Have you ever encountered that moment in the beginning of a conversation of someone asking you, “What are you? What’s your ethnicity?” In responding, you ever get that twisted up look of confusion on the other person’s face, with them following up with a “really?”
It's pretty annoying.
As an Afro-Latina, I’m often tasked with breaking down my ethnicity when they spot my keychain–a Cuban flag. Internally, I cringe when I get the question because I’m brought back to a place, circa 2002, when a classmate (also Afro-Cuban) questioned my Cuban side because of my hair. It was “too thick” or “too Black” to be that of someone who was of Latina-descent. Instead of viewing it as ignorance, I was inflicted by her words because maybe I “couldn’t be down.” Maybe my hair would X me out of the picture. I was too young to know myself, and often gave other people that authority to label and identify me as they saw fit.
In wanting my hair to be curly instead of these kinky type tresses that I covered up with protective styles, I didn’t feel like I could belong or openly say I was half-Latina.
Everyone would be that classmate and I would be transported back to that moment in my high school’s cafeteria. In wanting to be just a tad bit lighter, I thought I wouldn’t be faced with those looks of bewilderment, yet, I had women like Celia Cruz, La Lupe, and Nancy Morejon show me that Latinas don’t fit that one color-fits all box.
But I got older and inquired more about my father, where he came from, and how it was inherently a part of who I was, even if I didn’t speak the language fluently or fit the look of what a Latina is. In educating myself on my background, I blossomed into who I am today and found my place. But others, years later, are still struggling with both, self-acceptance, and societal approval in identifying with their backgrounds without the questions that follow. I recently read an article on the Huffington Post titled, “Too Latina To Be Black, Too Black To Be Latina,” with writer, Aleichia Williams, sharing her own “race crisis” and the thought that one must identify with one side more than the other. For those of mixed nationality, it’s an aggravating reality for most of us, including television personality Lala Anthony who wrote in a 2010 personal essay titled, "Yo Soy Boricua":
A lot of people don’t realize that I’m Latina, which is fine. One thing about being Latina is that there isn’t one look that comes with the territory. I don’t expect people to know my cultural background just by glancing at me. I do, however, expect that when I tell people my family is from Puerto Rico, that I will be believed and not accused of trying to be something that I’m not. It usually goes something like this: a person having a conversation with me discovers one way or another that I’m Puerto Rican and fluent in Spanish. That person then expresses their shock over these realizations for any number of reasons—common responses are, "You don’t look Latina" and "I thought you were black!" I never said I wasn’t black. And since when does being black and being Latina have to be mutually exclusive?
In my experience, people tend to have an uninformed and rather narrow view of what it means to be Puerto Rican. For me, not looking like some people’s idea of a typical Latina has been challenging and often painful. I constantly find myself trying to justify who I am, and why should I? I’m proud of my heritage and my family.
I’m not angry with anyone who doesn’t understand the complexities of race and culture. And I’m also not interested in having long, drawn out conversations about how it’s possible for me to look like this and speak Spanish. In fact, sometimes I make it a point not to mention my parents’ birthplace because I don’t always feel like having the inevitable discussion that follows. Instead, I let people look at me and come to their own conclusions. As I start to get my feet wet in Hollywood, I already know that there are certain parts I won’t even be considered for. The character can be Puerto Rican and speak Spanish just like me, but Hollywood defines Latina as Jennifer Lopez and Sofia Vergara. As beautiful as they are, we’re not all one race in Latin America.
Gracias @peopleenespanol por todo el apoyo. Por tener fe en mi carrera y elevar la comunidad Latina . Por favor de recoger su copia!!! Thank you to @peopleenespanol for believing in my journey. For putting faith behind my career and uplifting the many hard working and successful Latinos in this country. Pick up for copy in just a few days!!!!
Back in August of 2015, Gina Rodriguez was also criticized for not being "Latina enough" after using faulty spanish in a social media post promoting her new People En Español cover. After a commenter went as far as to say she was using “her heritage as marketing,” The Jane the Virgin star visited Huffington Post Live and spoke on the notion that one must be fluent in the language to fully identify with their background.
“To put us in a box is unfair...I'm going to be reprimanded by a culture that I'm supposed to support and is supposed to support me because of the way I was raised?...So often we just people by their first appearance. So often we judge people if they speak Spanish or don’t...You want to tell me I'm not Latino enough? Why don't you stop speaking and look in the mirror and speak to yourself, because you're telling me something that you actually probably feel about yourself. Because hurt people hurt people...I am as Latina as they come. And I am not defined by anybody's definition of Latina. I don't actually sit in a definition. I walk in my world, happily and confidently.”
How many of us by live “by the rules,” exemplify the traditional definitions of how things are supposed to be, and end up feeling like we were confined to an antiquated way of thinking? Like Lala Anthony and Gina Rodriguez, I don’t want to sit in a definition of what a “real” Latina is supposed to be. There comes a point where you have to fall into your own interpretation of what something is to you–and be comfortable with it. Sharing identical ways of thinking makes for a boring world with people in search of individuality at some point. Where else would diversity rise from?
A lot of people don't understand that conforming into these ideas of what makes someone something or transforming our appearance to fit that mold is a self-inflicting process.
Telling someone that aren't enough of something, questioning someone's ethnicity because of looks and language, and invalidating a person because they don't fit your archetype, isn't just wrong, but damaging.
[Tweet "I didn't love who I was for years because my “hair said otherwise.”"]
Someone had control over something they had no right to define. That's why I fully appreciate Ain't I Latina? and Latinos Break The Mold, as it challenges those “typical” models people are accustomed to seeing and highlights the diversity in being Latina.
At 29, I’ve become increasingly prepared for the questions, and while there are times I’ll provide of a breakdown of my background, sometimes I don’t care to give an explanation. I am who I am and I’m proud of it–thick hair, brown skin, non-fluency in Spanish, and all. Thank God for clarity, acceptance, and living outside of that box.