June 23, 2006

Commentary:

My Magic Apron

By Richard Villegas

Some fashion advice for Latinos: if you want to shop in peace, don’t enter Target wearing red. You’ll be pestered without end for the locations of products or the restrooms. Not that wearing any other color has stopped Target customers from approaching me with requests, but you don’t want to encourage the confusion by color-coordinating with the company’s uniform.

So, don’t wear black in Crate and Barrel, a guayabera in a restaurant that serves margaritas, or a white dress shirt in just about any department store or supermarket. In this time of immigration hysteria, I want to add my two pesos about the shrinking distinction between employees and Latino customers. I want to speak about the Apron.

My Apron is reddish-brown, like cinnamon, and I can’t take it off. It seems to suddenly materialize when I walk into Los Angeles’ west side shops and restaurants. Whether going out for dinner or shopping for groceries or shoes, my Apron often makes a customer turn to me to ask for a size nine or for the location of the laundry detergents or for a glass of water without ice. I used to be discombobulated by such random requests from strangers, but then I began to realize they were seeing something I had on that I hadn’t noticed — the Apron, which is visible only to others.

The Latino comedy troupe Culture Clash has a great bit in its play “Chavez Ravine” on the Apron’s magic. At one point the narrator announces that he’s going to make himself disappear. He then grabs a broom and none of the other characters pay him any attention. When I saw this, I howled with recognition of a joke as true as a beating heart.

Now before the Apron turns into a big racial chip on my shoulder, I must admit that people of all races (including my own) see my Apron and routinely mistake me for a valet, busboy or clerk. I’ve now become hyper-conscious of my shopping attire. I’ll wear nice coats, nice shoes or, if I’m casual, I’ll throw on a sweatshirt with my university alma mater emblazoned across the chest.

Still, all that layering doesn’t seem to matter. And that’s a little scary. I’m specifically thinking about those deranged immigrant chasers who scout airports and bus terminals, trying to catch illegal aliens. I once heard a news report that these vigilantes say you can spot an illegal immigrant if he’s wearing out-of-date clothing or a university sweatshirt but has a disheveled look, which, to be honest, I’ve seen some of my brethren do. I had an ’80s party to go to the other night and I was glad I didn’t have to stop anywhere else but the party. I felt like my Members Only jacket could land me in Tijuana, thanks to the Minutemen. Wearing a USC or UCLA sweatshirt when I’m traveling, I’d more likely be taken for an illegal alien than a grad student, especially if I forget to shave.

I now understand, however, that the Apron’s magic affects all of us. If I got angry every time someone mistook me for an employee, I’d be one raging valet. Besides, people are often more embarrassed about their mistake than I am. I’ve even come to accept some of the perks. My Apron can make me invisible when I want, for example. It can also make me popular during a store sale. And though I’m still waiting to be accidentally tipped, I can now identify with the frustration of others who have been similarly misidentified. I think of a corporate woman in a room full of men. Many such women have been mistaken for receptionists or secretaries, but they’re really executives.

So here’s a little Latino advice for everyone else: When you can’t find the housewares aisle or the men’s restroom or that iced tea you ordered, look for an actual apron.

Richard Villegas Jr., a graduate student in the professional writing program at the University of Southern California.

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