An NPR article showed up in my Facebook newsfeed during my quiet time today and I indulged. It carries on in a typical NPR tone, informative, occasionally dull, and ending nowhere really, but thought provoking none the less. So, I thought I’d jot down the many thoughts that came to mind while reading it.
For the sake of clarity, I will start with laying out that I have a Costa Rican mother and a father I refer to as a “white guy from the south.” They met in Costa Rica as teens, married, and relocated to Central Florida where they raised my 3 older sisters and myself.
Being the youngest of four, I had very different experiences than my sisters. By the time I was born my mother was no longer speaking Spanish at home except when she was on the phone with her family. Aside from cooking beans, rice, and plantains way too often and having an affinity for dancing around the house in a way that would definitely be a this-woman-is-obviously-hispanic red flag to any one else, she seemed just like a white lady to me. The idea of race or identifying myself as any different than anyone else (read: white people) never crossed my mind.
That is, the idea of race and racial identity never crossed my mind until I stared into the face of racism. As far as I was concerned, I was white. In elementary school we sat at assigned tables at lunch, alphabetically. So, for the most part, year after year I was sitting with the same people. I remember his name, first and last, he looked me right in the face from across the table, “HEY, RHONDA! How did your mom meet your dad? Did she swim across the ocean or take a raft?” Followed up by a snorty gosh awful laugh. Oh, he thought he was hysterical. I was embarrassed, obviously, cause no one likes to be laughed at but I had no clue what was so amusing to him.
The next few years were mostly uneventful in regards to thinking about race or being heckled by white kids. More and more my my mother’s relatives would visit from Costa Rica so I was growing more aware of a few cultural differences but at no point did I identify it as being any part of who I was.
Then came middle school. It was the first week of school and I had become fast friends with a handful of girls. As we were walking to class from lunch one day, a girl, who I could tell was likely at least half hispanic, turned to me and blurted out, “So, what are you?” By the look on her face I almost definitely looked at her as if she had ten eyes. She repeated herself. Then, because I’m unwilling to admit when I’m clueless, I replied, “Why? What are you?” “Mexican.” She answered. By then we were walking into class. I dodged a bullet. I had no idea what the answer was. My mother was Costa Rican, I wasn’t. I’m just white. Like my dad, like my aunts and uncles, like my cousins. I’m white.
I talked it over with a couple of my sisters that evening. They filled me in on what the real answer was. “Rhonda, you’re half Costa Rican and half Caucasian. Caucasian means white. That’s what she wanted to know. You’re mixed. Half this, half that.” My sisters, they all look more like my mother than my father. Their hair is darker, their skin is tanner. While we never discussed race as a family I feel like it was probably easier for them to identify themselves as mixed. My father had a habit of referring to me as his “oddball” and most of the time I hated the term because I’m not a fan of being singled out but I understood myself as being unlike my sisters. We did have at least one other conversation about which box we’d each check when filling out forms, each sister declared they identified as hispanic, and I, without hesitation, stated that I’d check “white, non-hispanic”. One of my sisters emphatically replied, “You’re suppose to check off the nationality of your mother.” I shrugged it off, racial identity was just a preference in my eyes.
Middle school stinks, more and more I came into encounters like the 3rd grade lunch table. There were people who would single me out as “not white” but it still didn’t come up so often that I felt inclined to identify myself as hispanic, or even mixed. They didn’t see me as white but I saw myself as white. My heart was white, my skin was pale, I knew no spanish, I knew very little about the culture of Costa Rica. I had once visited Costa Rica over summer vacation but that’s a thing rich white kids did all the time so if anything I thought I had earned some white kid street cred. Nope. They could see right through me the whole time.
At the end of middle school came the most dramatic of events of my childhood. My family relocated to Costa Rica. My parents divorced. It was just me, my mother, and 2 of my 3 sisters. Our neighbors identified us as Americans immediately. There were tons of teenagers living on our street and they’d heckle us as walked down to the bus stop. By the time I had learned enough spanish to understand what they were saying about us I had grown to cold to care to listen. I was furious that we had moved away from Florida. Away from everything I called home, my best friends, everything familiar. Costa Rica felt like another planet. I was so depressed and furious, just furious. Alas, I took solace in the idea that I was surrounded by thousands of people who identified me as something I could connect with. I wore my “gringa” badge with pride. Quite literally I sewed an American flag across my backpack that I toted everywhere I went. I was a patriot in the truest sense before being a patriot meant something completely strange. I spoke tirelessly about how much I loved the United States every chance I got. I wanted everyone to know that I was somewhere I didn’t belong, that I was different, and that I was white. I equated being American with being white. Still, I was very confused.
It was only a matter of time before I was able to leave Costa Rica and join my sisters who had all, by the that time, moved back home to Florida. I had survived three years living in a foreign land. I spent almost the entire time begrudgingly following my mother around observing, almost never participating in, her world. My teenage angst had been amplified by our move and I never managed to shake it. Obviously, as a grown woman, I can look back at myself and roll my eyes but I don’t think anything under the sun could have convinced me to participate in life during my stay in Costa Rica.
Moving forward, in regards to racial identity, things finally started to feel a little less clear. When my mother would visit my sisters and I in Florida and we would go out shopping, to restaurants, or she’d meet coworkers and friends, I had more encounters with racism that were only slightly less subtle than the third grade lunch table. My mother has an accent. If she’s fresh off a trip from Costa Rica her accent is noticeably stronger but she carries an accent no matter how long she’s been away from home. I never noticed her accent until I was in my late teens, I was oblivious to the things that made her different. I watched a sales clerk at a furniture store physically curl her lip as my mother began to speak. The clerk proceeded to tell us that she didn’t think she’d have anything in the store that would fit my mother’s budget, having had no discussion of any budget. Don’t even get me started about the time an acquaintance turned to me, with a look of disgust, and said loudly “I don’t understand anything she’s saying. Is she even talking American?” Yes. “…talking American” is an exact quote. These things are hard to forget and there are endless examples I could give.
I began to feel something I never felt before. Empathy. Empathy for hispanic people and for half-hispanic people who weren’t in denial. Empathy for anyone who wasn’t as good as passing themselves off as white as I was. I suddenly wanted to embrace the idea that I was indeed half Costa Rican. Not only was I half Costa Rican but I was half Costa Rican and there’s nothing wrong with that. I wanted people to stop. Stop with the jokes, stop with the insensitivity, stop with the stereotyping. Just stop. While I made an immature choice to check out on life while living in Costa Rica I observed a culture that is rich and diverse. I quietly appreciated things and felt I grew the ability to relate to their ideas, their customs, their art. Denying that I was half Costa Rican didn’t do justice to my blood, my mother, or my experience.
Never have I ever felt white enough. Southern enough. Costa Rican enough. Nothing. There’s a disconnect. Sometimes my racial ambiguity feels like a spot light. I still wish I were white when I’m in a room full of white people but these days I wish I were hispanic in a room full of hispanic people also. Being biracial is weird, undeniably weird.
Presently, all of my neighbors are hispanic, first generation Americans. I’m pretty sure none of them identify me as anything other than white, which is okay, completely okay. Some part of me wants them to know that I can relate to them, but I’m not sure why. Them knowing that I understand them when they aren’t speaking english won’t make me any less shy. I just want them to know that I think they’re interesting. I want them to know that I get their kids’ jokes. I want them to know that when I smell their cooking I’m transported to old memories. I just want them to know that I get them. Or at least I feel like I get them. I probably don’t.
Finally, since I’ve moved to Washington 2 years ago, I’ve been presumed hispanic at every doctor’s office I go to. This makes me smile. I still think of myself as white but maybe now it’s more like 70/30 instead of a complete denial of my mother’s blood. The desire to identify as one thing or the other is a strange force I can’t quite put my finger on.