My mother is physically embodies the “Black Woman”. Flawless chocolate skin, full lips, broad nose, intensely dark eyes and luxuriously thick, coarse hair, she’s the type of woman you picture in your head when you write or sing praises of the Black form.
On the flipside, my father physically embodied everything you’d want your Black child to be in order to er…”succeed” in life. His skin tone would best be described as “cream with a touch of coffee”, and if his giant mass of corkscrew curls didn’t draw you in, his blue eyes (or green, or hazel) would finish the job.
My Mother is Hispanic. My Father is American. This is my tale from the middle.
My mother arrived in New York just in time for the Civil Rights Movement to come to a head; Black was an interesting thing to be when you had but a basic grasp of the English language. But she was a survivor, and navigated between the Black Panthers and Latin Kings with ease. I won’t bother you with the story of how they came together, but I will tell you a line was drawn in the sand when it was time to bring a “Dark Girl” home. And that’s all I have to say about that.
By design and default, Hispanic is my culture. I grew up bilingual, went to an all-Hispanic grade school and ate rice and beans for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I was in first grade the first time I heard it.
“You can’t be Puerto Rican. You’re too dark”.
I was hurt and confused. I am my father’s child; so in my house, I was the lightest. My Puerto Rican family was all chocolate; I didn’t understand what they meant. How can you tell me what I am? It was my first taste of the tug of war that would haunt me to this day -what you are vs. what they perceive you to be.
On one side you had my family, where my “fairer” skin granted me countless compliments from my extended family. Then I went to school, where I was considered “pretty for a dark-skinned girl”. My mother would braid my collarbone-length hair and tell me to be proud of being Black; my Grandmother would give me a laundry list of alternative terms to describe myself to others. At school the girls would toss their waist-length hair in my face, pull on my braids and ask me why my hair was so short.
High school brought new identity challenges. As this was my first experience in a multi-cultural setting, I believed I would be as welcomed as my mother was. I was wrong. While I was used to my ethnicity being challenged by this point, I was taken aback by the refusal to accept my racial identity.
I wasn’t “Black” after all. At least not Black “enough”.
It was the early 90’s, so Hispanics and Black Americans still sat at opposite ends in the lunchroom. I often lunched alone. I did not date. I skipped prom. The best memories I have of high school all involved times I was not in the building. I graduated with relief, believing the adult world was one where petty things like being able to properly check off an identity box so you could sit at the correct lunch table didn’t exist. Again, wrong.
At that point I defiantly designed to not fit in anyone’s box. I stopped relaxing my hair and left behind the trendier stylings of both cultures and adopted my own. Armed with the confidence of owning what I was, I went out in the world…
..and tried to date.
I found myself back at square one, only worse. Facing projections and stereotypes from every angle, I fought to find my place. To one man I was a “novelty”, a trophy of the “light skin long hair” club. To another I was a charity case, as he’s never dated someone “so dark” but I’d “do”. Another man mused at my “spicy-ness” and lamented how he had to date “out his race” to find someone who “knew how to treat a man like a man”. I was the light, dark, angry, agreeable, feisty, submissive Black Latina. Despite my strict upbringing and the fact that I’ve yet to either cheat or date the unavailable, it was assumed I was “freaky” or always on the hunt for committed men. I lost friends as easily as I made them.
Despite sitting on this for weeks I have no “neat” ending for this post. This is a work in progress. I’d love to tell you that I found a way to resolve how I am perceived to the world, but the only resolution I’ve found is inside. My color, my culture, my skin, my hair, my identity; none of these are up for debate. I am who I am, and your issue with that is your issue, not mine.
This isn’t for sympathy, it’s just my story. And, if you dare, share yours.