I have had to deal with some very rude questions over the years such as, “What are you?” to which I reply, “A woman. You?” Of course, my wit is not typically appreciated. I am shocked by how many people have retorted, “You know what I mean!” Um yeah, no. I have no idea what you mean. Of course once the not-so-amusing banter ceases and I answer “Puerto Rican” the most unoriginal response asked approximately 99% of the time is, “Full?” Ugh.
Since I can remember I have struggled with understanding race versus ethnicity. It has nothing to do with not understanding the definition of the terms, it started out as people began to question who I was when the only acceptable answer was what I identified as my culture. I’m an American, a U.S. citizen and a Puerto Rican – I knew this and it wasn’t an issue. People wanted to know my ethnicity but questioned me because I didn’t look right, calling my race into question. As far as I knew, one was not exclusive to the other. Not everyone was taught the same thing.
I am not going to pretend it doesn’t matter on some level to most “minorities” to embrace their culture. Many times it isn’t intentional, that is to say we don’t get up in the morning and say “How can I wave my flag today?” [Okay, maybe I do sometimes.] We grow up in a home where our parents speak Spanish to us, salsa y merengue play as frequently as R&B or hip hop, and we don’t think the color of our skin is an issue until someone else brings it up.
The first time it was called to my attention I was nine-years-old and living in Biloxi, Mississippi. I was at the lunch table with the other “Air Force Brats” and one of my white classmates asked why I was “darker” than her, but clearly not black. Our black classmate answered, “It’s all that chocolate milk she drinks.” I laugh thinking about it now because it was silly and I had the most perplexed expression when I went home incredibly pensive. That night my father taught me the meaning of ignorance. Fast forward. In junior high school, while learning about the Civil Right Movement and particularly Rosa Parks, I asked the teacher where I would have had to sit in the bus. And because God has always used humor to teach me, a classmate answered, “In the middle.” People laughed of course, but the teacher (who I am pretty sure giggled as well) told me I would most likely have to sit in the rear of the bus. It was then that I learned about blacks with very light complexions passing for white, which only fueled my curiosity.
For many years, I struggled with being so light-skinned. I have been called white, blanca nieve, high yellow, and more. I wanted to meet more Latinos like my mother or aunt who were born with blonde hair and green eyes. It happened briefly in college with my first boyfriend and new friends. It was a wonderful little clique of Boricuas, both Puerto Rican and Nuyorican. It was a little creepy that people thought my boyfriend and I were related – even my mother said, “He looks like he could be in our family!” I digress… I learned so much from them and I went on to be a chairperson for the Association of Black Collegiates and the president of the Organization for Latin American Students thereby making me a representative on the Multicultural Council. Something in me was stirred.
I was so happy when the world met Jennifer Lopez – and then she got a tan. Then I saw Alexis Bledel on Gilmore Girls and as her starmeter grew so did the questions about her being a Latina who spoke fluent Spanish and grew up in Argentina. I saw her get the same “Really?” face in interviews I had seen so many times. Surely people remember the silliness over LaLa Vasquez daring to boldly claim her Puerto Rican heritage and the backlash from the Black community. When it has gotten to the point where dark-skinned Latinas cannot be proud of who they are without fear of pissing someone off because they didn’t say “black” as a descriptor or people taking it as a personal dismissal, we have problems. Puerto Ricans [Latinos as a whole] are so varied because of their background and ancestry and it is utterly ridiculous that women like LaLa Vasquez and Zoë Saldaña have to know state they are “Afro-Latina” because we are in some sort of bidding war over celebrity status. People wanted LaLa Vazquez to “say it loud” and some sites even claimed Sammy Sosa, Daddy Yankee and Fat Joe refuse to be identified as “Black” but imagine if people started insisting you walk around and proudly announcing you’re “White” or “Brown.” I have green eyes, freckles and my olive complexion is on the light side – should I classify my ethnicity as “White-Latina” to satisfy the masses? [Note: According to the Census Bureau that is exactly my category, white latina.] We have become far too desperate and forcing labels, often diluting the importance and making weak connections or ones that don’t exist.
Has it come to a point where the intricately beautiful layers of our race and ethnicities have become far too complex for any one classification? Perhaps for some, yes. I found it is much more about other people projecting their own stereotypes and insecurities upon others. I have come to the conclusion far too many people are still ignorant to world around them and silliness like the drama brought about by LaLa (Vazquez) Anthony’s pride will only serve to teach a few more starving minds.
Nearly all ethnicities and races in this country have felt the sting of racism and prejudice dating back to the first settlers and if there are any answers, they aren’t easy ones. The beauty of our world is everyone is entitled to their own opinion whether we like it or not, though we often forget that fact. It has taken us hundreds of years to make this mess and I have a feeling it will take more than few hundred more to clean it up.
*The excerpt image is of Ahmad and I who through a series of very fortunate events found out we are related. Distantly but family is family! We are both Puerto Rican and both have Irizarry blood yet we look very different. He is a proud ’afrocalirican, b-boy nerd’ and I, um … I have freckles!