So I’m Puerto Rican.
I wasn’t lying to you. It wasn’t even like I forgot, but with my Mom gone and no ties to that side of the family, it’s easier not to mention. It’s easier to quiet my Boricuaness because I grew up in Cali where there are far fewer Puerto Ricans compared to the East Coast. And people here don’t believe me — the Mexicans and Salvadorans and Guatemalans I knew always seemed to want their Latinoness for themselves.
It was like I always knew about the party, but was never invited.
In high school, people often asked me, “what are you?” The Black girls knew I was kinda-sorta one of them, but still made their disdain very clear when I didn’t emulate their version of Blackness. I wasn’t hood enough, had light skin, yada yada…
It was usually the Latina and Asian girls that had questions, and they had absolutely no tact about asking them.
“Are you even full-Black?”
“Why’s your hair that color?”
“Oh, I get why you’re not ghetto. You’re only half-Black.”
“You look hella Asian. Are you Filipina? Your eyes are hella slanted.”
When my new German-Irish-Jewish friend questioned my background one day, she told me that after her mother dropped me off at home the night before, she knew that I was Puerto Rican.
“Look at the color of her hair,” her mother said. “She looks like the people I grew up with.”
“I thought you were lying to me — cause it’s cool to be Latina. My Mom’s from New York, though, so I guess she knows. There’s a lot more of your people out there!” she said giggling.
The same girl was constantly reminding me of how she thought I looked 75% White and 25% Black. The other two White girls in our freshman year crew felt the ratio was the other way around. One day I finally told them it wasn’t up for debate. Don’t question my Blackness, my Whiteness, my Puerto Ricanness — don’t question nothing.
A real thick Salvadoran sophomore at my school would run around saying nigga this, nigga that.
We were in the same dance class my freshman year, and one day I just stared at her wondering what she was talking about, who she was talking to, and why she thought it was okay to use that word.
We locked eyes and she approached me. Her hair was slicked down, swooped to the side, and stuck to her temples. She looked indio — real indigenous — like except for el color de su piel, few people in her bloodline had been colonized. She was striking, and ghetto as hell — scary ghetto — like, I’m-never-gonna-do-anything-but-smile-at-this-chick ghetto.
She came up to me real close, and looked me up and down like she wanted to fight.
“Are you even Black?” she questioned, as if my answer would then direct her fists.
“Er… What? I mean — ”
She cocked her head to the side and grinned, interrupting me before I could say, “Yes.”
“I ain’t tryna hate on you girl — I don’t mean no disrespect cause you look Latina or something. I know you mixed. I was just wonderin’.”
“Yeah. I’m Black and Puerto Rican — ”
“Ohhhh shit forreall? Girl, that’s tight.”
Our dance instructor, Mrs. Nolfi, sashayed to the middle of the mirror and we all hurried to our places.
I was happy this girl didn’t beat me up, but also comforted that she picked up on something that always seemed to be a secret.
Kind of like how my Mom used to do the Black person nod whenever we passed a fellow brother or sister. Our Blackness wasn’t a secret, but the nod was.
“Why do you always do that?” I asked.
“We’re just acknowledging one another — there are few of us around.”
But my Mom was never like that with Latinos — she made me platanos, pasteles, sofrito, arroz con grandules, flan and all that other good shit, while adamantly exclaiming, “These are your people!”
She used to drag me to the Mission to get all her ingredients while the butchers smiled enthusiastically from behind shiny, silver meat counters and told her how beautiful I’d become.
After she died, I returned to these same places for my arroz con leche y pan, waiting for and wondering whether or not the counterperson would speak in Spanish to me. Though it always felt good when they did, every time there was that moment when, like the Salvadoran girl, they had to suss me out — search for any curl definition in my hair, the traces of any non-Blackness in my features, and then decide how to proceed.
My Mom didn’t want to talk about her past or her family much, so my Dad and I left it at that. She spoke Spanish, just like my Father, who learned it after teaching photography to young Chicano kids in East LA.
I remember learning Spanish before English. Having my favorite babysitter, Araceli, who did not speak English to me also helped. Even after all-English grammar school, español quickly came back to me when I was placed in a Spanish class in high school with other “native speakers” who could speak, but couldn’t write or read, or could read, but couldn’t write or speak in their original tongue.
Even though my Mom told me to be proud of my Puerto Rican heritage, Blackness came first — which is unusual given the anti-Black and self-hating attitudes that pervade so many Latino households.
“Everyone’s still gonna think you’re just a nigger,” she said.
My Dad was furious when I told him, but he never really spoke to me about my identity until I started asserting it myself.
Before my Mom died during the first semester of junior year, I would come home crying over how the Black girls at school treated me — calling me names, giving me dirty looks in the hall, threatening to beat me up, and projecting all these unwarranted and unprovoked microaggressions onto me.
“TELL THEM WHO YOU ARE!!!” my mother would scream. “TELL THEM WHO YOU ARE!”
I was pretty sure of who I was, but only truly certain about my Blackness. My Blackness was obvious to much of the outside world and it was always being reaffirmed or confronted in various ways. Still, I was more concerned with other people not accepting that I was Puerto Rican, because so many people didn’t. They flat out denied it, because supposedly, you’re not Puerto Rican unless you look like Jennifer Lopez.
When our religion teacher asked each student to share their ethnic background with the class one year, after my turn, a Latina classmate across from me said, “I know she’s telling the truth ‘cause she has that mole on her upper lip, and I’ve only seen it on Latinos.”
It was annoying and weird how other Latinos tried to justify my existence — my Boricuaness — while inevitably explaining away and erasing everything else because that somehow made me legitimate.
You can be Latina — but you can’t be Black or White or any other lineage that runs through most Latino blood. If you don’t “look” like us you’ll have to explain yourself.
If I didn’t look the part, there was no convincing anyone. When I was 15 and 16 and 17, I didn’t know how to say, “whatever, bitch, bye.”
Stay tuned for Part II of this post, which we will share tomorrow.
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