Updated: Jun 19
My mother was Puerto Rican, but she raised me to be White.
And let me be clear: as I see it there is white, and there is White.
Lower case means white-bodied. Light-skinned and possibly fair-featured, ‘white’ is solely based on race. This is not inherently problematic, except that it’s inextricably linked to Whiteness.
White with a capital W goes much, much deeper. White is a mindset and a lifestyle. It’s a bigoted ethos that is steeped in white supremacy and colonization, which assumes that anyone or anything derived from whiteness is inherently morally superior or more correct. The closer to being White one can achieve, whether it is via social class, money, skin color, education, religion, deportment, gender, language, heritage, physical or mental ability, sexuality, or any other host of arbitrary markers, the more power and privilege one wields. Like Pokémon, the more you collect, the more fighting power you have. Gotta catch ‘em all, right? And because of the intersectional nature of Whiteness, it can be internalized by anyone regardless of race, ethnicity, or nationality. This, my friends, is extraordinarily harmful. It is so pervasive that unless you are someone whose life is negatively affected by a distinct lack of privilege and power under this system, you may not even realize the damage you do. This is precisely where I was until just a few years ago.
By all accounts, I am white. Not even white-passing, just white. I wear foundation shades with names like Classic Ivory and Light Beige (Light Beige is, of course, for the summertime when I’m ‘tan’). My father was descended from Celts and Vikings, with not a single drop of brownness in him, and I inherited that fair, melanoma-prone skin. However, my mother was born and raised in Puerto Rico, descended on both sides from generation upon generation of Boricuas. “I can see it in the eyes,” people will tell me, as I’ve garnered a double take after speaking non-accented Spanish. And it’s true, I do have my mother’s eyes. But lots of other people have brown eyes too, so to allow a single facial feature to be the only calling card to my heritage is to do Boricuas, Latinos, and myself a huge disservice.
The irony, as it turns out, is in suburbia it’s an option to just forgo your ethnicity (despite the possibility of your eyes giving you away). As a matter of fact, it is preferred. If you can pass for white, then by all means do it so everyone else can be comfortable around you. If you can’t pass due to skin color, accent, or some other racial or ethnic marker, then at least act as if you can. You may not be white but you can still be White. You will be tokenized, of course, but that’s better than being ostracized, right? …right?
This whole ruse was especially easy for Latinas in the 1990s and early 2000s when being tan was all the rage because no one asked questions if you were just a little darker than the average European descendant. You might even get compliments on how natural your tan looked. Thanks to white hypocrisy, my mother was ‘lucky’ enough to be white-passing, with a natural-looking tan. Assimilation complete.
But she didn’t just play a role in public. It was all-encompassing at home as well. Even as Gloria Estefan, Selena, and Ricky Martin were topping American pop charts, my mother dug in her heels, opting instead for The Oak Ridge Boys greatest hits and the latest Celine Dion album. American soap operas trumped telenovelas, and it was Touched By An Angel or bust rather than entertain the idea of Sabado Gigante. If it hadn‘t been for Abuela, who lived with us for a couple years during my childhood, I might not know anything about Latino music and programming, or that mint and thyme was growing wild in our sideyard and you can use them to make an anti-inflammatory digestive tea.
I hold my mother in contempt for many things, but ignoring our history is one of her most egregious offenses. Whiteness, not only as a race but as a lifestyle, is a much strived-for quality for anyone looking to get ahead in American society. But for BBIPOC and Latino people, it comes at a cost. Steeped in colonial violence and hypocrisy, Whiteness brings a privilege that I have seen weaponized upon my family and friends, let alone society. And it has worked its machinations on my psyche, turning and twisting my identity to the point where I can no longer make sense of it.
What box do I check when I need to disclose my ethnicity - can I really call myself Hispanic or Latino? Am I even actually Puerto Rican? Am I allowed to claim Borikén as my ancestral home? And the most insidious question - do I want to? To this day, Latinas are among the most underrepresented, underprivileged, and underpaid groups in the United States. As a white-bodied person, it’s too easy to lean into the privilege, to step away and separate oneself from those statistics, before you even realize you’re doing it. But to do so is to ignore a large part of who you are and what your people have endured.
Regardless of the fact I have family, including primas y primos, who live on the island, I grew up feeling like I couldn’t earn my Boricua merit badge. Speaking Spanish was not encouraged in our household growing up. As a result, my ability to converse in Spanish is stunted, despite being able to speak without an accent and understand with some fluency. I thought I didn’t look, speak, or act Puerto Rican enough. Moreover, that I didn’t deserve to. How could I claim to be the same as BBIPOC family and friends when we didn’t share the same experiences or speak the same language? I learned later that this is a form of internalized systemic discrimination that led to years of self-gatekeeping from my Boricua and Latina identity.
To have Latino heritage almost automatically means having a complicated ancestry. As it turns out, a quarter of my genetic lineage is Indigenous and African. I’m no anthropologist, but I would wager a guess that a majority of white-bodied Latinos can say the same (even more so if both parents are Latino). So what does this mean for the people who sometimes feel the need to justify their Latinidad, who carry the unceasing hope of the colonized in the body of the colonizer? To be white-bodied in America means having privilege. However, to be white-bodied with a non-White ethnic heritage means being cognizant of the intersectionality of privilege more acutely than most other white peers. Through this lens, BBIPOC ancestry encapsulated in white skin carries an inherent responsibility to fight for social justice and equity.
My ancestors - my own flesh and blood - were victims of kidnapping, human trafficking, genocide, and enslavement. How can I stand by and bask in the privilege of my whiteness without acknowledging that I, too, am borne of the Triangle Trade? The benefit of my race has allowed me to avoid continued racial discrimination in my lifetime. Still, the burden of blood means I maintain a social responsibility to advocate for Black- and Brown-bodied cousins and neighbors who do face discrimination in my stead. Even to claim modern Puerto Rican culture is to claim, at least in part, Indigenous and Afro-Caribbean roots. Music and dance, food, medicine, language, and so much more have been passed down to us for generations by BBIPOC ancestors. Acknowledging and educating myself and others in these traditions is how I honor my ancestry.
I can make a pretty decent pot of arroz con gandules, but so can Jamie Oliver (probably). The culture is not in the food itself, but in understanding the significance of it and the memories attached to it. Gandules [otherwise known as pigeon peas] are an important crop in the Caribbean, with widespread usage throughout the Greater Antilles and the east coast of Central and South America. In Puerto Rico, Arroz con Gandules is a celebratory dish typically made at Christmas, along with pernil [pork shoulder roast], tostones [fried unripe plantains], pasteles [people call these Puerto Rican tamales, but they’re very different imho], and coquito [a sweet, spicy, boozy coconut beverage]. That is one childhood memory I have, at least - my family celebrated Christmas Eve with Puerto Rican flair and fare each year. However as an adult, with my mother and my abuela both gone, and what feels like a gaping language and cultural barrier between much of my mother’s family and me, what’s left to connect to but memories? Arroz con gandules, no matter how good, is just not enough. I often feel stranded. And much like people who have lost a limb but can still feel it there, my heritage is a void in my life whose absence I can feel looming over me each and every day.
But Latinidad is not all or nothing, and I recognize now that many of those ‘all or nothing’ expectations are steeped in bigotry, prejudice, and self-denial. It took a long time for me to understand what that meant for my identity and mental health. Coming to terms with my Latinidad meant acknowledging and accepting all the parts of me and speaking directly to the pieces of my heritage I had so long denied myself. While I still struggle with this, just opening up those doors and advocating for them within myself and the world has helped heal me in ways I didn’t know I needed. I have learned to heal through connection with plants, with music, with brujería, and with earth medicine. I am reparenting myself in a way that allows for exploration, reconnection, and, most importantly, empathy.
I work regularly with my therapist to find empathy for my mother, who moved to New York when El Barrio was just becoming home to Puerto Rican immigrants. My mother left her island - her home - to find opportunities beyond a life of colonial subjugation on one of the local sugar plantations as her parents did. At that time, overt public attitudes toward Latinos - especially women - were derisive at best (as opposed to today, where these attitudes still exist at large but are cloaked in systemic disparity where they can conveniently be ignored or pitied by people in power. But that’s a different essay). In the Boomer era, it was a survival tactic to assimilate and forget, just as our pre-colonial ancestors were forced to do upon the arrival of Christopher Columbus. Is it now in us to assimilate and forget? My mother did it, so I did it too. And it broke both of us, in different ways. That is the very definition of ‘generational trauma,’ I suppose.
On days when my better self loses out to my demons, I still see my mother as a turncoat of the highest order who lived her life in a hypocritical haze of self-denial and actively robbed her children of their identities. What can I say? I’m a work in progress. And I will continue to be, because there will always remain a part of me that is conflicted, a part of me who insists that simply learning Spanish or listening to Reggaeton or visiting the island will somehow make me whole, a part of me that just wants to connect but feels the wall placed between me and my world at birth - a part of me who can never be Puerto Rican.
But there remains a large part of me that can be - that is - Puerto Rican. I will continue to make arroz con gandules on Christmas Eve, drum and dance la bomba (even if just in my living room for now), brew mint and thyme tea, educate and advocate against continued colonization of the island, and slowly learn what being Puerto Rican means for me. In the end, it is accepting responsibility for my people - all my people, all of me - that has brought me full circle to growth as an individual, evolution as a Boricua, and self-love as a Latina. There is nothing more TBD.