Lifestyle

‘My Siblings Could Pass. I Could Not.’

It’s evidenced in this particular photograph: Light skin, dark skin, and everything in between. My mother, her sisters and brothers lined up on and around a floral printed couch, circa 1970. The eldest sister, the lightest; the youngest sister, the darkest. Although they were different ages when migrating to the mainland, all nine were born and rooted on the island. In the photo, they pose in a compact living room apartment in NYC. Collars are wide and pointed as if winged things. Fitted polyester pants accentuate waistlines. From one head to another, the tightness and color of the curls change, as do the shape of eyes and how wide-set, the twist of the lips and how full. But the round noses and the teeth—that smile—are all nearly the same. That a nuclear family, with the same mother and father, could vary so drastically in appearance, in skin tone, is not cause for wonder—or concern, for that matter—on the island of Boriquén (Puerto Rico) or among the diaspora. Boricua de la Luna, as I’ve heard us called.

It was another matter entirely for me and my two older sisters in rural Ohio during the 1980s and ’90s.

I was fortunate that I am a carbon copy of my mother. I clung to her for orientation, no matter the chaos around us. Cousins I’ve never met have seen my image and immediately claimed me as a relation, familiar in my features. The wide-set eyes, the round nose, the full mouth, the smile and brown skin. My inheritance. And my mother clung to me; I was her favorite. Her favorite, a term she used for each one of her daughters, as we all did our best to buoy her. Because I matched my mother, there was less pain, or rather a different kind of pain, when the four us—my mother, my eldest sister, the middle sister, and I—were interrogated by random, “well-intentioned” white women. The waitress, check-out lady, church lady, passersby engaged in small talk: “Are you all related? Do you have the same mother and father?”

Growing up, this was part of the dreaded trinity of shame-inducing questions. If you are a BIPOC, especially first-generation American, I’m sure you can guess the other two. (“What are you?” “Where are you from?” And sometimes, “What’s your accent?” I have no accent, even if I look to some like I “should.”) These were—are—often asked before, “What’s your name?” and “How are you?”

The way others saw us, in turn, molded how we saw ourselves. In my younger years, that meant I was confused when I saw myself. Suspicious. That question echoed in my mind when I glimpsed my reflection: “What are you?” It scrambled my own capacity to fully see and experience myself. Yes, what kind of thing was I?

My mother discouraged braids and beads, head wraps, ethnic prints, and any other visual cue that pointed to our darker expression. No doubt this is from her own experience of the assimilation/colonization project. Passing—hiding—equaled survival. Keeping others guessing meant leeway and possible protection from the polite, but no less threatening, racism of the Midwest: The staring at seemingly benign places like restaurants and cafés. Once, while I was wearing a headwrap at a chain-import store where I worked, a white male coworker thought it funny to call me Aunt Jemima for the day. He asked when I intended to clean his apartment.

While I am mother-identified, that does not exclude my father’s Irish American contribution. For my sisters, their whiteness was never in doubt. They passed. I don’t remember hearing them ever identify as women of color. At 18, I changed my last name to my mother’s maiden name. After all, my father was more of a stranger, someone I feared and avoided—easy to do with him more than a thousand miles away. My mother’s body was my creation story. Our resemblance meant feeling something that was rare and undeniable, a real sense of belonging.

There is a fragment of a scrap of a rumored story in my family: That my father never met my mother’s father. One opportunity to do so was during a rare visit to my grandfather’s apartment, but my father was made to wait in the parked car below as my mother jogged up the stairs to greet my grandfather. Had my father seen his father-in-law, my mother’s mirage would have dissipated. She would’ve gone from beautiful and “exotic” to mix-mix. The daughter of an Afro-Caribbean/Taíno man.

In the decade following, my parents would divorce, my father would relocate, and my grandfather would pass away. It’s strange to think how something so obvious and intimate as the identity of one’s spouse can be veiled. Because my mother’s first language was Spanish, to my father and his family, lodged in their Deep South thinking, it kept her unknowable, foreign. Foreign as the idea that race is a false, socially constructed notion, even with its inhumane history of violence, domination, and suppression. As foreign, my mother seemed to defy the oversimplifications of their thinking and the limits of their exposure. She stayed just out of target when they fired off rounds of the n-word.

I can’t help but think of a phrase I heard my first time on the island: “Mejor la raza.” Better the race. If I remember correctly, the woman sharing this with me at the time winced as she said it, as if to say, “I know, pretty messed up.” Betterment was synonymous with lightness. An elder and my teacher, she welcomed my questions, the tangling and untangling of my confusion. “But there’s another shared understanding here,” she added. “Everyone comes from a Black grandmother.”

In other words: It’s complicated.

While a family varying in skin shades is not uncommon or concerning for island folks (and many other folks around the world for whom I cannot speak), that does not mean that if you do some digging, you won’t find the persistent influence of colonization, of ongoing racism, internalized and externalized. There is a rumor in my extended family that when babies cried, the lightest got the milk first.

I’m claiming contradictions here. But this is where the light and the dark coexist. Not in one or the other, but in a multitude of combinations. All of it. Mix-mix.

Perhaps this is a good place for my standard disclaimer: I am not poster child, nor spokesperson, for mix-mix. Island or not. (BIPOC, you know what I mean.) I have logged decades of identity questions and suspicious stares. All those boxes that never capture the human expression. All that explaining of context. All that schooling for those demanding I inform and educate them. It’s a schizophrenic dance demanding adaptation by the dominant culture.

This is my singular, unique experience and common life. At this moment in our shared history and shared future, as we see and feel our interconnectedness and interdependence like never before, we must make room for everyone’s singular, unique experiences and common lives. Now is the time to take diversity person by person. No more shorthand convenience, generalizations, or stereotypes. Now is the time to listen like we mean it. Our stories are the medicine. Expressing all the compassion we’re capable of as human beings takes effort.

What I’ve come to understand as my truth is that I feel at ease in spaces that include the entire spectrum. I need to look out and see the lightest and the darkest—and all possible combinations—in order to settle. And in return, I need to see, in that look, in those eyes, sincere offers of receptivity and dignity. When I see expressions of my family in the faces of strangers, not only do I feel connection, but rightness. My hand in my relative’s hand does not mean we are the same tone or even the same color. This is comforting to me. It still means family. It still means love.

Once I made my exodus from the Midwest into a new home territory of diversity and equality in the Southwest, I had to suffer through excavating what I’d internalized as one of the only children of color in my town/in my school/in my friend group/in the churches I had been made to attend. I had to welcome my own multi-influenced image home to myself instead of rejecting it when I saw it reflected back to me—in mirrors, store-front windows, car windows, in the eyes of others (particularly, white folks). As a perpetual outsider, I had to become confident at claiming what I had a right to: my mix-mix identity.

Several years ago, I befriended and fell in love with a mix-mix man who has done the same. When pregnant, we shared how we would raise our child to know who they were, who their people were, the lands that claimed them, their creation stories, and to accept all of this with love and compassion for themselves. I made a short list of what I believed to be essential Boricua knowledge in my poor Spanish, my even worse Taíno. Being Boricua by way of Ohio, I confess it was not easy. It is still not complete. And yet, it is worthy of my energy and attention. My partner did the same. His list of Indigenous knowledge is much longer, his hold on the traditional language inspiring. We did not know if we were having a boy or a girl. Of course, we did not know what our baby would look like, who they might resemble.

What struck me in the first days following my son’s birth were all the comments about his appearance. And about mine. From the nurses: “Can you believe this is her baby?” Or “He looks nothing like Mama.” From the midwife, Chilean by way of Brazil: “Ah, gringo.” Even with her shared experience, one of her sons just as pale, causing the neighbors in California to think her his nanny.

Complexity becomes more complex.

When we filled out those dreaded forms, we checked our own combinations as that was what he was. And yet, if anyone had to match his paperwork with him, I doubt they would get it right. While George Floyd was murdered and the country, the entire world, rose up in protest, I was tenderized and grief-stricken. I was also, frequently, on the phone with our pediatrician. How do I take care of his skin in the sun? In the cold, with any irritation? How was I to care for him and his skin that seemed to record not only any thought or emotion he had, but any disturbance in the environment? His paleness seemed to make him so fragile. How would I protect him?

Brother, Sister, Mother, Explorer

During the summer days of 2020, as I sat with my baby boy against my brown legs under the shade of our plum tree in the backyard, I thought about my grandfather, the one I share a birthday with, who died before I met him; my uncles, cousins and second cousins, the ones multiple shades darker than me. How dominant culture and institutions saw them, relegated to the shadows, unworthy of equal breath and life. I felt myself fixed in the middle of some generational color spectrum. My mother, grandfather, and his parents on one side of me; my son on the other side of me. I suspect that another in this position might be pulled to one side or the other. The tension is there, to be sure, especially here in the U.S. But beneath that superficial binary is a deeper knowing that goes back hundreds of years in my very DNA, to when the Spanish, then other Europeans, arrived with enslaved peoples from West Africa to Boriquén, where the Taíno thrived. They all are my ancestors. They are all my son’s ancestors. This deeper knowing roots me and secures me. With this strength, my arms, my inclusion, expand in both directions. In all directions.

Brother, Sister, Mother, Explorer

I will say to my son, when he can understand, that when you put your hand in your father’s hand, notice what you see. And when you put your hand in my hand, notice what you see. These are your coordinates. This locates you. Says, you are ours and you belong, even though we don’t match. That the requirement to love and belong within our family and the family of things (à la Mary Oliver) is not that you are exact or even alike. You are celebrated and so is your singular, unique experience and common life. And who knows about this country, this world, that he will inhabit decades from now, long after we’re gone and he’s holding his own child? Perhaps they will look like their grandmother? Or?

Dear Future World, We can do more than hope. We can act. We have to love like we’re related. Because we are.

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