Images of people in my culture don’t look like me.
There’s a trivial sense in which that’s not true. My dark, angled eyes, curly hair, curvaceous figure, and diminutive stature all betray my origins. Our beauty queens and pop stars in particular look like me, conspicuously lighter in hue than even our own relatives. As distinctive as I always am in family photos, someone else who looked like me would not have seemed out of place.
But the image of us isn’t a scientist. She isn’t an atheist or a socialist. She isn’t dating outside her race. She isn’t deliberately far away from her parents. She isn’t autistic. She isn’t transgender. She isn’t gay.
What do Puerto Ricans and Cubans look like? We wear gaudy cross necklaces. We come in groups of ten and fifteen, giant families all together. We are loud and outgoing and can’t get enough of each other. We put on great shows of religious devotion and tie the Catholic Church into all of our milestones and ceremonies. We own devotional candles and have tiny decorative shrines in our homes and on our lawns. We colorfully invoke el espíritu santo and Jesucristo when we are surprised. We are brazenly, flirtatiously, aggressively heterosexual, to the point that white stereotypes about us imagine us all as oversexed cuckolders regardless of gender. Our women might seek out caretaking positions out of passion, but our men are pushed hard into law, finance, or medicine and expected to enter the blue-collar, heavy-lifting workforce otherwise. We value learning as long as it gets us something else we want; after that it’s a waste. We all desire to ultimately marry one of our own, or another variety of Hispanic person in a pinch, and any relationship we have outside of that range is a presumed dalliance and distraction until then. We all plan to make sure our parents have flocks of beautiful, gender-normative, Hispanophone, Catholic grandchildren within surprise-driving distance of all of their cousins. We’re either ruthless capitalists who would happily screw most of our own relatives if it meant our own children could be slightly better off (Cuban) or would-be values voters who only vote Democrat because we’re poor and brown and would happily switch to the no-abortion God-everywhere gays-are-icky party if it didn’t mean even worse destitution (Puerto Rican).
This is how my people see themselves. These are the stories my people tell themselves about who we are and what it means to be one of us. These are the signifiers we exhibit that let other Cubans and Puerto Ricans know we’re their kin. These are what our countrymen expect us to be. These are what we must be to dodge the dark spiral of alienation that they reserve for those of us with kinder hearts and more devoted minds. To be otherwise is to be an Americanized melange, a Western perversion, broken, defective, interloper, over-educated, “not real.” Not real.
They don’t see the richness before them. Only the rarest of us see the true value of our inheritance, the long history of survival and resistance and defiance, merger and mixture, taking what was forced upon us and making it uniquely, separately ours. Too few of us see the marvels of taste and light and sound that our people can build. Too few of us see our stylish clothing and Vejigante masks, our Bacilos and our arroz con gandules, as wonders in themselves.
To have this music in our hearts and food in our bellies is nothing to them. My people are not the people who invented these forms and refined these foods, we are not the people who dwelt long among the sunlit palms and made ourselves out of slaves and survivors. We are not the people who speak Spanish with our strange accents that turn Rs into Ls or trill them all, nor the people with strange words like bohio and hicotea substituting the more familiar cabaña and tortuga. We are not the people for whom Willy Chirino sings.
All of those cultural commonalities that should mean everything, that should be how we find and know each other, that should be what brings us together over caja china feasts and what should makes us want to invite each other to our daughters’ quinceañeras and should be all it takes for us to build the community we so determinedly desire…they mean nothing if you’re gay. They mean nothing if you’re atheist or transgender or academic or autistic or any of the other bits of this world they’ve decided just don’t happen amongst us, or even if you tolerate people who are.
Where I come from, the ugliness is the price the community charges to let you see the beauty.
And when I tell them that we can be better than that, that we have been better than that and could be again, that my people don’t have to make pariahs and exiles out of those among us who turn out to be gay or autistic or irreligious or compassionate…I further mark myself as other.
I dream of better people.
And I will type, shout, eat, and pronounce my name in Spanish even when Anglophones ask until I can hear my people’s music outdoors and not have to wonder if I’m safe there, because just being me where others can see me tells them that most precious intimation: Tú no estás sola. You are not alone.
No matter how much they want you to be.