My father is from Rio Piedra, Puerto Rico. My maternal grandmother is from Luquillo, Puerto Rico. My sisters’ father is from a paler part of Puerto Rico I’ve no name for. This, for a while, defined me: my skin color relative to the perceived average skin color of the nation I will always be proud to claim.
Individuals were always ready to guess what I am.
Then what else could you be? Puerto Rican.
No way, you’re too dark. You have to at least be mixed.
Even compared to my siblings I was a few shades out of coexisting and with my father, a man with very rich skin darker than mine, gone for my childhood, I did not have the foundation to build my racial identity in this country that is so fond of racial categorization. I was purposefully undereducated about my race by this country, absentmindedly undereducated about my ethnicity by my family, and it took me about ten years to begin learning.
I went through school confused on where I stood with myself. Can process enough Spanglish to hold a one sided conversation for about five minutes, can tan til my skin at certain angles shine of purple. My hair ‘short’ and way too kinky or nappy. How could I possibly identify with what I was ‘supposed’ to be?
Then I began to unlearn and learn. Unlearn the false history shoved in the faces of American youth by generations oh too proud to say Abraham Lincoln was a savior. He wasn’t. And that Christopher Columbus discovered America. He didn’t. And it was really just Central America, like how did that get mixed up?
And learn. Learn that I am American, for what that’s worth. But also different layers of ethnicities bookmarked by time. A generation ago, Puerto Rican. Four generations ago, Taino. Seven, African, most likely from the Congo. Learn that the amount of Spanglish I speak can amaze. Learn that my hair is curly and thick not kinky, and it is currently too long for me to handle.
Once I learned about myself, I was better able to take care of myself, to confront myself, to confront others, to be honest and open minded.
I write this because on this journey of realization, I had to endure American education. Endure the questions, endure not knowing how to respond, and enduring conversations with individuals who already knew what I needed to learn.
I went to a university so far up in northern New York that we were less than an hours drive from Canada. My College Counselor asked me, prior to accepting, if I was ready to be the only brown person in a class, in a building. I was ready. Or so I thought. So conditioned by the education system that I would be a color I went to that school with labels tagged on myself in my own handwriting. Wondered about intentions of others and was so quick to defend the small amount of identity I managed to fathom on my way up there that I isolated myself. I was frigidly what I thought I should be, what I should represent.
But then I learned. And I’m still learning. I am most recently ethnically from Puerto Rico, but I am American. I use adobo and I eat rice and beans, but I’d just the same eat a slice of pizza. I can merengue and bachata your pants off, but I dabble in hip hop. I can openly speak about my family income and portrait and what that means on paper about my chances to make it anywhere in today’s society.
I have learned to tally ethnic or racial guesses as to ‘what’ I am. And I have learned to bask in the Sun, as I need less to no sunscreen with my melanin rich skin cells. I can track the struggles and success’ of my peoples despite all odds. I can make my melanin proud because I am finally beginning to understand it’s journey and what it took to get to me.