yet in the end you still leap out of it all to claim ‘I am a person. I am woman. I am a human. I am an American. I am me.’

    Dang right, we are what we are. Could you glance past the rest to look at my character?

    I don’t mind sharing about my ethnic heritage as long as the one asking is sincere in knowing and listens carefully without interrupting me with bits of tattered knowledge they assume they know or have watched in a drama somewhere. :)

    ‘Gypsies and wolves’ is a classic.

    • Claudine- My family’s stories always manage to find a way into my writing. I think some people are truly curious, but others are not. I don’t bother boring people with the details until I see the sparkle in their eye – telling me they have a story too. It’s not always easy finding kindred people, but once you do, hold on with all you have. This is priceless. ‘Could you glance past the rest to look at my character?’ I’ve thought that same thing many a times.

  11. Brenda, I had to get over this way…as I’ve been meaning to for quite some time. This, though, means I had to skip over posts to get here because I looked at the time and noted I had spent longer than intended elsewhere…

    At any rate, thanks for this post. Really enjoyed it. Thanks for taking your piece this route. I am black American. This means my ancestry has the American mix in its heritage. I proudly relay this because I am in awe that I actually got to hear and learn our story. Just to think…Roots and the big splash it made on TV, and here my family had been sharing our story long before I saw Roots… I found, and find that Phenomenal!!!

    So share your heritage. You might not know, but I call myself a memoir enthusiast. I really enjoy reading stories of family and heritage. Just make it fun like you did this post;-)

    • RYJC- No need to explain about dropping by. I am forever behind on reading, let alone commenting. When I started this project I thought, eazie pezie, I was so wrong. :-) As for the post, as I mentioned to Bev prior to posting it wasn’t what I started out writing, but then again, that is always the case. I’ve long learned to let my words drive the bus. As for family, well they are a part of everything I write. I steal from real lie all the time, can’t help it. Glad you stopped by.

  12. June O'Hara

    I’ve been known to lift my kimono, but never in this vein. That’s all I’ll say about that.
    My illustrious pedigree is 50% Irish, 50% German. Interestingly, it’s been shown that when someone is partially German and partly something else, they tend only to mention the “something else.” I wonder why. (Sarcasm, to be crystal clear.)
    I hope Herueva did feed the Frenchman glass. Even if he did have a cute accent.

    This was a really cool post.

    • I always new that about you–kimono lifting–as for your question, no idea. I tend to think people like adding spice to their heritage. Glad you enjoyed, I do enjoy trying out new things and sharing tales from the dark side.

  13. Lovely post!
    I’m asked by someone almost daily what is my ethnic heritage. I’m first generation Canadian of Latvian parents. I’ve often lamented to my mom that I *know* there are Apache-grandma-poisoning-husband stories in our family history but no one is willing to talk – even after all these years. War time seems to destroy many things including the vocal chords! My dad and aunt took many of these stories to their graves. Sigh.
    BTW, I don’t think my folks would have gotten 2 horses and a bear pelt for me…more like that was included in the kitty. That’s quite th dowry :)

    • Ok, Astra, please do not think less of me, but I wasn’t sure what Latvian.. was, or I did, once I went to Wikipedia. YES!! I knew. Love this about your heritage – not reason other than it’s story worthy. Clearly, I always drag my past and family into everything I write. I share you sadness about loss of history. My grandparent kept many stories a secret because they thought we’d judge. To me, the writer, this is a great tragedy.

  14. Hi, Brenda! ~

    Hmmm… if asked the question, “What are you?” I believe I would reply, “Love.” That is the first thing that came to my mind.

    I am one of those people who often asks the question, “What is your cultural/ethnic heritage?” or even, “Where are your people from?” The only person who has ever been offended by this, as far as I am aware, was a female Hispanic acquaintance from work. Is this a coincidence? Or is there a thread of something revealed here between you and her?

    Why is that an offensive question to you? I don’t understand? I love family stories, like the ones you shared here. I love to know where people come from and revel in the wonder of how we come out in the mix.

    Thank you for sharing your wonderful self as you do! XOXO

    • Hi Linda, I didn’t mean to sound as if I was ‘bothered’ because I am not, but I do wonder why I am asked the question. I assume this is because it is never something that enters my mind when I am meeting someone… As noted I am more curious who is beneath the exterior. I do like your reply, “Love” that is a wonderful answer to the question. I am going to use that answer the next time asked and see what happens. I promise to let you know how it goes.. Hugs back..

  15. Val

    LOL I think you answered it correctly by saying I am a woman, a human, etc… Although I don’t have the guts to answer that way LOL I would probably say,”You mean my heritage? My ethnic background?” I guess people pay so much attention to race that they don’t realize it just doesn’t matter.

    • Val – It’s always fun ( and a bit twisted on my part) to surprise people with the non-traditional answers. I mean, we think it, why not say it once and a while. I grew up in LA ( a melting pot) and stopped paying attention. I either like a person for who they are inside or I don’t.

  16. ***I am a person. I am woman. I am a human. I am an American. I am me.***

    People are so concerned w/ what we do & what we are…

    Shouldn’t the question be: “”Who are you? What is your passion?””

    Always love your posts, gorgeous. Xx

  17. In some cultures there seems to be a higher incidence of the ‘superficial curiosity’ trait. I find it interesting that here in France for example, it is considered rude to ask someone what they do for a job, I even had a student tell me it was not polite to ask him what he did on his day off (it was a textbook question) and indeed when he said that I felt the discomfort of cultural faux -pas even if my excuse was the text book. I then thought back to all those hundreds of one on one lessons I had given and commenced with small talk by asking, “So tell me about your weekend or your week” for 2 years I’d had no idea I was being so controversial.
    When we were in NZ my husband was asked this question almost daily, a friendly (not to be confused with friendship) curiosity, which confused him and then angered him, because to share something like this in his culture is a kind of intimacy and the next time he saw the person they often ignored him, because actually it meant nothing, just a mild curiosity – a cultural misalignment. When I tried to explain that to people they didn’t get it – now I find myself stuck in the middle, with many layers of cultural sensitivity!
    As for me I am a citizen of Mother earth, Mama to 2 wonderful children and Lover of life.

    • I should live in France then. I get SO tired of being asked what I do. I’m tempted to create some villainous persona such as……Let’s just say I work for the government………….and then walk off. Even better I’d like to say that I’ll soon be retired from the C.I.A.

    • Claire – It’s interesting, your comments about France. As noted before, I lived in the UK, and while there I confess I stuck my foot in my mouth several times. Different cultures, different rules. I am always surprised by the ‘what are you’ question, because to me it’s clear, I a person. :-)…. And, I love you are a citizen of Mother earth, as we all are.. truly and absolutely.

  18. LOVED this post!! This resonated with me so much, especially when I celebrate St. Patty’s Day, and people look at me like you’re black, how are you Irish? And I’m like how am I not, people did migrate out of their country and mix with others. Just because you want to stay in your box, doesn’t mean everyone did!

    • HaitianPhoenix – First, thanks for coming by, and second, I will likely to my grave wondering why we cannot coexist. Yet, I am hopeful to be proved wrong everyday of my life.

  19. This reminds me of the US Census. It tries to define you. I love your answer about gypsies and wolves. It’s so evocative.

    You, my dear, have poetry in your blood, for this truly reads like a poem. I don’t like to be pegged for this or that, but I do love Kim’s suggestion of asking about your passion. Writing and art. Theater, too! Those are my passions.

    • Monica, I will take your lovely words and imprint them on my forehead. I have rec’d a couple of good suggestions on how to answer, which I might try, just to see the reaction.

  20. Great post. If someone asked me ‘what are you?’, my instant response would be mother, writer, wife. As far as my ethnic background goes, I’m British white, a mixture of English and Scottish. I used to think that was boring but the longer I live the more I see the individuality in us all.

  21. When you’re black like me with no foreign accent, people don’t often ask about heritage. Aside from a bit of Cherokee, I am descended from African slaves, and like many with that background, I can’t even say from where in Africa. Being black is integral to who I am, so if you get to know me, then you’ll know my heritage, what was passed to me. For the casual acquaintance, being black is as meaningful as describing the color of the blouse I happen to be wearing. You don’t know anything about me from that information alone.

    I’m such a geek, but I love how you structured this post! In another post you said you weren’t literary, but I’m not sure about that!

    • Adriene- I like that you are a geek, me too. It was written this way with intent, thank you for noticing. I am not sure about me being literary, but I’ll take the positive words. On the bigger topic, as commented I like or dislike a person because of who they are inside. I know it’s old fashioned, but it’s how I role. I agree, how would someone know who you are..without peeling back the layers. No other way to know..

  22. For me, it’s the opposite. When I was younger, I would say ” I’m a human. You?”
    I hated labeling myself. PLus, I was trying to escape the stigma from being Hispanic and to boot, from South Texas. I was tired of the cultural baggage, and I was one of those Hispanics who sneered when asked if I spoke Spanish, “No, I’m not from Mexico” in an effort to distinguish myself from those that were.

    Being older, I try to teach my children that it’s ok to embrance your culture, and your ancestry. That it’s ok not to be white. That it’s ok to speak spanish (how can being bilingual be a BAD thing?) without fear of being labeled a Mexican. And now, having done some ancestry digging, I’ve found that I have Apache on both my mother and father’s side, and that my paternal grandmother was a Native American from the deep jungles of Central America.

    When I was younger, I believed that I determined who I was. I left for college as soon as I graduated high school and broke away from my family. Not until the last few years, as I got to know both sides of my family more, that I was able to see how many similarities I have with people who’ve passed on, or relatives I never met. I have an older sister that I never knew, who may look absolutely nothing like me, but our personalities are stunningly similar. How can this be? I always thought of myself as not fitting in to any group I encountered. And I didn’t. And yet there’s this person I didn’t know for 32 years of my life who talks like me and who thinks like me.

    We may try to run from where we come from or who we come from, but it’s an exercise in futility. We have bits and pieces of them in us, physically and intellectually. I have a forehead that may as well be a landing strip, thanks to Comanche bloon on my maternal grandfather’s side. I have dark skin, thanks to my Aztec grandmother. I have long, slender feet and hands devoid of any fat, thanks to my greatgrandmother. I have my father’s craving for writing. I have my mother’s fear of the unknown. It’s been there all along, just waiting for me to acknowledge it.

    • Jennifer- That is beautiful, I am at loss of words. I am in love with your story and could easily get lost within it. What we share in common is our father’s love of writing. My dad always wanted to write, but life kept him from the page, until he grew a tumor. Once it was removed, he spent the next fear years writing poems, until the evil black cancer came back. And yes, his love of writing was there in my along.. As with you.. I do hope you write your story, it’s beautiful, passionate, real.

  23. I’d have to echo Popeye. My ancestors come from Wales, England, and Ireland. Before they settled Europe, they’d fled Israel, and were among those 10 lost tribes. But that’s a different story.
    I will say for now that I have my grandmother’s gypsy DNA, and yeah, I’d consider myself one of those women who run with the wolves.

  24. My dad was Mexican and my mother was white. I grew up learning ugly lessons about racism. If someone asks me my heritage, I state that I am Mexican, but that’s only half the truth, isnt it?

    My husband is 100% Navajo. They are cousins to the Apache’s, you know. People assume Alex is Mexican or Asian here in the SF area. But in Arizona, they know what he is immediately.

    I’m glad I found such a stunning woman who descended from gypsies and wolves.

    • Linda- you have a story there…I take my life, the lives that came before me, and weave it into my stories. How can I not? Their stories are mine, and mine will be my daughter and son’s. I am glad to have met you via June’s party.

  25. “If asked, “What is your ethnic heritage?” I reply without hesitation, “gypsies and wolves”. ”

    Oh, Brenda, I love this. I love, love, love this piece. Gorgeous, lush, and so very you. So very wonderful.

    What am I?… hmmmmm, My Latina friends tell me that despite all outside appearance, I am pura Latina, that a Mexican heart beats within this pale Irish, English, German outer shell. I do speak Spanish fluently, with a thick Mexican accent, which constantly surprises people. I inhabit vastly different worlds – the multilingual, multilingual, and global worlds of the Southwest and the world – and the western, ranching, homogenous, not-terribly-open-to anyone different world of ranching on the western plains of South Dakota. What am I? Some kind of mix of all of this in a way that somehow works for me. After many, many years of wondering how this mosaic of my experiences fit together in any kind of alignment, now in my 40’s I feel no need to try to fit them. The do naturally. I am authentic.

    • Dawn, I confess you took me by surprise when you spoke spanish in the restaurant that evening. You are more Latina that I am. My accent is bad, I can’t speak the language, and I don’t fit into a ‘checkbox’ still I am Latin. I’ve always been on the outside of mainstream and like you I am authentic.

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