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.
Back a few months ago, after hours sitting at a children’s hospital & talking to a specialist trying to find the root of my son’s chronic cough, the nurse entered the sunny exam room and took a seat in front of us stating the doctor was wanting to see our son again in 3 months.
“How does March 13th sound?”
Already drained and overwhelmed by the ton of information the doctor had laid on our family and trying to absorb every word as she talked in depth about the six medications she was prescribing, I found myself utterly distracted. “What’s going on in March?…something is happening in March…Good grief! Why can’t I remember…”
Obviously frazzled I scrambled around to find my phone (I was VERY pregnant, everything I did appeared to be scrambling, don’t poke fun!). I texted my best friend.
“When are you guys leaving?”
The reality sunk in. Three months is no time at all.
Some time last spring my husband & I’s very closest friends traveled to Portland, Oregon and without much mention of it, we all knew where things were headed. In the end, they would fatefully come home and announce their plans to move 3000+ miles away.
In my teen years I moved from Florida to Costa Rica and back to Florida again, living as a family of six, to divorced parents, to just my mother & I, to just my sisters & I. It was interesting. Somewhere in that mess of a few years I formed some sort of post-traumatic stress social anxiety, on one visit to Florida late in that game of moving back and forth I found a church and at that church Melissa found me. She didn’t seem to notice how complicated I was and I tried my best to stick to what & who I knew so it wasn’t until my next and final arrival back in Florida that it registered with me that this was a person who wanted to be my friend. It turned out she was nice, funny, and interesting, so friends we became!
Over the next sixth months or so I would begin to spend far too much time at her house (sorry, Robert & Brenda!), begin to date my husband (a friend of hers since childhood), and eventually become so close to her, my boyfriend, and her boyfriend that we would joke about starting a commune. I know, we sound weird, but we really hung out together THAT much and we were all in our late teens (maybe Josh, Melissa’s future husband, was 20?) and we were trying to conjure up plans to move out of our parents’ homes. It was a joke, but it felt like it made a little sense. We never did act on the idea but fast forward five years when we were all married and shopping for homes at the same time the jokes started happening again, cause we were still hanging out THAT much.
Some time in all those years of commune jokes, Portland, Oregon got involved. I’ve no idea how. I remember one night Peter, Josh, and myself, on break from our jobs at a call center, sitting at McDonalds discussing the few facts about Portland we knew. Anyone reading this and not having ever visited Lake County may not know that it’s one of those small town areas where a lot of kids complain there’s nothing to do and how one day they’ll move away, so, there’s a point in the joking about moving away that you wonder introspectively if you’re serious. You talk about it so much you aren’t sure if you’re talking about it because that’s what you’ve always done or because you really want out. They really wanted out.
Over the last 11 years, there have been countless hours spent between the four of us. In a life that’s felt often times to be filled with enormous amounts of unnecessary drama, these friends of mine have always brought out any side of me that resembles a person of patience, rationality, and sensibility. I’m not capable of the eloquence it would require to put into words how inspired and encouraged I am by both Josh and Melissa. I think they know, the rest of you will just have to trust me when I say it’s a lot. A whole lot.
So, I sat there in that exam room three months ago and thought carefully. I like to think of myself as a strategic planner. (Really, I think I’m gosh awful smart) And I told her, unsure of what time my friends’ flight would be on March 13th, that I was busy that day. But the 14th would be perfect. The kids’ doctors are about an hour & a half drive from home and close enough to Disney that we make an extended weekend stay in Orlando when we have to go. Eventually we would end up figuring Josh & Melissa would be leaving before dawn and we would set more appointments for the 13th as well. My plan? My plan was to distract my head from processing that my best friends were gone, to keep myself absorbed in my own family, and to have my husband around in case he or I fell victim to our emotions. We’re both a little on the sensitive side. My plan worked like a charm.
And so, it’s done. Our friends moved across the country on March 13th. My kids survived another round of doctor appointments and we’re still a little achey from 5 days of walking around theme parks. Moving forward, Peter and I are really looking forward to the change. We’ve hung out with the Blount’s one weekday every week for nearly 7 years, sometimes under the guise of a Bible study or life group but for the last 3 years, just as friends who take a night to catch up, slow down, and grow together. One less night with friends is now one more night to just soak up our kids and try to get a little less caught up in the busy. We set the kids follow-up appointments for three months from now, which is June. That’s like no time. And no time plus one month is July. In July our family of five will be boarding a plane or two and making our way to our next family vacation in Portland, Oregon. Excited.
They didn’t move for no reason at all, by the way. It wasn’t without thought and consideration.
I never read much but just last week I had my nose in a book and read, “To say that geography is no longer our master isn’t to say that place isn’t important. Where we choose to live still has a huge impact on the work we do.”
Josh and Melissa, I can’t wait to hear about the work you do.
*No mention of Conor Blount seems wrong, he’s my kids’ bff and there are lots of wonderful things a person could say about him. We’ll miss him more than a little.