I’ve never really thought of myself as a person of color. I’m Hispanic, on both sides of my family, but that’s not necessarily what people see.
Mom has a look that blends into the swarthy shades of whiteness that define the region surrounding New York City and even more so South Florida, invisible against the Italians whose struggle made southern European shades acceptable in the United States. But she has the low hairline and dark curls that made Carmen Cansino unacceptably “Mediterranean” for movies in the 1930s, the traits that led Cansino to undergo electrolysis, skin bleaching, and relentless hair dye to become Rita Hayworth, finally “white” enough for success. For those who know what to look for, she is unmistakably Hispanic; to everyone else, she’s another dark-haired white woman who speaks with a Hoboken accent when she’s excited.
And Dad? Dad has the ruddy complexion of someone who has worked hard jobs in the sun for decades, but it’s there all the time, even in the years he spent managing grocery stores and apartment buildings. His edges are sharper than hers, his accent different enough that I hear it as no accent at all until he slips a little Cubanism into his sentences. He, too, could tell people he was Italian or Greek or unqualified “white” if he wanted to, except that he actively cultivates the most Cuban mustache in the history of Cuban mustaches. He, too, is invisible to people who don’t know what Hispanic people look like, or who don’t talk to him.
In the places where I’ve been, middle-aged white folks who spend a lot of time in the sun get talked to in Spanish first. Sometimes, they answer in Spanish.
That’s the thing about Hispanic people. We are the end product of waves of Spanish and Taíno and Portuguese and Yanomamo and Lebanese and Ciboney and Yoruba and Aztec and Kongo and German and Maya and Miskito and Igbo and Fula and Filipino and Chinese and who knows what else crashing together, and that means that some of us would not look out of place in Ghana and others would disappear seamlessly into a town meeting in Topeka. And when you’re a light-skinned Hispanic person of mostly European descent in intensely multicultural places like northern New Jersey, either of those provides a background against which you disappear. The hints of exoticness that make the default assumption of “Italian-American” not stick are easy to miss against so much background, until we start speaking Spanish.
And in Miami, it was the opposite sort of othering, where I felt and feel at odds with my own identity because my Spanish is weak and formal compared to the rapid-fire distinctiveness of the Puerto Rican, Dominican, and Cuban dialects, where idling toward Anglo and Hispanic alike feels alien and familiar all at once.
So I spent my entire youth being a “white Hispanic,” that much-maligned identifier. Dad tells us that’s what we are, even my siblings who are far swarthier than I am, far more visibly different. And in Cuba or Puerto Rico, that’s what people would see when they looked at me—visibly Hispanic (they can tell), visibly light-skinned, visibly Spanish rather than African or Filipino or indigenous. In the US, that means I can be one, or the other, or that peculiar subset “white Hispanic,” based entirely on the assumptions my interlocutor brings with them and whether I try to correct them.
In Latin America, we sit atop a heap of persecution that puts lie to the Latin American (especially Cuban) truism that we’re past the white/black racism that seems to dominate the United States. Latin America has far more obviously mixed people, a category that should exist in the US but doesn’t, but every country in the region has a white Hispanic educated, professional, elite class and lower classes that are disproportionately black and indigenous by ancestry. Many have a class further down still, of indigenous people who may not even speak Spanish and whose position is comparable to or much worse than the levels of poverty and legal nonsense that Native Americans suffer. In much of Latin America, people like me are in the same social position as “white people” in the United States, a European-identified majority massively better off than our darker-skinned kin. In other places, people like me are in the same position but as a small minority of a mostly mixed or indigenous country, facing a situation a bit more like post-apartheid South Africa.
My grandfather seethes with resentment when he remembers how his holdings in Cuba were expropriated and handed to a collection of uneducated former farmers he refers to only as “esos negros.” Those black people.
I spent a chunk of my youth participating in that shameful American tradition of poking fun at the Mexicans who slipped into the United States to keep our tomatoes and blueberries inhumanly cheap, for all the ignorant reasons people laugh at those jokes: because undocumented immigrants are poor, because they’re uneducated, because they take suicidal risks and get tangled up in drug deals…because they’re not white, and I sort of was, and that meant it was someone else’s misfortune. They were other.
So it feels odd and more than a little historically illiterate that people like me, people who would have disappeared long ago into whiteness that serves plátanos and congris at our Thanksgivings if we’d arrived in the United States at the same time as the people who serve kluski and tiramisú at theirs, people who have been under US jurisdiction since the mid-20th century, people who even after suffering discrimination from racist Americans managed to become a thriving, wealthy, influential community that has reached the point of disgorging Republicans onto the national stage, somehow fit into the idea of “people of color.”
And yet we do.
Against all odds, the white Hispanic experience is one that has involved a measure of marginalization from start to finish, even as the lightest and wealthiest of us slide slowly into the white behemoth. Carmen Cansino could not advance her career until she became Rita Hayworth; half of the Estevez clan hides behind the invented surname “Sheen.” Many famous white Hispanic actors spent their careers portraying people far darker than themselves because the Hollywood mainstream could not conceive of people both Hispanic and white. One particularly famous Hispanic actoris, lately, most remembered for playing a person of North Indian descentimprobably and insultingly portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch in a remake of his film. We may be white in Latin America, but here, we are brown, even when we’re lighter in hue than unquestioned white people.
When my lab-mates in Canada found out I was half Cuban, it took approximately zero seconds for the jokes to start flying. Preparing for my experiments involved measuring white powder (fish anaesthetic) on an analytical scale and labeling dozens of small pieces of aluminum foil for tissue storage, a visual that proved very entertaining for others. I used a piece of rolling luggage instead of a backpack because it was cheaper and, until the snow started, easier on my back, so they imagined to themselves that I kept a few spare passports stashed in case all that white powder got me in trouble. Spotting my salsa accoutrements (dance shoes, Panama hat, cologne, mints) among my possessions for when I didn’t want a late night at the lab to halt my dancing only added to their fun. Their reactions brought to my attention how insular my earlier experience had been, how much spending my youth surrounded by other Hispanics had prevented me from seeing that side of myself how outsiders might see it.
I won’t call it persecution or marginalization or any of that, because that’s when I made the very intentional decision to run with it. If I was going to be the object of weird speculation and fetishizing exoticism, then I was going to own that, and play the flute of “foreign enough to be mysterious and sexy, familiar enough to be safe and approachable” for everything it was worth. The hat, the guayaberas, the cologne sold at Havana Nines in Miami in a cigar-shaped atomizer, the unmistakeable facial hair—these would be my calling cards, an overwrought caricature and stereotype I could never fulfill in Miami, a sex symbol here.
Maybe I wouldn’t have thought that way if I’d heard the rest of the things that people other than my lab-mates said when I wasn’t listening.
“Are you sure he isn’t using you for citizenship?”
“He is only with you while he is studying. Latino boys don’t marry white women, they get good Latina girls.”
“Aren’t you worried he is going to cheat on you?”
“Don’t you worry about your kids?”
“He’s Cuban, but he’s not, like, black, right?”
“He won’t marry you because his mother will never approve.”
Well, she doesn’t, but if I were one to let that stop me I’d never have dated anyone, ever; double-majored in biology and marine science; pursued a graduate degree 2600 kilometers due north at one of the better schools for my specialization; or developed a set of political and religious views that are about as different from hers as they could possibly be.
They don’t really think about the Puerto Rican half in Canada, even though it gives me some of my accent in Spanish, most of my Latin food preferences, and a big chunk of why I didn’t feel even more isolated throughout my life. There’s no easily recognizable ethnic stereotype in Canada for Puerto Ricans, the way there is for Cubans.
But even here, I’m only a little more exotic than I choose to be when I don’t tell people where I’m from, because Spain is not that far from France and Ottawa’s surprisingly high Arab population makes the rest of us sort-of-whites less obvious.
And even a little exotic is exotic enough for a society that is determined to put people in little boxes filled with unpleasant assumptions and treat accordingly worse.