I am a mixed-race Latina.
I’ve spent a lot of time grappling with my own identity as a light-skinned, half-Italian, half-Puerto Rican human being.
And along the way, I’ve had to confront my own internalized racism, embrace my own otherness, and listen to people say a whole lot of uncomfortable and offensive things.
People ask me invasive questions about my ethnicity, invalidate my identity in the turn of a phrase, and send me into spirals of self-doubt about my place in the world constantly.
I am a mixed-race Latina.
Nothing anyone says to me will ever take that away from me. Nothing strangers ask me will ever take that away from me.
But damn, do they try.
These are five things I’m tired of hearing as a mixed-race Latina. These questions used to define who I was, but I won’t let them do that anymore – and maybe you shouldn’t, either.
1. “Where Are You From From?”
Ah, the classic.
Every mixed-race person (and most people of color overall) have had to answer this question time and time again, but that doesn’t make it any less annoying.
No matter how many times I’m asked where I’m from, I never get closer to wanting to answer.
I’m really proud of my roots, but I’m not interested in telling you my ancestral history at the drop of a hat, especially when it’s likely to be followed up by some sort of exotifying or festishizing remark.
A typical conversation between me and a person-who-wants-to-know-where-I’m-from-from goes like this:
“Where are you from?”
“Hm? Oh, I live around here.”
“No, where are you from from?”
“Oh. I’m half Italian and half Puerto Rican.”
“I knew it! As soon as I saw you I thought, ‘There’s no way she’s not Latina.’ You’ve got that spice about you, ya know?”
I’m really stoked in retrospect that I stopped and took some time out of my day to fulfill your weirdo need to know my ethnicity in order to prove a point to yourself about the validity of your own internalized messages about people who originate from the same place as me.
Let’s never do this again.
Asking someone where they’re “from from” is isolating and othering.
I’m pretty confident that most folks who appear to be ethnically white don’t get asked for their countries of origin by strangers on a daily basis. And when you ask a person of color where they’re really from, you’re also telling them they’re alien to where they are.
On top of being invasive and exotifying, asking people where they’re “from from” isn’t even an accurate way to gauge who they are.
I may have Puerto Rican or Italian features, but I also speak with a slight Jersey accent and occasionally use some vernacular unique to my current city, Washington, DC, and its surrounding areas.
Ethnic makeup, nationality, and region of origin are all entirely different – and they each impact our identities in different ways.
2. “But You Don’t Even Speak Spanish!”
Unbelievable, right? Like, so weird!
I’m of Puerto Rican descent, and yet I don’t speak Spanish! I’m like, the only person like this on Earth, right? Definitely the only one like this in the United States. All the people in this country speak the languages from their country of origin, right? I mean, that would totally explain why there are so many conversations happening around me right now in Polish, German, Hebrew, and Mandarin.
I’m asked whether or not I speak Spanish with an alarming frequency. And when I tell the honest truth – that I’m comfortable reading and writing basic Spanish phrases, but don’t speak conversationally or know the language fluently – people often react as if they weren’t expecting it.
It’s as if my last name indicates to them that I speak Spanish – or, more likely, that I don’t speak English as my first language.
And if the person in question speaks Spanish at a higher level than I do, they often consider it sort of funny, as if it’s a statement not only about me, but also about them. It makes them worldly and knowledgeable, and it makes me bad at being who they think I’m supposed to be.
Except it doesn’t.
Whether or not I speak Spanish doesn’t make me more or less Latina.
Look. I really wish I spoke Spanish fluently. It would make me feel a little more connected to my identity, and it would definitely make it more possible for me to more fully explore and immerse myself in Puerto Rican culture.
And I get why you think I do.
A lot of Latinx people grew up speaking a dialect of Spanish at home, or at least peripherally familiar with it. In fact, it’s a point of pride for lots of folks – especially in immigrant communities – to retain their language of origin.
And when it comes to having folks do the work of translating text or having conversations using Spanish, I’d much rather it be someone who’s a native speaker, someone for whom their language is a part of their identity.
But I don’t speak Spanish, and a lot of other Latinx people don’t either.
Deal with it.
3. “But You’re Not Really Latina”
Being mixed-race means I find myself in a lot of precarious places. One of the least desirable is that of being invisible and invalid in both the white and non-white worlds I occupy.
White people don’t see me as “one of them,” and rightly so. But they don’t necessarily see me as “Latina” either – and neither do some people of color.
Sometimes, it feels like I don’t really have the right to claim space in any community.
As a mixed-race Latina who’s disconnected from my Puerto Rican family members, I’ve spent my entire life trying to figure out what I am.
And as a white-passing Latina, I’ve spent a lot of time reckoning with the privilege of “passing” as white – which comes at the cost of feeling invisible and erased a majority of the time.
More than anyone who’s confused by my racial identity and background, I’m confused constantly about my racial identity and background.
When you question the validity or reality of my Latina identity, you make that confusion even thicker.
And it hurts.
There are a lot of mixed-race people in the United States right now. In fact, there are more mixed-race-identified people in the US now than ever before.
It’s way past time for us to give up on the idea that only people who fit into rigid racial categories have valid identities, and it’s about time we stopped trying to downplay people’s identities to make ourselves more comfortable.
3½. “But You’re Not Like Other Puerto Rican People”
While we’re on this topic, a note to non-Latina people who don’t seem to like Latina people very much:
When I tell you how I identify and you immediately try to compliment me by telling me I’m not like my community, I’m not going to be flattered.
I’ve claimed this identity for myself because I’m proud of my background and honored to be part of this community, not because I want to prove wrong all of your harmful stereotypes and pre-conditioned beliefs about us.
A huge part of feminism is acknowledging that our gender, race, and ethnicity don’t determine who we are. Second-wave feminists swore by the phrase “gender is not destiny.” Neither are our ethnic identities.
I’m not like other Puerto Rican people. That’s because we’re not all alike.
If that makes it easier for you to be around me, I think someone needs to challenge you to question why.
4. “I’m Basically More Latina Than You!”
You are not more Latina than me.
Listening to Daddy Yankee or knowing how to make platanos or speaking fluent Spanish conversationally with your neighbor in your apartment building doesn’t make you more Latina than me.
Living in a predominately Latinx neighborhood doesn’t make you more Latina than me.
Being more educated and aware about the political history or cultural figureheads of Puerto Rico than I am doesn’t make you more Latina than me.
As a mixed-race person – and especially one who was raised outside that community and passes as white – I’ve struggled for a long time with being “enough.” I’ve spent a lifetime trying to prove myself and my identity to white people, Latinx people, and other people of color.
That’s exhausting. And that’s fucked up.
Everyone experiences oppression and marginalized identity differently than everyone else. No two experiences by people with the same exact DNA will be identical, nor will the experiences of two people in the same broad racial category.
That’s what intersectionality is all about – recognizing that we all live differently in our identities, communities, and skins.
You may be Latina, and I may look like you but know nothing of your struggle. You may be Latina, and I may not look like you, and you may know nothing of my struggle. You may not be Latina at all, and we might look like each other or not look like each other, talk like each other or not talk like each other, behave like each other or not behave like each other, and you will know nothing of my struggle.
Being mixed-race means that people will constantly call into question whether any of your racial and ethnic identities are “real.”
But deciding how much claim someone has to an identity is inherently anti-feminist.
We know that being a woman doesn’t mean you have to act or be a certain way, and just because two women experience oppression differently doesn’t make anyone’s marginalization less authentic or real.
Growing up without major female influences in your life doesn’t make you less of a woman. Growing up being identified as male doesn’t make you less of a woman.
And whether I fit into the stereotypes of what a Latina is or not, I’m Latina. Period.
5. “You Don’t Even Look Latina!”
Let’s look back and count: It took you five words to completely discount who I am. It took you five words to render me invisible, to deny the reality of my own life.
Please don’t ever tell me I don’t look Latina.
When I was younger, I wanted more than anything not to look like me. I wanted a different body. I wanted hair that was silky and long and straight. I wanted a voice that was a little less loud.
I didn’t know then that all bodies were beautiful, especially non-white ones. And I didn’t realize that, in being Latina, I was part of a rich, varied body of beautiful human beings who look as different as can be. I didn’t come of age with an understanding that our differences are what made us who we are.
Instead, I grew up being told by our society – and sometimes even the people close to me – that I should be ashamed of my racial identity. And that means I grew up chasing the ideal beauty standards put forward by our white supremacist, patriarchal culture.
But I was a mixed-race Latina girl. I was never going to fit into our culture’s narrow expectations for women, and coming to terms with my racial identity liberated me from feeling like I had to.
When you tell me I don’t look Latina, you tell me I don’t look like myself.
And after over two decades of fighting to see myself in the mirror, I can’t let you do that. Every single inch of my body is the result of a mixture of the things that make me who I am. I look like exactly who I am. And you’re not allowed to tell me otherwise.
It’s time for us to have some real, in-depth conversations about race in this country. It’s time for us to confront racism and bigotry and counter prejudice and hate.
But in order to do so, we need to push the dialogue past basic and offensive questions and rash generalizations about who the people in different communities are.
I am a mixed-race Latina.
And I’m ready for a discourse on race that doesn’t invalidate me.
Carmen Rios is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. She splits her time disparately between feminist rabble-rousing, writing, public speaking, and flower-picking. A professional feminist by day and overemotional writer by night, Carmen is currently Communications Coordinator at the Feminist Majority Foundation and the Feminism and Community Editor at Autostraddle. You can follow her on Twitter @carmenriosss and Tumblr to learn more about her feelings.
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