When we are born, we are placed within a pallet. We are born into a culture, into an ethnicity and these are the boxes in which we form ourselves. For those of us with a diverse pallet, we have a choice. Most of us place one foot into one puddle of paint while the other one is dipped in another. The colors overcome us, mixing and swirling into beautiful hues and patterns. It was not like this for me.
The pallet I was born into became an identity crisis. From a very young age, I didn’t know who I was ethnically. I knew my mother’s skin was darker than my father’s and I knew sometimes she spoke words I didn’t understand. As I grew older, the differences became clearer and the divide between my parents and their cultures became more evident. But where did I stand in all of this?
I didn’t know.
My mother never exposed her culture to me in a way that made me comfortable enough to wrap my arms around it. There were puzzle pieces here and there but never enough to complete the full picture. When I looked in the mirror, I didn’t see what was really there. I mostly identified as white because that was the box I felt comfortable closing myself up in and the one I knew the most. The lack of exposure to my mother’s culture was unfortunate but not completely her fault and that’s the main issue here isn’t it?
My mother, born in the sixties, and lived in a desolate, mostly Latino and African American neighborhood. She spent her entire childhood and beginning of her adult life on the bottom on the totem pole. My mother knew what it was like to become red with anger defending her culture. She turned her face at the stereotypes, and when she began dating my father, she turned her chin up at the stares and criticisms.
In the face of all of the judgement, the sneers, and the arguments, there was a love and eventually, two children. Two mixed children, in the middle of two very ethnically different families.
I don’t blame my mother for the lack of exposure or my brother and I for our lack of quizzical natures. We didn’t know any better. We didn’t know to ask these questions, to wonder and we were growing up in a society where yes, your ethnicity is embraced, but where were the kids that looked like us? Living in the southern United States, I didn’t see many faces that looked like mine and all through my public education, I only encountered two people who shared a similar background to my brother and I and they were brothers.
Where in this childhood was I supposed to form my true identity when there was no solid ground to stand on?
Those who would teach me the ways of my culture were a thousand miles away and the ones nearby had reservations. I have memories of arguments, of fears that a second language would breed problems for us. My mother forced her fears onto the upbringing of my brother and I and my father his prejudices. Yes, there were prejudices. You would think an interracial marriage would erase those, but you would be wrong.
So, here I was. Growing up in a house with a false sense of identity, hearing racial slurs within the home I was being formed in and putting on a mask outside of it. You can see now why I had such a problem figuring out who I was supposed to be.
It’s sad to admit that I didn’t begin to learn about my culture until taking Spanish at my middle school. The language felt gunky and awkward rolling off of my tongue and my mother had no patience when teaching me so despite the many years studying and the numerous tests, I still cannot speak the language of my people.
Now, I am an adult. A biracial female who speaks only one language and it is the language that oppressed half of her people. I don’t know much of my culture outside of my mother’s childhood neighborhood radius and I clumsily follow along when I hear conversations spoken in Spanish. As an adult, I am ashamed. Not only do I struggle to put both feet in both puddles of paint, I cannot bring myself to wear both colors strongly and proudly because I feel I am a fraud.
Where do I fit in? What box do I color in?
“You’re too white to be Hispanic.”
“You’re too tan to just be white.”
“There’s no way you’re both.”
“You’re Italian, right?”
These are the questions that plague with every new friendship, every passing conversation that broaches this topic, and every glance that comes my way. What is she? I spend my whole proving that I am not only one, I am both. I am contraction, not a single noun.
I spend my whole life asking the question, who am I today? And why does this question pop into my head? Why can’t I comfortably be both?
One thing I will say, it’s exhausting. It’s very tiring proving yourself daily that you deserve to be who you are and to prove to others the very same thing.
Who am I today? I am a proud biracial woman who is both European-American and Puerto Rican and no, your opinion does not matter on who I AM ethnically.