I've always had a very complicated relationship with the term "belonging." Perhaps it's because I've straddled so many worlds in my life, but my true "belonging" place often feels like it's in the fringes.
My parents are completely representative of Puerto Rico's diasporic history. My mom's deep brown complexion and large-and-in-charge, black, kinky curls serve as the complimentary to my father's fair, freckled skin with soft, dark brown curls. Together, they made me: medium-light skin, a bushel of tight, black corkscrew curls on my head and dark brown eyes. For as long as I can remember, my mother has called me hincha, which in our dialect of Spanish means pale or light-skinned. I don't know why, but from a very young age the word made me feel like an outsider.
Growing up in East Harlem in New York City, everyone who looked at me could tell I was Puerto Rican. But in elementary school and junior high, I was always known as the gringa. I was always one of the girls with the fairest skin in the class with my unruly curls always pulled back into a neat single braid down my neck. My skin literally paled Snow White in comparison to the olive, brown and black complexions of my peers around me — making it that much easier for them to see my cheeks turn red in embarrasment when they made fun of me. It didn't help my case that I didn't know Spanish (yet) and was kind of a book-loving, nerdy know-it-all.
When I went away to college in the Midwest, my identity journey became even more complex. Attending a predominantly white university in Wisconsin, I was confronted by white people from rural areas who didn't even know what Puerto Rico was. In trying to identify my Caribbean Latinidad, I was a complete enigma between my medium skin tone and my larger-than-life hair. I certainly didn't look white like them, and I didn't look Mexican (which they perceived as the "Latinx Look"), so that really only left one qualifier for them: black. Many people thought I was mixed, black and white, Latinx and black, or just black in general. Growing up as the light-skinned one in my family and in my neighborhood, it boggled my mind that I could also be perceived as black.
As I started taking more classes on Latinx history, culture and race, I started to learn more about myself and what it meant to be a descendant of the African diaspora. The way that one of my mentors, who is an African-American woman, described it is: there is no difference between where she and I came, just where our ancestors were let off of a boat. While I was hesitant at first, I became more comfortable in identifying as Afro-Latinx, acknowledging that I am a daughter of both a white Latinx man and a black Latinx mother. While I acknowledge that I do not come from the same sorts of experiences as darker-skinned Afro-Latinxs, this is the common ground where I find peace with my identity.
The identities placed on me have always been within the eye of the beholder, and I've never been easy to put into a box. I know I do not have the same sorts of experiences as black women; however, I know I have blackness in my DNA, and it manifests itself in other characteristics than my skintone. I acknowledge the level of whiteness I have and the privileges it grants me, but I no longer let it define me and encompass all of what I am.