Who does she think she is?" I fumed. Staring straight ahead, I tried to regain my composure. I was a junior at Northern High School in Durham and I had just been handed the standardized form for the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT). The edgy test administrator paced the aisles, barking out instructions on how to properly complete the personal information sheet. Occasionally, she would stop at a desk to observe a student's progress. Eventually, she arrived at mine. All of the prep courses and study manuals in the world couldn't have prepared me for what happened next.
"You can only pick one," she muttered, pointing to the portion of the exam where I'd filled in two circles next to the racial categories: "Black/African-American" and "Hispanic/Latino." Since I felt that choosing only one race would be a misrepresentation of my heritage, I politely informed her I'd be selecting both options. Not daring to cause a scene, the administrator shot me a scornful look over her wire-rimmed spectacles and proceeded with her instructions.
It wasn't the last time I'd experience such a response to my dual ethnicity. I was always aware of the fact that I differed from my peers and that some considered me peculiar. But growing up, I never focused on my race.
I knew that my brown-skinned father--a North Carolinian--spoke English, while my ivory-skinned mother, a Puerto Rican native, spoke Spanish. They'd met on the Caribbean island where I spent the first eight years of my life. On some evenings, we enjoyed eating fried chicken and collard greens. On other nights, we savored arroz con habichuelas rojas and fried platanos. On top of our cornrowed hair, we sported pavas, traditional Puerto Rican straw hats.
I don't believe I grasped the importance of race until people began to label us. "What are they?" people inquired in hushed tones when our family visited local spots like Golden Corral or Northgate Mall. Perplexed at the sight of a dark-complexioned man, fair-skinned woman, and three light brown little girls, some people insisted on knowing exactly who we were and where we came from. Race didn't seem to matter in Puerto Rico, but in the United States, people just weren't satisfied until they'd put their mental stamp on you.
My parents worked tirelessly to incorporate both cultures into our daily lives. My mother would always remind me, "M'ija, never forget that you are just as Puerto Rican as you are black." Though we moved to North Carolina more than 15 years ago, my mother still speaks Spanish as her primary language and cooks many of the dishes that remind me of my growing up years in the middle-class neighborhood of Carolina, Puerto Rico. Constant exposure to my Latino culture allows me certain privileges, such as being able to eavesdrop when I stand in line in the grocery store (sometimes, I get to hear people talking dirt in Spanish). I've also been offered job and community-service opportunities because I'm bilingual.
Exposure to my African-American heritage has also brought me riches. While we lived in Puerto Rico, my father made sure we traveled to see our black relatives in the states every summer, easing our transition when we made a permanent move to North Carolina. After arriving in Durham, he kept us active in the black community through church and civic activities.
But my efforts to immerse myself in both cultures haven't always been easy. After I moved to North Carolina as a child, I associated mostly with my black friends and relatives. The Latino influx of the 1990s was yet to come, and the Triangle didn't have the resources and opportunities for cultural enrichment that it now offers its Spanish-speaking residents. With few Latinos with whom I could interact, I felt my Puerto Rican identity starting to slip away.
While my lack of connection with Latinos contributed to my partiality toward the black side of my heritage, approval from the African-American community wasn't automatic. I recall my sisters and I being called "little white girls" in school because we were fair-skinned and had "good hair." We suffered through endless "Your mama" jokes, and were constantly provoked into physical fights. We were disrespected more severely than other light-skinned blacks because only one of our parents was black.
I came to a point where I felt I wasn't black enough for the blacks, or Latino enough for the few Latinos that I knew at the time. My efforts to educate my classmates and friends about my racial background remained futile until I metamorphosed into adulthood. When I left Durham to attend college, I found an open environment that temporarily eased my struggle with identity.
But as an adult, I still find myself getting into heated debates and thought-provoking discussions regarding my choice of racial identity. I remember sitting under a hair dryer in a Durham beauty salon last year, surrounded by three matronly black women who were avidly exchanging opinions about the 2000 Census. For the first time, people would be allowed to check off more than once race on the census form. But because census results would affect the distribution of federal funds for schools, daycare centers and other services--not to mention the outlines of political districts--persons of mixed heritage were being lobbied by leading minority groups to choose just one.
As the beauty parlor debate escalated, one quivery-voiced woman in the group implored: "I don't care what you say. If you have any black blood whatsoever, then you're black, and that's all there is to it!"
Compelled to speak up, I slammed my fist down on the arm of the chair, interjecting that I refused to be persuaded by the archaic "One Drop Rule." (That slavery-era law stated that if you had even one drop of black blood, you were considered black.) Instead, I would make the choice--or choices--that best represented me. As a biracial child, I argued, claiming only one race would be dishonoring and rejecting one-half of my identity. Astonished by my outburst, the three ladies nervously looked away. That marked the end of the discussion. When the census form finally arrived at my home, I proudly checked "Black" and "Latino" and forged ahead with my mission to uphold my twin ethnicity.
In the last few years, the face of the Triangle has begun to change dramatically with an influx of Latinos from Mexico and Central America. But while I've welcomed the arrival of my ethnic brothers and sisters, I've also been disheartened by the criticism and rejection I've received when trying to reach out to them. Recently, while shopping at Kroger, I made my way to the "Spanish food" aisle in search of Goya seasoning, a special meat tenderizer. When I reached that section, I found a Latino family browsing through the selections. "What is she doing here?" they whispered to one another in Spanish, not realizing that I understood every word.
Several months ago at a Hecht's department store in Durham, I came upon a teenage sales clerk trying to explain to a Spanish-speaking customer that the item she wished to purchase was not on sale. When I stepped in to act as a translator for the customer, she was totally flabbergasted--not by the price of the item she was purchasing, but because I was speaking her vernacular.
I realize that at first glance, I appear black. My dark skin is a problem for many American-born Latinos who have a hard time accepting that Latinos also come in different shades and colors. I've spent many evenings perusing through Spanish-language channels Univision and Telemundo, trying to spot a brown-skinned talk show host or telenovela star--to no avail.
The paradox of my struggle with educating both African Americans and Latinos about the validity of my heritage is this: I've been ridiculed for years for daring to proclaim the duality of my ethnicity but now, due to the changing demographic face of our community, I'm in the vanguard of a new multiculturalism. Being a daughter of two cultures, I've finally learned that no matter one's race or culture, part of society will always have a problem accepting anything that varies from the norm. What remains important is that I embrace my whole self.
At the dawn of a new day and age, I know that the next time I take a standardized test or answer a questionnaire, I'll be able to select the choices that reflect my full identity.