Being Biracial, Black, and Boricua – Under the Pressure to ‘Pick a Side’

Originally published on Those People and republished here with the author’s permission.

Source: Kwesi Abbensett

So I’m Puerto Rican.

I wasn’t lying to you. It wasn’t even like I forgot, but with my Mom gone and no ties to that side of the family, it’s easier not to mention.

It’s easier to quiet my Boricuaness (Puerto Rican heritage) because I grew up in Cali where there are far fewer Puerto Ricans compared to the East Coast.

And people here don’t believe me — the Mexicans and Salvadorans and Guatemalans I knew always seemed to want their Latinoness for themselves.

It was like I always knew about the party, but was never invited.

Quien Eres?

In high school, people often asked me, “quien eres? (what are you)”

The Black girls knew I was kinda-sorta one of them, but still made their disdain very clear when I didn’t emulate their version of Blackness. I wasn’t hood enough, had light skin, yada yada…

It was usually the Latina and Asian girls that had questions, and they had absolutely no tact about asking them.

“Are you even full-Black?”

“Why’s your hair that color?”

“Oh, I get why you’re not ghetto. You’re only half-Black.”

“You look hella Asian. Are you Filipina? Your eyes are hella slanted.”

When my new German-Irish-Jewish friend questioned my background one day, she told me that after her mother dropped me off at home the night before, she knew that I was Puerto Rican.

“Look at the color of her hair,” her mother said. “She looks like the people I grew up with.”

“I thought you were lying to me — cause it’s cool to be Latina. My Mom’s from New York, though, so I guess she knows. There’s a lot more of your people out there!” she said giggling.

The same girl was constantly reminding me of how she thought I looked 75% White and 25% Black. The other two White girls in our freshman year crew felt the ratio was the other way around.

One day I finally told them it wasn’t up for debate. Don’t question my Blackness, my Whiteness, my Puerto Ricanness — don’t question nothing. 

A real thick Salvadoran sophomore at my school would run around saying nigga thisnigga that.

We were in the same dance class my freshman year, and one day I just stared at her wondering what she was talking about, who she was talking to, and why she thought it was okay to use that word.

We locked eyes and she approached me. Her hair was slicked down, swooped to the side, and stuck to her temples. She looked indio — real indigenous — like except for el color de su piel, few people in her bloodline had been colonized.

She was striking, and ghetto as hell — scary ghetto — like, I’m-never-gonna-do-anything-but-smile-at-this-chick ghetto.

She came up to me real close, and looked me up and down like she wanted to fight.

“Are you even Black?” she questioned, as if my answer would then direct her fists.

“Er… What? I mean — ”

She cocked her head to the side and grinned, interrupting me before I could say, “Yes.”

“I ain’t tryna hate on you girl — I don’t mean no disrespect cause you look Latina or something. I know you mixed. I was just wonderin’.”

“Yeah. I’m Black and Puerto Rican — ”

“Ohhhh shit forreall? Girl, that’s tight.”

Our dance instructor, Mrs. Nolfi, sashayed to the middle of the mirror and we all hurried to our places.

I was happy this girl didn’t beat me up, but also comforted that she picked up on something that always seemed to be a secret.

Kind of like how my Mom used to do the Black person nod whenever we passed a fellow brother or sister. Our Blackness wasn’t a secret, but the nod was.

“Why do you always do that?” I asked.

“We’re just acknowledging one another — there are few of us around.”

En Español

But my Mom was never like that with Latinos — she made me platanos, pasteles, sofrito, arroz con grandules, flan and all that other good shit, while adamantly exclaiming, “These are your people!”

She used to drag me to the Mission to get all her ingredients while the butchers smiled enthusiastically from behind shiny, silver meat counters and told her how beautiful I’d become.

After she died, I returned to these same places for my arroz con leche y pan, waiting for and wondering whether or not the counterperson would speak in Spanish to me.

Though it always felt good when they did, every time there was that moment when, like the Salvadoran girl, they had to suss me out — search for any curl definition in my hair, the traces of any non-Blackness in my features, and then decide how to proceed.

My Mom didn’t want to talk about her past or her family much, so my Dad and I left it at that. She spoke Spanish, just like my Father, who learned it after teaching photography to young Chicano kids in East LA.

I remember learning Spanish before English. Having my favorite babysitter, Araceli, who did not speak English to me also helped.

Even after all-English grammar school, sspañol quickly came back to me when I was placed in a Spanish class in high school with other “native speakers” who could speak, but couldn’t write or read, or could read, but couldn’t write or speak in their original tongue.

Still Negra

Even though my Mom told me to be proud of my Puerto Rican heritage, Blackness came first — which is unusual given the anti-Black and self-hating attitudes that pervade so many Latino households.

“Everyone’s still gonna think you’re just a n*gger,” she said.

My Dad was furious when I told him, but he never really spoke to me about my identity until I started asserting it myself.

Before my Mom died during the first semester of junior year, I would come home crying over how the Black girls at school treated me — calling me names, giving me dirty looks in the hall, threatening to beat me up, and projecting all these unwarranted and unprovoked microaggressions onto me.

“TELL THEM WHO YOU ARE!!!” my mother would scream. “TELL THEM WHO YOU ARE!”

I was pretty sure of who I was, but only truly certain about my Blackness. My Blackness was obvious to much of the outside world and it was always being reaffirmed or confronted in various ways.

Still, I was more concerned with other people not accepting that I was Puerto Rican, because so many people didn’t. They flat out denied it, because supposedly, you’re not Puerto Rican unless you look like Jennifer Lopez.

When our religion teacher asked each student to share their ethnic background with the class one year, after my turn, a Latina classmate across from me said, “I know she’s telling the truth ‘cause she has that mole on her upper lip, and I’ve only seen it on Latinos.”

It was annoying and weird how other Latinos tried to justify my existence — my Boricuaness — while inevitably explaining away and erasing everything else because that somehow made me legitimate.

You can be Latina — but you can’t be Black or White or any other lineage that runs through most Latino blood. If you don’t “look” like us you’ll have to explain yourself.

If I didn’t look the part, there was no convincing anyone. When I was 15 and 16 and 17, I didn’t know how to say, “whatever, bitch, bye.”

Well, I Guess You Can Join Us

When I watched the Latin Grammys one year, I overheard the Mexican girls recalling the performances the next day. After attempting to join the conversation, they very quickly said, “Oh, you don’t know what we’re talking about.”

But I did.

Things changed when the Latina girls eventually discovered I was Puerto Rican and they suddenly wanted to be nice to me.

“You’re one of us!” said the girl who sat next to me in Physiology as she smiled and grabbed onto my arm.

“Why didn’t you tell me, puta?” said the Mexican chick from homeroom.

Now I was invited to quinceñeras, even though mutual friends weren’t, because as one chick said, “She ain’t Latin.”

It reminded me of a few years prior when a classmate told me all about how her parents hated Black people, and then decided to introduce me to her mother.

“Mamá, this is Angie. She’s part Puerto Rican — that’s why she’s so light.”

And clearly, that was supposed to make us all feel safe.

There were three other Puerto Rican girls in my school — all of whom could pass for the recognizable type of Latina — una mestiza (usually Spanish and Indigenous). They had dusky-pale skin, dark, long, loosely curled hair, and pointy, albeit, slightly broader prominent noses.

Mine was a little round, flat pug nose. My Dad had always rubbed the tip of it and told me how beautiful it was — there was a ridge on it that only he noticed. He said that if he ever went blind and I ever got lost he would immediately be able to find his daughter.

The only time I became insecure about my nose was after my White cousin got pummeled in the face and screamed, “At least I don’t have a nose like Angie’s!”

Apparently, I was defective — caught in the middle — clearly not good enough for White people, too Black for Latinos, and not Black enough for Black people.

One of the Puerto Rican girls who I became a close friend was irked when she discovered I spoke better Spanish than her. “Damn girl, you’re hella good.”

“I think it’d be kinda cool to have kids who aren’t mixed,” she said. “Everyone’s mixed these days — even me and you. Don’t you think?”

I didn’t agree — but I kept my opinions to myself because I was still trying to reach a place of acceptance with others who were deciding whether or not they wanted accept me.

That girl and I had both been ripped from our roots somehow, somewhere. Her mother never taught her Spanish because she wanted her to assimilate.

My mother rarely taught me about my Latina heritage because our Blackness was the priority.

Still, we were both supposed to be proud somehow, but were waiting for affirmation in the strangest of places.

Black and Brown

The dividing line between Harlem and El Barrio in New York is the perfect metaphor for my very existence. Cuando yo camino (when I walk) through Spanish Harlem, la gente (people) only speak en español to me. Y cuando yo llego al otro lado (and when I arrive to the other side, Harlem), I’m once again reminded that I’m that light-skinned chick.

My identity changes depending on where I am, who I’m talking to, and who’s watching.

But on both sides — the Puerto Rican and Black sides — my people recognize that we’ve been colonized, and that we (should) share a kinship.

Sadly, what both groups often fail to acknowledge is that our heritages don’t have to be mutually exclusive, opposed to one another, afraid or disgusted, enemies of, or at war with each other.

Though I rarely discuss it, I’m probably more comfortable being Puerto Rican than anything else. It’s not a race or a color, but an identity born of rich heritage and roots that run deep — ones that are embedded in Caribbean, African, and European soil.

Being mixed is often a given when you’re Puerto Rican, even though too many of us — over 75% of us — identified as White on a 2010 census.

But you don’t really have to explain anything to anyone — if you’re surrounded by your people, that is.

Still, anti-Blackness within Latino cultures is real. My Blackness was at the center of everything that my fellow Latinas questioned about my being Latina.

To them, I couldn’t be Puerto Rican if I was also Black, or anything else for that matter. African blood was like a poison, as if to be Latina was an anomaly that was as old as the Earth.

In the Americas, Native people  — the people indigenous to this land — were the first peoples. And even though Latinos descend from and wouldn’t exist without Los Indios, when Black slaves were forcibly brought here, our ancestors mixed with one another, creating what is a multiethnic and multicultural population. That is historical fact.

As I attempted to navigate Latino, and Black and White social circles when I was younger, I eventually came to the conclusion that being Black is not a crime — even though that was always implied.

I had to — for self-preservation — especially since, in short, I was “white-washed.” If I didn’t, I would die as a Black person, and Latina person, and maybe even (probably not) a White person without proclaiming that my Blackness wasn’t criminal.

We are the oldest people on earth. Everyone came from us. We have contributed to our cultures and our food and our languages and our music. The oldest empires would not exist without us.

El mundo (the world) would not exist without us.

So remember, mis queridos compañeros Latinos — por favor recuerde — estamos aquí —  (my beloved Latinx friends – please remember – we are here).

Aunque en las sombras (even if in the shadows).

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