“Mommy, they marked I am White on my exam… Is that OK? I am sorry, I did not know what to mark and the teacher just did it for me”
“Color canela, café con leche, exótica are all ways we call people that are like you and me, baby” I told my 9 years old daughter. “Sometimes, people are not familiar with those shades and colors and terms and just pick black or white”
“I like color canela” (cinnamon) said the oldest. “I like café con leche” (coffee with milk) said the youngest one.
This is how one of many conversations about identity and race started at my kitchen counter. A conversation that is relevant because being able to vocalize a description of who you are or where do you “fit in” is important to all; and an understanding that you may not fit most of the categories labeled out there, is an essential part of that discussion.
In spite of the incredible variety of ethnicities and the diversity in the Hispanic / Latino community, we are often required to mark “White” or “Black” in order to open the next set of labels that commonly include:“Hispanic”, “Asian” “Native-American” or “Pacific Islander”. I feel often confused and angry. I, a woman with over 40 years of age, still don’t know if I should mark White or Black.
I believe our identity is created in similar parts of who we believe and feel we are and how other people see and interpret us. It is the convergence of those 2 perceptions and dimensions that define us.
Years ago, when I lived in China, my local acquaintances had never met anybody that looked like me, a brown girl from South America, naturally, they all decided I was black. They mentioned it to me so many times that I had to ask my husband if perhaps I had been black all along and I had just never stopped to think about it.
He was stunned… He said… You are like you. I don’t know what that means. I pushed back “ What about Alicia Keys, she is as dark as me and she is black”
“I don’t know” was his answer.
I struggled and tried to see myself how my friends saw me. Why did it matter so much to me? Why was their perception so important to me?
Context matters. How people see you matter. Especially when you are in a new environment ready to learn, ready to soak everything in, like a sponge. You can also soak in a new version of yourself. A version that you never considered before that can very much define you and your place in the community.
Naomi Zack points out we usually take the path of “least resistance”, meaning we go with what people think we should be or are; and this is true to thousands of Puerto Ricans, Brazilians, Dominicans, Panamenians living in the South, have been often seen as black, indian, native-americans and even Korean.
Overtime, some of them become to identify as black or native-americans. Some even became leaders in those communities, because this is how strongly they felt they belonged there. And they did belong there. Because after all, the struggle for a voice, for opportunities, for recognition is one we all share, black, white, Latino, Native american, pan-asian or whatever you identify with.
We only stayed in China for 2 years and returned to the US with a tiny baby with beautiful dark eyes, cinnamon skin and lots of hair. Upon arrival to the US, I stopped being black to become Hispanic. Mostly Colombian although some people swore I was from India, Philippines or Greece.
I dropped my old life and opened up to a new identity one that stripped me of what made me special in the country where I had spent most of my life yet gave wonderful gifts; it made me a Latina, a word that resonates in my ears and embraces both warrior and caregiver, a blanket word for fiery and emotional; a statement that encompasses many countries and traditions, many colors, ethnicities and races, a magical sound that meant dark hair and loud voices and immediately conjured the smell of home cooked meals.
While my personality and abilities may not check all the boxes above, there is more in the “Latina” stereotype that reflects who I am than not.
As we are often given a label, I believe we also have the power to transform that label as it becomes part of us, part of who we are and what people see we represent.
Yes, I am loud, I am a warrior and a caregiver, I am fiery and love to cook, I am smart, I am not religious, I believe love is love, I prefer weights to Zumba, I am hard worker and a sucker for politics, interesting brains and curious people. I am color canela and I am more than what you see, just like we all are.