Although I was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico to Cuban parents and am unconditionally of 100 percent Cuban descent, I have often felt somewhat disconnected from being a true Latina due to the color of my skin. From an early age, I never felt like I fit into the mold of what a Latina should look like. In school, when I played the coveted lead role of Maria in West Side Story, it was strongly suggested that I dye my hair a darker color even though I was from the same place (Puerto Rico) as the real Maria. And so I did.
Let’s face it. I am fairer than most of my Anglo friends. Being a fair Latina has led me to explain and defend my Cuban heritage whenever I get asked, “and what else (ethnicity) are you?” I have a standard answer for why I happen to be so white and am yet so Latina: “Spain was settled by Moors, Romans, Jews, Visigoths and Celts so I probably take after my red-headed paternal grandfather who was born in the Northwest region of Spain, Galicia, where many Celts settled.” Whew!
I have never experienced genuine discrimination, only what can be described as distrust bordering on disdain for having lighter skin. But I understand this sort of derision stems from the not unfounded belief that people born with less pigmentation are handed more opportunities and do not face discrimination like so many others. I have witnessed an almost self-conscious behavior in some Latinos who are darker within my own culture. My maternal grandmother would worry about being out in the sun not for fear of skin cancer but for fear of getting too dark. I, on the other hand, felt self-conscious because my skin was so pale (and imperfect) and I longed for her flawless, dark olive skin. In retrospect, I likely witnessed a repeated bias toward her from strangers due to either her skin color or her language (she never spoke English) or a combination of discrimination toward both.
My personal challenge is to raise my children to be multicultural, however, their knowledge of their Cuban heritage and the Spanish language is almost non-existent. I wish there was a simple reason for this but there are many. The first and primary reason is that I have been lackadaisical about teaching them. My efforts have been superficial, such as reading them the book, Where the Wild Things Are, in Spanish or using Spanish language DVDs and flashcards on an irregular basis. Another reason is that I have little interaction with Cuban or Puerto Rican cultures where I live in New Mexico. The food, climate and general culture of Latinos in New Mexico is far different from the culture of Latinos in the Caribbean. Finally, I have recent and not so recent experiences of people giving me disapproving looks when speaking Spanish with my Mami in public. This is the exception and not the rule but even the few times I experienced this negativity, it made me pause and then revert to English.
I cannot make excuses for not passing the language on to my children. However, I notice that culturally, there are certain things about my Cuban/Latina heritage that I reject and others I incorporate, which are in tune with my real-life views. What makes me proud of my heritage is Cuban music, salsa dancing, the food and the directness and ability to experience life through overt self-expression. Cubans generally don’t mince words and tend to be passionate. On the other side, while Latin American television may be mildly entertaining at times, I find it mostly grating as I despise how many Latina women continue to be displayed as submissive, sexual objects. Another example is that even though I was raised Catholic, like most Latinas, I do not believe in the Catholic dogma any longer. I find it oppressive. Is it necessarily a bad thing to reject some of the cultural expectations from your culture of origin? Is it not important to keep the traditions that matter, do away with those that don’t and learn new ones you have an affinity for, not necessarily because of your lineage?
I hope my personal experiences will guide me to teach my children about the importance of celebrating and respecting diversity. Given that I want my children to grow up knowing their Cuban heritage and as many other cultures as possible, it is essential for them to understand that one can never assume anything about another human being based on the color of his or her skin. Based on the color of my skin, no one ever saw me as Latina growing up.
I saw a great t-shirt the other day that simply stated “Of No Particular Ethnicity” worn by a woman difficult to classify into a single group by her physical characteristics. Just like the phrase on that t-shirt, I hope that my kids do not categorize others but rather gain the ability to see people as unique and diverse from the inside out, whether they are of Algerian, Irish, Italian, Vietnamese or Cuban descent or all of the above. After all, being a variety of different ethnicities and cultural backgrounds is something to be proud of. One thing that is true about the color of your skin is that it cannot tell you anything about who that person is, where they’re from and languages they speak. And that is a beautiful thing.