Here's Why You Shouldn't Question My Latina Culture

Courtesy of Emily Chavez

What you don’t understand about being a light-skinned latina is that my “legitimacy” is always being questioned by both sides. Brown people think yo soy una gringa and white people think I can speak to the entire boricua experience. I feel a guilt but also a pride in being who I am. Guilty because I don’t go through all of the hardships women with darker pigment do, pride because at least this gives me the ability to have my voice be heard.

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You don’t understand that I hate being mistaken for an Italian because I have brown hair and my last name ends in a vowel. I secretly love when teachers ask me if my last name is actually pronounced “More-e-yo.” I like the summer more than the winter because I look more like my grandma, I like college more than high school because less people question me in order to validate my experience.

I eat all the same food that my relatives do, even if they get the island weather while I get all four seasons here in the Northeast. I never get told that I have a New Jersey accent, but when I get mad my friends always blame it on my latina temper. In a room full of white people I’m “exotic” but in a room full of brown people I’m just white. Because in some contexts it doesn’t matter where your grandparents are from or where your parents grew up and fell in love it just matters that you look white enough.

I still consider Puerto Rico my home. I consider that tiny island a visceral part of my being. Home is the sweet smell of my abuelita’s crepes in the morning. Home is the freezing cold temperature of Tio Kevin’s old room (mine and Amanda’s when we visit) because the only time I don’t sweat on that island is when I’m sleeping. Home is my brown, dirty soles from running around la marquesina all day. I’d call them “chocolate feet” to my grandpa which would result in his theatrics of pretending to eat them.

It’s a weird road to navigate sometimes. I see myself turning toward certain parts of my identity while turning away from others depending on the specificities of the social location I occupy in that moment.

Home is also my small, predominantly white suburb in New Jersey. But in both places, the island or the suburb, I want to feel like it’s okay to be me, to be my grandparents’ granddaughter and my parents’ daughter in every single space I inhabit.

Maybe I can’t translate a sentence for you word for word Spanish. But I can most likely roll my r’s better than you can. Maybe I can’t dance merengue on cue, but I like to think I can sing every word to “Juliana” when it comes on (even if I don’t understand the words I spew out to the beat).

Within my friend group growing up I was the “token” minority, but the second I go to a certain part of my little hometown, I was just una blanca like my friends were. When I’m in Puerto Rico I look more like a tourist than a local. That’s the thing about my culture specifically, though, the range of coloration is vast. Puerto Ricans can look white, brown, black or anything in between. This is just more evidence to how labels can’t be given at face value.

When people give me a skeptical look when I say “person of color” or puertoriqueña in reference to myself I want to be able to hand them a pre-made list of all the things I know and do that ensure my acceptance into this culture — my culture. But I shouldn’t have to want that. It’s not an “us versus them” narrative that needs to be pushed. Because what about the people like me, that sometimes feel like part of both?

I don’t fit the prototype of white or that of latina, but the fact that a prototype exists to begin with is a problem. There shouldn’t be one way to look or act or speak that makes you automatically labeled as one thing or another. Writing this down doesn’t fix anything, I know. It’s a systemic issue that all marginalized groups face every single day.

With help, I have learned to acknowledge all of myself. When I am with one of my best friends at school, I feel like by talking about our shared experiences of being latina I am more in touch with my grandparents and even ancestors. When I talk to my friends that are white, I feel like I can understand their experiences as well and become grateful for the space that I occupy. Culture is not a dichotomy, you’re allowed to fall in the “in betweens” if that’s what feels right. Sometimes I feel more attached to one side than the other, but for the most part, I feel like a confused, beautiful, open-minded gray area. And I like that.

Although I sometimes feel guilty for how I look, I realize that I need to use my white-passing privilege to be heard about issues like these and others that face women of my culture and women in general. College has taught me the importance of intersectionality and the necessity of accepting all of the parts of your identity rather than shying away from them. The way that all of my parts: age, race, heritage, sexuality, socioeconomic status, and more all play into each other is why I am who I am and why I feel what I feel. The sometimes sloppy and muddled Venn Diagram of my identity is absolutely nothing to be ashamed of.

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Being Latina is more than just a box I checked on my college applications or medical forms. It is being loud and proud of what makes my experience different compared to my white friends and being unashamed and uninhibited. Despite my ethnicity, I have seen copious amounts of success in my family and equal amounts of discrimination. I have learned that this is something I cannot change about myself. I will no longer stand for people invalidating my experience as a Latina because I “look too white” or because my Spanish is broken or because I grew up in a tri-state suburban town. All of these things make up my platform and I will stand on it proudly with the same “chocolate feet” I had all those years ago.