No Longer the Other
There’s a woman named Wendy with guts
Who’s exploring her roots and her ruts
Is she Anglo-Hispanic and mildly manic
Or WASP-Puerto Rican and nuts?
There are millions of people of mixed heritage who have spent the majority of our lives as the quintessential ‘other’ in society. Not fitting into either of our parents’ cultural, racial or ethnic definitions we straddle the chasm that marks the two worlds to which we will never really belong.
My father was born in Puerto Rico in 1902 and my mother was born either in Connecticut or Montreal, Canada in 1928 depending on which birth certificate you read of my eight siblings’ and my own.
Evidently, my father could never remember where my mother was born and would tell the hospital staff whatever came into his head first while smoking unfiltered cigarettes and pacing in the waiting area for one of his many children to be delivered.
The staff person struggled to decipher his heavy Spanish accent and he may have said Canada, but the person responsible for recording this important family information may have heard Connecticut.
After all, my mother did resemble Katherine Hepburn quite a bit. Her maiden name was Bryne and I have only once met a relative of hers. Her great Aunt Dolly came to visit us in the Housing Projects in Astoria, New York when I was 4 or 5 and we were in dire financial straits.
Two years later our situation improved greatly when our mother forged our father’s signature and we went on Home Relief. That meant standing on long lines to get our ration of rice, canned beans, powdered milk, flour, sugar, lard, processed cheese, spam and other delicacies while the more fortunate kids in our building taunted us with the words that did hurt as much as sticks and stones, “Miller’s on Welfare! Miller’s on Welfare!”
Our last name was Amengual, but they were referring to the brand of beer that they thought our father consumed to excess. He wasn’t particular about the brand of beer or scotch or rum that he consumed on a daily basis, but if he had his preference he certainly would have been drinking a cold can of Schaeffer while watching the Yankees beat the Boston Red Sox, not Miller. But, I digress.
When Aunt Dolly came into the squalid three bedroom apartment that held the 10 of us (my youngest brother had not been born yet), she came bearing the gift of the elite – marzipan. Delicate replicas of perfect fruit in miniature covered with just the right amount of powdered sugar in a round clear topped box. I remember asking my sister Amy why the lady was bringing us toy fruit. My mother was the epitome of graciousness and sliced the small works of art into even slices so that we all might get a taste of this exquisite delicacy.
I never saw Aunt Dolly again. I was told that she was from Baltimore, lived to be ninety years old and was quite eccentric. Perhaps that is why she broke the family decree to banish my mother for marrying outside of her caste. As a "WASP," who evidently came from money, our mother violated the most basic of codes by marrying a man who was a generation older than herself, an excommunicated Catholic (not that a practicing Catholic would have been any better), and, most heinous of all, a Puerto Rican. His brown skin against her delicate whiteness was just too much of a contrast for her family to tolerate and so, Voila! She was cut-off from her family the way some might cut-off a dead limb from a tree.
We have been given very little details about our mother’s life and family and never met any other relatives of hers. Our extended family consisted of two of our father’s siblings’ families and our five half-siblings and one step sister from two relationships that preceded his marriage to our mother. In fact, our parents met through our father’s second eldest daughter, Mary. My half-sister worked in the same factory as my mother during World War II when she was 18 and my mother 16. So, I have nieces and nephews who are older than me, but that is another story for another day.
In a few weeks The Democratic Party will nominate Barack Obama as their candidate for President. Senator Obama’s candidacy has made race and particularly the topic of being of mixed heritage very popular. Is he Black? Is he White? Is he more one than the other? These and other questions will continue to be bantered about by the pundits until this election ends in November and very likely beyond that point.
Those of us who, like Senator Obama, have struggled with questions of our own identity are grateful that there is finally some discussion about our situation, but we are still more often talked ‘about’ than dialogued with regarding our status.
Until recently there was no place for us on the U.S. Census and so, I began boycotting the question on race and ethnicity around twenty years ago to help bring attention to this oversight. As one who was responsible to collect demographic data as the E.E.O Director for the New York City Department of Transportation in the late 1980s and 90s, the irony of my plight was even more painful.
As a person of mixed heritage, I simply did not exist. I was asked to choose White or Hispanic, period. I do not have that option, just as I cannot separate the Puerto Rican genes from the WASP genes and continue to exist. I cannot choose one ethnicity over another just as I cannot choose to eat rice and beans with plataños over roast beef and mashed potatoes. Both of those cuisines were and are part of my regular diet and both represent comfort food to me.
I empathize with Senator Obama’s quandary as he is asked to choose who he represents Blacks or Whites, when obviously he represents all Americans in our mixed-ness. Those who have ‘purely’ White blood lines or ‘purely’ Northern European ancestry (as far as they know) may think that they are not one of us mutts, but even they belong to this club of mixed-ness.
As one who makes her livelihood encouraging organizations to become truly inclusive, by inviting the full participation of all of their members, I can tell you that we do rub off on one another. We share ideas and tastes and smells and sounds and DNA. There is no way to un-mix us and to me that is a wonderful thing!
Another wonderful thing is finally, those of us who have been the other for so long can finally look up at the podium and feel that we are part of a greater family and heritage. In this family of mixed-ness we are no longer the other.
Child of the Americas
I am a child of the Americas,
a light-skinned mestiza of the Caribbean,
a child of many diaspora, born into this continent at a crossroads.
I am a U.S. Puerto Rican Jew,
a product of the ghettos of New York I have never known.
An immigrant and the daughter and granddaughter of immigrants.
I speak English with passion: it’s the tongue of my consciousness,
a flashing knife blade of cristal, my tool, my craft.
I am Caribeña, island grown. Spanish is my flesh,
Ripples from my tongue, lodges in my hips:
the language of garlic and mangoes,
the singing of poetry, the flying gestures of my hands.
I am of Latinoamerica, rooted in the history of my continent:
I speak from that body.
I am not African. Africa is in me, but I cannot return.
I am not taína. Taíno is in me, but there is no way back.
I am not European. Europe lives in me, but I have no home there.
I am new. History made me. My first language was spanglish.
I was born at the crossroads
and I am whole.
~Aurora Levins Morales
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