What it's like to be told "You're not Latina"
June 02, 2015 at 5:30 am
What do you do when you have more than one identity and people force you to choose just one? What do you do when people choose it for you? It’s like one person telling you to go left and another telling you to go right, even though you think you should be going straight.
Understanding my identity, which is apparently a paradox to most, starts with the origins of either side of my family. My mom and her family are from the Dominican Republic, home to the rhythmic Bachata and the tasty sancocho. My dad and his family are from Barbados, home to Rihanna and flying fish. That makes me this seemingly contradicting combination of being Black and Latina or half Dominican and half Bajan.***
My identity has oftentimes been questioned.
My relationship to my mom has even been questioned. I remember when a random lady walked up to my mom and I and asked her if I was her daughter. I was quite confused and taken aback, but in retrospect it kind of made sense. At first glance, I looked nothing like my mom. She is fairly light-skinned with long flowing curly hair and stormy grayish-blueish eyes. I have dark skin, my hair is this odd mixture of nappy and curly (3C and 4A for my naturals that know their hair types), and I had brown eyes. I was essentially my father’s daughter. The only thing I really seemed to inherit from my mom was her height. To this day, I still stand at 5’1” just like her, while my dad towers above me at six feet.
My parents separated when I was young and after that I mainly lived with my mother. Because of that, I primarily grew up with the influence of Dominican culture. My mom spoke to me in Spanish. I loved eating rice, beans and platanos. I may not have been able to speak Spanish or dance bachata, but I was as Dominican as I could possibly be and she would remind me of that. My mom would always try to deny my Blackness. “You’re not Black, you’re West Indian,” or “You’re not Black, you’re Dominican.” I cannot even begin to count the many arguments that would erupt and still erupt between my mom and I regarding my Blackness. But little did my mom know that I couldn’t just erase my Blackness. It was never an option. People perceived me as Black since basically the day I was born. Even if I wanted to say I’m not Black, there would always be someone telling me otherwise. It created this dynamic of me being a Latina at home but Black everywhere else.
I never tried to forget my Blackness.
Why would I? How could I? I don’t know when it hit me when I was Black, but I always knew. Maybe it was because people always labeled me as such or maybe I just knew that dark skin and natural hair meant Black. I would always assert that I was Black and Latina, well Black and Spanish back in those days because Spanish basically meant Latina. I wouldn’t allow anyone to tell me differently. I am half Black and half Spanish, specifically half Dominican and half Bajan. Get it. Got it. Good. Sadly, no one got it or even tried to acknowledge it.
Explaining to people my identity got tricky as I got older. I had my first mini identity crisis in elementary or middle school. I always thought I was mixed because Black and Latino were seen as two separate things. I would always try to convince myself and others that I was mixed. I mean to be mixed was cool right? “All the people society deemed beautiful were mixed,” I always tried to convince myself.
My second identity crisis came the summer after eighth grade during summer school. I believe it was in art class when I was stating my background. I said what I usually say with my big goofy smile: I’m half Dominican and half Bajan. I wasn’t prepared for what came next from my classmate. “You’re not Dominican because you’re only half.” Seeing that my smile immediately disappeared, he immediately tried to take back what he said, but the damage had been done. I started to think, “Well he’s just stupid.” But then, my 13-year-old self started to doubt who she was. If I wasn’t Dominican because I was only half and I was half Bajan, does that make me not Bajan either? What am I then?
I went throughout high school basically trying to convince, no, explain to people that yes I was half Dominican and to explain what Bajan meant. It usually went something like this.
“Bajan is someone from Barbados.” *Confused face* “Barbados is a Caribbean island.” *Still has a confused face* “Rihanna is from there.” *confusion starts to go away a bit*
“I’m half Dominican and half Bajan.” “But you don’t look Latina.”
I think my favorite interaction was during my senior year when I decided to wear my beautiful Harvard Latina shirt on college t-shirt day. The amount of times I was questioned and blatantly told by people I rarely talked to “But you’re not Latina” was ridiculous.
Coming to college has only further made me question who and what I am.
I not only was able to express my Blackness and gain my first group of all Black friends, but also found a home in the Latino community. It was one of the first times I got to explore my Latina-ness outside of just my home. But it was also one of the first times I was able to explore both my Blackness and Latina-ness in one setting. It was honestly life changing.
A friend of mine recently asked if I feel closer to the Black community or the Latino community and I realized it was a question that was getting more and more difficult to answer. But I also realized that I feel equally close to both. My identity manifests itself in different ways. One does not negate the other. But I still do sense confusion at how I can hold both aspects of my identity on an equal level, something that took me a while to realize. There are still times, even today, that I question myself when my mom questions why I only have Black friends, or when I say that I hold both parts of my identity on equal footing. But at the end of the day I remind myself that I am the only one who can decide my identity. You cannot police me because I do not fit what you think I should be. I am the only one who chooses who I am to be.
***Before people start to complain, I am 100% aware of the fact that that statement is not politically correct. But the fact of the matter is the way I choose to identify should not be policed by what is politically correct and what is not.
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