Part I – My self.
I grew up in a nuclear household. A mom, a dad, a sister, and a dog (or two). On the outside looking in, we were a perfect American family. Working middle-class, public school, salt-of-the-earth folks. My dad bought a house in a Queens suburb with a yard and everything short of the actual white picket fence.
Really though we were not perfect, what family ever is?
We are Puerto Rican, with traditionally Puerto Rican values. My grandparents were all born on the island and most everyone in my family is bilingual, including me, even if I am not fluent.
This house, in this New York city suburb was situated in what was at the time, a predominantly white neighborhood. We blended but not very well. Not all Puerto Ricans are loud but my family certainly is! To some of my neighbors we were too loud, too “spicy,” too much. My first introduction to racism came about a month after moving into our quiet, tree-lined street. When a bunch of the kids, I had not made friends with began chanting a tune about going back to Jamaica, where I guess they thought we came from. They pointed out my complexion and suggested I take a bath to remove the “dirt.”
I was confused and I felt shame without really knowing why. In order to prevent me ever feeling that way again, I would spend most of my childhood and teenage years trying to be like my white friends. I would never speak a word of Spanish, try to cut off, tame, lighten, and straighten my hair. I even made fun of Salsa music (behind my parent’s back of course) by mimicking what I’d heard friends and their parents say about people who didn’t speak English, like, “this is America, why do they even have this music on the radio here.” I worked hard to prove I wasn’t one of “those” Puerto Ricans. If this were a screenplay, I’d insert a bitter laugh right here to emphasize how badly that five minute interaction fucked me up.
Here’s the thing that took me years to recognize, no amount of unseasoned chicken and butter noodles is gonna turn me into a white-girl and the more NOT Puerto Rican I tried to be, the less accepted I felt by my friends. Honestly, I realize it wasn’t up to them to accept me, it was up to me to do that.
This process was miserable and hard. My role models were not Puerto Rican women, my history was not Puerto Rican history, my media was not centered on Puerto Rican stories. You know what was prominently featured in all the books I read and the TV and movies I watched. White girls. Tall skinny, blond haired, blue eyed white girls.
Honest representation matters, without it, all the ugly things white supremacy insists about non-white people becomes validated by the media we consume.
Beside the women in my very own family, whom in the end were perfect role models for me to emulate, there were few women from my culture taking center stage.Still they are so few of us front and center and shining.
According to the world outside my door, women of color did not take center stage. We were supporting characters, the help, the nanny, not the leading lady, not unless you fit that standard. Not unless you looked and moved like Jennifer Lopez.
I learned to love myself anyway.
I learned to embrace my Borikken culture anyway.
I learned to love Puerto Rico and all its people, my people any damn way.
I learned that being Boriqua is part of the fabric of my being and I should not only hold on to that tapestry but pass it on to my children and work hard to help them know what they are made of so they can be, without a doubt, who they are in this world.
Identity is important. Knowing who we are matters, knowing where we come from matters too. I use to think it didn’t. I use to pretend to be color blind. I use to believe the past, my ancestors, those who came before, had nothing to do with the person I am today. It took me years to appreciate how wrong I was.
Recently, I was gifted an Ancestry DNA kit from Activists for Ancestry. I feel like this is the next logical step in my journey toward discovery and I am really looking forward to sharing it with you.
Stay tuned for part II – My DNA!