Thursday, February 6, 2014

What Am I?

Yesterday over on Huffington Online's "Latino Voices" section, blogger Icess Fernandez Rojas wrote about her identity as an Afro-Latina -- feeling at times this need to justify herself depending on which group she happens to be hanging out with, be they black or Latina. As someone who is both, she felt excluded from either group depending on the situation:

"Why, in this modern age, do I have to prove myself? Why do I have to prove my Blackness or my Latina heritage while denying the other exists?"

As someone who also has a dual-heritage background, I can sympathize with her plight. My mother was white, and my father Dominican. However, unlike Ms. Rojas, I can only claim one side of the divide: my mom's side. My father was never in the picture, except for the rare holiday or out of the blue appearance by which I would infrequently see my Dominican grandmother and perhaps a handful of aunts and uncles, along with a tiny portion of assorted cousins. My skin color is fairer than most Latinos thanks to my mom, but I have my father's island features--my hair color, nose, cheekbones, mouth, and eye shape are all Latin-Caribbean!

Funny, he doesn't look ambiguous.

It's a strange pickle to be in, for sure: looking Hispanic, but having no Latin identity whatsoever. Living in New York, most Latinos assume I'm one of them. They'll walk up to me and immediately fire off full-blown sentences in Spanish as if I can understand them. And sometimes I can. But most times, I cannot. Not completely, anyway. Inevitably this leads to a lot of confusion and, on rare occasion, some attempt at cultural shaming. This used to put me on the defensive, whereby I would tell the offending party to go have a talk with my dad and ask him why he couldn't get his shit together and include his son in on the cultural cues making up around one-half of his heritage. What little Spanish I do know, I learned in high school alongside most of my African American classmates. And although I did excel in these classes, it was due more to having a natural facility with languages, and not because of my last name. Sure, I'm certain everybody else assumed I was "slumming it" in Spanish class for the sake of increasing my GPA, but to this day I still cannot roll my r's for the life of me!

As for other cultural signalers--food, music, literature, pop art--I'm woefully ignorant. I couldn't tell you the difference between the merengue and salsa, although I vaguely know that they are both the names of dances from two different islands. What? You're wondering why I didn't do more to learn about my father's culture? Well, why should I? He never had any time for me, so why should I have honored him by doing the job he should have been doing all my life?

Yes, therein lies the heart of the problem. Any curiosity I might have had concerning the island nation from which my father and his family came from in the 1970s has been overruled by the anger from being abandoned at a very early age by him. My mother raised me alone, and her mother continued the job when her daughter was no longer with us. My father had ample opportunity to play a more active role in my life at that time--the man lived in the same city, after all! But he had no time for me, and so I had no time for him or his culture.

It's petty, yes, but for a long time this was how I felt. And now? Well, now that I'm getting older I find myself softening my views. I still lack a Latino identity, and know very little about Dominican culture specifically; but my natural inclination is to be curious about other cultures, and to value their values. In college I adopted Chinese as my culture. I learned the language and the history, loved the art and watched the movies. I read numerous books in Chinese, and even studied the classics in their original written forms! When I show an interest in a culture, I hold back no stops. So why should this be any different?

Yes, I really should try to do more to find out about the one culture I actually have genetic roots in. I will never have Dominican pride, because ultimately my nationality is American, and my culture that of my mother's Scots-Irish lineage. But I can do something to cultivate a social connection to the ways and lifestyles of my father's people as well. Even if I don't particularly like the man.

As far as the interesting issues Ms. Rojas raises in her article, I'm afraid I do not have the same luxury she does of choosing to be both. Being Latino is as alien to me as being Chinese. It's still the culture of the other in my mind. A friend asked me once: "Which do you consider yourself? Hispanic or White?" And to which I replied easily: "White." What else could I say? To say I'm Latino is a gross exaggeration. It's not a question of being repelled by my own background, but one of familiarity. I know all about the American culture to which most white people in this country can ascribe. It is my comfort zone. It is the love I have for my mother.

But about being Latino? What the hell do I know about that? What right do I have to lay such claim beyond the verity of my features and bearing the last name of my Caribbean ancestors? Because, to right now say that I'm Dominican would to be to only pay it lip service. And I'm sorry, but I refuse to be so disingenuous.

So, I ask of the world the same question as Ms. Rojas, except in the inverse: Why must I acknowledge both sides at all? Why not just connect to that one side that has always been there for me, and be who I feel myself to be? Being both, I should have the right to choose which one I identify with the most. And in that case, I'm not white nor Latino--soy Americano.

I am American! And America means being both or neither, or the sum of all the parts. It means whatever I decide it to mean for myself, on my terms.

Or shouldn't it?


  1. Interesting...thanks for sharing

  2. I don't think you should have to defend what you say or explain it really. As you write, "Soy Americano" - "I am American" - that should be enough. But alas, I know it is not. You are asked where you are from or what ethnicity you are, etc. And I can certainly understand your anger regarding abandonment and refusing to embrace that side of your heritage because of your dad. It's not easy, that's for sure. Friend, next time someone asks about where you are or what your ethnicity is, tell them your from Mars, so you're Martian. That should get them to back off annnnd make them think you're crazy. Ha!

  3. An interesting read. When we blend in a blending culture though, our culture becomes a sort of "one culture." This "one culture" to me is, "confusion." Then at some point, we may come to the question, does it make a difference?

  4. Kim -- Thanks for reading!

    Yvonne -- Haha! I'd rather be Martian at this point.

    Pavonne -- I know what you mean, aunt Pam. :) This is what I meant by "American." It's my way of including all that makes me what I am. The culture of David, is probably more accurate. LOL! And it does indeed get confusing, or rather ... more complicated when you add in meeting you and the rest of the family for the first time recently, thus adding a whole other facet to my background. But that's a longer story for another blog post. :)

  5. It's funny, somebody asked me today what my race was. I can't remember the last time I was asked that, because I can't remember the last time anyone thought it mattered! I said "Pacific Islander" which I think is technically true, but I don't always feel like I fit that category exactly. It's weird.

  6. You were born in Canada, right Jen? That always makes it hard for me, too. I know so many people born here in NYC that call themselves Dominican or Jamaican, yet those are nationalities and not races. Because I was born here in the US, I am American. And not Dominican or Scottish or Irish.

    Which is my point, actually. We identify most with CULTURE instead. What these people are saying, really, is that they are Dominican and Jamaican by CULTURE, not by passport. Which is what I'm doing. If I, like everyone else, really define my identity by culture, then I am American first. But since American culture is made up of so many different influences, I have to further modify that claim by stating that my background is protestant-leaning Scots-Irish American. For this is the culture I was raised in.

    If you were raised Canadian but influenced by your parents culture, Jen, I guess you could claim to be Pinay, right? Or Pinay Canadian. Of course, I know that what people really want to know when they ask "what are you" is your genetic background, in which case I just tell them I'm mixed Latino and White. You might say Asian for yourself. Or Pacific Islander. I think you would be right on both accounts.

    I also discovered recently that my grandmother's family is a good deal African American, although also mixed with European and Native American, which adds another ingredient to the complicated DNA soup that makes me who I am. :)

    For the record, my mother's father is where the huge influence of North-Western European DNA comes into my bloodline. According to a DNA test, my mother was around 74% European white, 24% African black, and 2% undetermined.


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