"There is so much distance between who you are and where your skin begins." -kpg
Kev said that (or something similar to it) to me last night. I wish I'd written it down, gotten it exactly right. It's good. And it's true. The distance, the difference between who I am, who I think I am and who people perceive me to be is vast. I don't know if that's good or bad.
True story: I didn't realize I wasn't white until I was three or four (possibly five) years old. I looked in the mirror one day and saw a brown face staring back. It didn't freak me out. I didn't think much of it, other than, "hmm, interesting" or something like that. My parents are brown, my siblings are brown. My mother always referred to us as being "paper bag brown." Why didn't I think I was? I guess I didn't think about it at all. Some people might say I still don't realize it. We're not friends with those people.
Being Cuban means being everything from dark-eyed and deep chocolate brown to being blue-eyed and honey-skinned or lighter. When you grow up in a community that is 85% Latino (heavy on the Cubans), you don't think about it. You all eat the same food, dance to the same music, belong to the same club, look out for each other's kids. It doesn't matter. And then, one day, it does.
I was sitting in English class. There was discussion going on, but I can't remember what it was about. And then I heard it. The boy I had a crush on said, "My parents would never let me date someone who wasn't white." What? Wait a minute. He's not white. He's Cuban, like me. But he's not brown. There it was. Someone had said it out loud. And other people in the room, the people that looked like him, agreed. Their parents would never let them go out with someone who wasn't white. Someone who looked like me.
The thing that's tricky is that my appearance is as much part of who I am as my penchant for the films of Merchant Ivory or my deep abiding love for rocky road ice cream served over Entenmann's pound cake. But looking a certain way makes people think certain things, treat you a certain way for better or worse. There are people who will never want to get to know me, men who will never want to date me. And there are people who will think they know me before they even speak to me. I also need to say that it works both ways. I'm not proud of it, just being real. I realize this is not a major breakthrough in the study of human behavior. To be honest, this is the most comfortable I've ever been in my skin, but I still struggle with my identity. Who am I anyway? Who do people think I am? Does it matter? Should I care?
"You're Cuban? You don't look Cuban." What the hell does Cuban look like? Gloria Estefan or Celia Cruz? Eva Mendes or Cameron Diaz ? All of the above. And me.