By Colin Grylis


My friends have jokingly created a special demographic for me – racially ambiguous.
It originated because they, as with most people, could not figure out my ethnicity. For the record, my mom is Mexican and my dad is white. People always ask if I’m part Black, Indian, Filipino, Arab, Jewish, Native American – you name it, they guessed it.
People are also thrown off by how I act because they see a brown person and expect an accent. When they do hear my relatively thick accent, there’s always a moment of shock when they hear the prolonged Midwestern “ah” that sneaks through when I say words like Chicago, hot dog or hockey. I watch confused faces stare back at me when I fire up my pickup and George Strait blares through the speakers. Other people hear my voice on the phone and then expect to see Beaver Cleaver.
Back East, some people thought I was just really tan. I remember one night at Ralphie’s, a local sports bar that brought in a clown once per week for family night, Rosie the Clown asked me how I got so tan in the dead of winter, assuming I went on vacation. I responded with an answer straight out of Kids Say the Darndest Things.
“I was born with it!”
I grew up just outside of Toledo, Ohio, in a neighborhood where it seemed like my family was the non-white population. Even then, a distant cousin, Richard, traced the Grylls line all the way back to Sir John Gryles in 16th century Britain.
When I was a freshman, the local high school had less than 400 students. We got along because we had to. The school was too small to harbor cliques, much less ethnocentric groups. Occasionally there would be light-natured ribbing thrown back and forth, usually based on race and occasionally religion, but it was nothing worse than an episode of South Park and none of it, at least to me, seemed genuine. There was a flare-up among the adults one year when the elementary school’s “International Night,” an excuse to eat ethnic cuisine disguised as a social studies project, allowed a student to research Palestine. Jews were the neighborhood’s largest minority and Arabs were arguably second, but, at least among the kids, everyone got along.
I was in for a huge culture shock when I moved to Chula Vista as a sophomore in high school. My parents used to be able to pick us out of a crowd in a heartbeat because of our skin, now they had to look at our faces. I passed multiple Border Patrol cars on my way to school and I was suddenly surrounded by Spanglish. Heck, I didn’t even know Filipinos existed.
I struggled at first. I couldn’t wrap my head around all of the Spanish being spoken in an American public school. I didn’t understand why people only hung out with people that looked like them, largely because I never had that option. Eventually I found a group of friends, though it mostly consisted of self-proclaimed military brats that, at least on an unconscious level, had as much trouble fitting in with any clique.
Still, none of that can compare to the private school in Argentina. Before I moved to Ohio in 1998, I lived in Argentina for two years and attended kindergarten and first grade there. My dad worked for Jeep International and he was assigned to work in Cordoba, Argentina. My parents thought sending my brother and me to the local private school would be an easier transition that the local public school.
Boy were they wrong.
We were the new kids, we were American and worst of all, we were brown. On our first day of school, the bus stopped out front and we climbed into the very back.
I don’t remember who covered who. My parents seem to recall that we told them I covered my younger brother, but I’m sure it was mutual. We simply didn’t know how to react to being spit on, especially when the bus driver just kept on driving, willfully ignorant to the situation in the back seat.
We were soon transferred to the local public school, where we would spend hours playing soccer after school with our new, more accepting friends.
When people ask me where I’m from, I tell them I’m from Ohio. It’s where I grew up and it’s the place that shaped me the most. Argentina and California, however, opened my eyes.


About Author

Comments are closed.