Thursday, January 17, 2008

Y tu abuela, a'onde esta?

When I think about the years I spent in utter anguish and rage, I wonder why. I wonder what would have helped ease my acidic bitterness. It was so much that I was different, it was more the fact that everyone assumed that I was just like them. The visual difference was evident, my brown skin spoke more across a hallway than anything. In the face of difference, most people just try to comfort themselves by drawing commonalities. Normally, forging connections in hopes of establishing a relationship is acceptable and expected. Over time, however, relentless emphasis on sameness and commonality qualifies the differences as insignificant and dispensable.
This, from Sudy, discussing her bi-cultural identity. But the words could have been lifted straight from pages of my life, better known as "How to Be Puerto Rican and Black at the Same Time."

Everyone wants you to be what they want you to be. Or they want you to be what they think you should be. And it begins so simply: "But you're really black, right?" "Oh, you are Puerto Rican but Puerto Ricans are black. So really, you're black."

Usually these conversations occur with my black friends upon their first few interactions with me. And in my head, my reaction is always the same: "Really? You have my identity pegged so quickly? Why thank you for informing me that I am actually black, not black and Puerto Rican or even biracial. I appreciate it. I was confused before. But I see it so clearly now."

Then there are the black men who didn't look twice at me until it is unveiled that, yes, I am part Latina. Now, suddenly, they can't wait to get at it. I guess my being Puerto Rican means my nether region just glitters and gleams. Or perhaps, a la hip hop mentality, they'd always wanted a "Dominican broad making me chili con queso" and figure, in a pinch, a Puerto Rican mami can do the same. Even my current Mr. knows, and has admitted, that it ups his street cred to reveal my mixture amongst his friends. And yet even Mr. can't seem to comprehend that I am neither yet both, all at the same time: "I know you are both. But're black to me."

With my Latina/o friends, there is the commonplace, sometimes virulent, racism and colorism that saturates the Latina/o community to contend with. Expressions of complete and utter disbelief when I begin to speak Spanish around them. Or acceptance of my dual identity with qualifications: "Si, pero tu no sientes la latinidad...." My favorite experience thus far occurred when a Puerto Rican friend of mine, very light skinned, invited me and a girlfriend over for dinner with his family. She is African American, no mix, and happens to be much lighter in skin tone than me. Instead of introducing us by name, he presented us both to his family with the following challenge: "Can you guess which one is Puerto Rican? You'll never guess."

He might as well have said, "Look mom! A black Puerto Rican! Can you believe it?"

The betrayal of it. The fantastic of it. The spectacle of it. All because I don't fit into their little, racial boxes. Being black and Puerto Rican no longer make me uncomfortable. But it sure as hell makes others unsure of what to make of me, how to stereotype me, how to deal with me.

And at the end of the day, my being Black and Puerto Rican is only a more obvious challenge to assumptions of who can be what race, gender, sexuality, etc. "Black" people are also Caribbean, African, and European. Puerto Ricans are also island-born, Nuyorican, or even white.

Still, I am only human. I can't fight the identity fight all the time. Somewhere, I must kick my feet up, let down my (nappy) hair, and just breathe. Somewhere, I--the real me--must reside.

But Sudy has the words for that too. And I thank her.
The only place where I ever felt racially understood was with my own family. Not only did my siblings understand what it meant to be Filipino, they understood what it meant to be Filipino-American; to be raised Filipino while living in the United States. That bond, sealed with the most intimate clarity, can never be broken.

To my sisters.

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