Aug 28, 2014

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“What Are You?”: Confessions From a Multiracial Latina

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“What Are You?”: Confessions From a Multiracial Latina

I can usually tell when it’s coming because the person squints with this perplexed look, shaking their head from side to side, and in slow motion the words roll off of their tongue…What are you?

I’ve gotten the question from colleagues, audience members, old ladies on the bus, coquettish men, the list continues. The conversation begins innocently…

“Soooo uhhh, where are you from?”
— New Jersey.
“Oh no I mean, where are you from from?”
— Umm, Williamstown, New Jersey?
“I guess what I meant to ask is ‘What ARE you?”

Then I say in a semi-robotic voice, I’m Puerto Rican, Hawaiian, and Filipina.

The more exhausting question is “Which side do you think you’re more of?” How is that even a fair question? I’m one of those people who has to check the OTHER box on applications because I can’t choose. Our household’s census last year looked like a disaster with all the checkmarks. There is never an easy way to explain what I am to others. And there has never been a way to blend in.

Blending in is a foreign idea. I’ve always stuck out like a sore thumb. As a child people gave me either the white dolls or the black dolls. Then again there weren’t any tan dolls with rice-cookers in their kitchens or better yet, a Puerto Rico shrine in their two-story dollhouse. I was raised in the suburbs and experienced racism throughout my adolesence because I was neither white nor black. It even boggled my Latino friends minds’ when they saw my father and tasted his fried rice. I could hear them thinking, So that’s why she has slanted eyes.

I have multiracial friends who have gone through similar experiences and situations. The challenge is facing racism, ignorance, and confusion from all sides. Being multiracial has its perks don’t get me wrong, but it’s a constant struggle. I have dealt with badgering from “friends” and even tried to laugh along when a racist comment about Puerto Ricans is made. People have commented on “Orientals” and made stereotypes in my presence forgetting I am part Asian/Pacific Islander. Being a minority within a minority is tough. I’m not Puerto Rican enough for the Latinas or Hawaiian/Filipina enough for the Asian/Pacific Islanders.

I loathe when people say, “You don’t look Puerto Rican.”  Tell me this, how does a Puerto Rican look? Maybe she carries fruit on her head? Wait, maybe she has glamourous curves with a sexy accent? Am I missing something?? I look like me. Over the years I have heard Mexican – do you eat tacos?; Chinese girl – so you must be smart, no wait, are you black and white? Americans have asked me where Puerto Rico is. The comments are from all races. Ignorance has no color.

As a parent, I am doing my best in raising my son to be culturally aware. My son – the Puerto Rican/Hawaiian/Filipino/Irish/German/Native-American. Times are changing and the generations to come will be more accepting (I can only hope) as I believe my parents were ahead of their time. My mother has Goya crowding her kitchen cabinets and my father has the Hawaiian sun permanently on his face – but my birth certificate reads the United States.

Now when someone asks me the inevitable question I respond assertively, “I’m American, what are you?

 

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Tara Trinity

Tara Trinity

Tara is a creative and ambitious woman of Puerto-Rican and Hawaiian-Filipina heritage. She is a rising singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist. While her columns are on pause she works for multiple businesses as a graphic designer and is a co-founder for Aloha Island Revue – a Polynesian dance company offering dance classes and luau shows. She lives with her partner and son in Washington, D.C.

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Comments

  1. My mother was American so was her mother. But her mother’s parents immigrated from Mexico in the early 20th century. Her father’s parents shortly before the Great Depression- though to be technical his family originated from France, Spain, and Italy before moving to Mexico. So my mother’s side is Spanish, Mexican, French, and Italian.
    My father’s great-great-grandparents immigrated from Germany in the mid 1800s. My family on all sides have lived in the Midwest for over 150 years.
    So I say I’m American. But I’ve inheirited my father’s height and body frame and my mother’s skin and hair color.
    I confuse people. I’m always asked if I speak Spanish- my response is to say, “No, and I don’t speak German either. I speak the American variant of English.”

    My husband is of Irish and German descent. Needless to say he has red hair and freckles- we still get odd stares when we are together. When we have children they will be American with a hodgepodge of Western European descent and a little bit of Native America variety.

  2. Daniel Quinones says:

    Excellent piece of writing, Tara!

  3. Thank you Tara for sharing your story. My multi-cultural family can so relate! It sounds like you have found support with other multi-racial friends and I suspect that my children will feel the same way particularly as they grow older. For a while my 7 year old wanted to be “just one thing” like his Mexican dad (who, you’ll get a laugh, is always taken for Filipino due to his eye shape)but now seems to better appreciate his diverse heritage. And yes, the “You don’t look . . . ” comment is annoying as well as the variety my son and I get of, “We didn’t think you spoke Spanish” because our looks somehow don’t fit the mold as if you have to have a certain “look” to speak a language. I look forward to future posts from you – thanks again!

  4. I’m afraid pieces like this will continue to be written 20 years from now. Like you, I am a minority within a minority. As a mixed woman of Latina and Asian heritage, I identify moreso with the Latina side, but do understand you fully. Everything you’ve gone through, I have too, and so have many of us who are mixed, we sometimes just dont fit into either mold. The world is changing, the U.S. is fully of mixed babies, but I do love those who embrace all sides of their heritage because when we do we create something new, new traditions and much more. I stick to my roots and love those who do as well. Loved your post, as I’m sure you’ll have a lot more people who feel the same way do.

  5. OMG! I love this! The coolest response on this topic I’ve heard is:
    What are you?
    I am a human being.
    RIght on sister!

  6. HUGS from one multiracial woman to another! I think “What are you?” is an insensitive question, but I am open to people asking me about my racial background. I love talking about race. However, I don’t like it when people ask me if my brother, sister, and I are all biracial, and then if we all have the same father. Not sure what that question is supposed to mean!

  7. well written piece! i am also mixed (Mexican, white, native american) but i can pass for “generic white”. Mixed race people of color who can’t pass are always going to have to negotiate some really difficult space and tropes. thanks for writing this!

  8. Tara, I absolutely love your story! You have such a strong and authentic voice. I think your voice is one that is rising in our culture, as more and more families become mixed. So glad to hear your story and I’m looking forward to reading more from you. :)

    • This is a topic that I feel strongly about yet very sensitive to. I wouldn’t necessarily think of myself as a writer per se, but as you said – a voice expressing my opinions and feelings. Thank you, Chantilly, for reading. I am looking forward to continue writing. Everyone’s continued support will end up making a bigger difference.

  9. I know exactly how you feel! I remember the first time it happened when I became a mom & ugh, it just sucks. People ask but they don’t realize it’s a loaded question and the never want a loaded answer. If you’re up for it, here’s my post when it happened w/my daughter when shew as first born: http://allofmenow.com/2007/11/when-someone-asks-what-are-you-about-your-child/

  10. Lisa Renata says:

    I hear ya and LOVE THE POST!

    I am also very much a mix of races (Mexican, German and Japanese- born in the good ole USA- to be exact) and I often get asked similar questions. Though I’ve never felt racism (or subconsciously choose not to- or I’m just that naive- who knows) the case being is that I can understand what you are saying. How that “other” box needs to be checked, how it is important to feel pride on being “YOU” and that hopefully in the future the ignorance and the questions will disappear and everyone will just be accepted as Americans, because we are changing, we are mixing and it will not stop. Heck my kids are mexican-japanese-german-scott-irish and who knows what else! But proud. Proud of being them, and that is what is the most important thing after all. Right?

  11. Tina Guzman says:

    Great Article!!

  12. elba m villanueva says:

    Tara your article is excellent you captivate your audience with your writing. “way to go” Love Mom

  13. Now when people say, “You don’t look Puerto Rican,” I say, “Really? Because this is what Puerto Rican looks like.” The conversation ends there!

  14. Oh my goodness, you sound like me–this situation sounds like me. So nice to hear from my “twin” who actually doesn’t live that far away. I also respond that I’m just American these days, because even though I’m black and Puerto Rican, inevitably with some white and Native American blood mixed in there, and look more like a black Filipina, who might actually be Arab, just saying “American” seems to sum it up just about right. Thanks Tara for this insightful piece!

  15. Being half Brazilian, half white, I went through a similar experience. Right now, I’m living in Brazil for a year, and getting a great chance to explore what it’s like being mixed (and a semi foreigner) here. It’s been really interesting. I even started a blog project interviewing other part Brazilians to hear their stories… It’s helped to add depth, and patience to my understanding of being half and half…

    Thanks for the post!

  16. My Parents are both Carribean- my dad is Bahamian born, but has Dominican and Portuguese roots while my mom is Dominican. People assume I am black and when I do say I am Latina, I have to go through some sort of test process to prove so. I also get the “You don’t look, xyz.” I’m glad I’m not the only one with these issues! Thanks for a great article!

    • haha! test process. i wonder what kind of questions they ask. i get the same thing. and i’m not completely fluent in Spanish either, so it really makes things complicated.

  17. YES! This piece touched me on so many ways. As someone with a Puerto Rican mother and German/Welsh/Argentine father who grew up in the midwest, I totally relate. Not “Latin” enough to be Latina but too latin to be anything else. I constantly am told I don’t “look puerto rican” despite the beauty of Puerto Rico being that we literally have people of all shades and shapes. I also got “Well you don’t have a spanish last name. . .how are you latin?” Ignorance is beyond widespread. Thank you so much for posting this!

    • i’m glad you enjoyed it!! i completely agree with the not “latina” enough part, but especially the “too latin to be anything else.” it’s frustrating because you can never completely “fit in”. people always tell me, “you’re so beautiful and lucky to have such a great mix.” it has taken me YEARS to actually agree with the thought because it’s much harder to place yourself in a category. it wasn’t until i came to terms that i’m just a mixed-breed and have to live with that “specialness” in a very different way than most was when i became happy to stand out from the rest.

  18. I LOVE this post – thank you so much for putting forth my exact experience. I’m Korean, Brasilian and Finnish. I’ve never quite fit anywhere, and when people ask me this stupid double question of “what are you”, I always have to fight the impulse to say “your worst nightmare.” Have you seen this: http://seaweedproductions.com/the-hapa-project/ it really helped me feel less alone. Great, great post. Looking forward to seeing what else you write. Also – these days – although I am a woman of color, I refer to myself as a “person of Other” since, like you, I check the Other box. :)

  19. Yadira Jones says:

    Really good. And everything you said is so true. I’m mexican. living in US for 13 years. US citizen but everything they see me. They come up with the same question. and when They said “you don’t look like Mexican? So. What I supposed to look. i don’t braid my hair, is no dark and is not long. then said you look like Puerto Rican. .. Again How they supposed to look. is just a stereotype.

  20. Thank you Tara for putting words to what being asked “what are you?” Means to the mixed minorities of this country. For the longest time I would just respond with I’m Human and that would usually end their curiosity for fear that since I was brown, I must also be naturally violent. But with time when asked properly “do you mind me asking your ethnicity?” <<<<The only ok way to ask me. I will respond with I am Mexican-Salvadoran. That is what I have come to identify myself as. But I am cuban-chinese-spanish-german-native on my fathers side and Italian-salvadoran on my mothers side.
    And proud of every piece of me that makes me look like a samoan-black-arab-latina hodge podge (usually what people think I am)

    • Sometimes for me it isn’t the actual words people use, but moreso the tone in which they present it. I love the part where you say, “must also be naturally violent.” I can’t stop laughing! If I get angry, I’ll usually hear the comment of, “Ohhh, here comes the Puerto Rican side of you! Watch out!!” At this point in time, I just laugh because what else is there to do?

  21. I am a mixed bag of Latin.. In response to the questions, “What are you?” (love that one) people have replied to my answer, “No, you can’t be Latin. Really, what you?” I am always surprised how others know more about me that I know about my self. Great post.

  22. Great piece, as everyone else, I can relate. I am Panamanian, with black, Chinese and native heritage. For me it has been hard to look one way and feel another. When I was growing up in Panama, everyone was Panamanian, regardless of what you look like. Once in the US, I got that what are you question all the time. It gets exhausting. No one ever thinks I am latina, but I get love from all groups, Asians, African Americans. I am an honorary everything. I use to say that I am a latina, that looks Filipino and thinks she is black.

  23. In America today, it’s rare that someone isn’t from a mixed heritage. These are common questions that the majority of us are asked. I take the question, ” what are you” as a compliment. I take it as I’m attractive and people are interested in knowing what background created my unique look. The mixture of cultural creates the beauty of America. People can’t help being curious. By no means does it make them ignorant.

    • Yes, America is a true melting pot in today’s society. However, when I stated that ignorance has no color, I am referring to the numerous amounts of people who automatically stereotype me and make assumptions based on my appearance. When they do “politely” ask me what my heritage is, they come back with disbelief or even rude comments. I am venting my feelings of the people who are not culturally aware.

  24. Nice article. The issue seems to always be that “race” is an illusion. There’s no such thing as “multi-racial”. Humanity is one race. When you start from there, you keep perpetuating the lie. She is an Estadounidense (since “America” already includes both continents and calling the U.S. by that name is arrogant and makes everyone in the other nations SECOND-RATE). She is a U.S.’er with a multi-national background, or of multi-national descent. That is it. There is no race and there never was.

  25. Grace Aipa says:

    Thank you for sharing your multi-racial experience. I’m Native Hawaiian, Caucasian, and Asian. Just the other day I was told that I don’t look Japanese…I’m so tired of the hurtful comments. I have to say, in this world, I’m largely not enough for any ethnic group. Life is hard enough without the world trying to fight you on your identity and reality. Hopefully if we all speak up, people will start to get it and realize these kind of comments are like calling someone fat or ugly– they’re inappropriate.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] special thanks to Tara for sharing with us!  You read more of her personal identity story in her multiracial Latina post on New Latina and in a recent interview with La Cosmopolatina. [...]

  2. [...] New Latina, we make it our mission to highlight the stories of bicultural and multicultural Latinas who are balancing their multi-faceted identities day in and day out.  To achknowledge their [...]

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