Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Many-Faced Race: A Phenotype Cuento in Pictures

My friend Nadiyah posted a cool preview of a film that examines being a bi-racial person. She has a child who will grow up with the concept, so as the good mom that she is, she is trying to be sensitive to what that will be like. Coping with the attitudes, blessings and complexities that go along with being bi-racial is not easy, so imagine growing up with a race that morphs with the years. This sounds like something out of a sci-fi novel, something that surely Octavia Butler has written about somewhere, but actually, many of us have so many racial influences in our blood that we simply don't know what we will look like from year-to-year. I'll attempt to tell my story, or cuento (story in Spanish), with many pictures to guide you.

This is an image of my mother when she was somewhere around 20 years old. Most people would guess that she is Latina (whatever that means racially) or White.

This is an image of my father when he graduated from seminary. He was around 23, give or take. Depending on who you ask, some people might say he looks Asian. Indeed, he has often been confused for being Filipino, but if you take the cap off, you might guess that he's Black. Others might put him into the Latino default, which as I've implied before, says nothing about a person's race (Latino/a implies culture). Ultimately, when he and Mami got married, my grandfather didn't go to the wedding because Papi "era muy negro," which meant he was too Black.

This is a picture of me. I clearly didn't want to take the picture, but I remember digging this bikini. We can see my textured hair here. Not exactly a fro, but I had enough pouf to make Mami start wrapping my hair every night so that it would be nice and straight (she has since changed her mind about such things - I love you, Mami!)

In this picture you see the headband that Mami used to smooth my hair, but you can also see that my skin is darker. This pic was taken during Christmas, so my color was not a tan. The previous pic was during the summer and my skin was lighter. This is not camera trickery! Hence, the morphing racial features have begun!

Mami left Cuba before she graduated to marry Papi, but she was determined to get the diploma. We all went to her graduation around 1982 or '83, when I was in sixth grade. It was at this age I got my first perm, or relaxer. I remember many boys thinking I was pretty that year. Notice how different we all look. Luis, my oldest brother, on the far right, is White. He looks like an Italian hit man. :) Carlos, the middle brother, on the far left, looks very Colombian, sporting indigenous features.

By eighth grade, I had cut my hair because short on the sides, long in the front (with perhaps some Sun-In) was the rage, although I didn't exactly look like the kids on American Bandstand. I looked more like the young adults on Soul Train. But I cannot say that just cutting my hair short brought the kink out; my hair was different than it was when I was younger. It got kinkier around this time. When I was born, my hair had softer curls. Now they were in full force. I'm glad I was going to a predominantly Black school at this time because my peers there really helped me understand myself racially.

Mami, who actually has a Black grandmother, was not taught about her Black side of the family. An aunt she had who openly admitted to being Black was shunned from the family. So, Mami didn't know how to do my hair. It was easy for me to adopt the punk style because I could just hairspray the heck out of my kinky hair. Papi hated it. Still, we smiled for the cameras.

By the time I graduated high school, I was getting perms more often and I grew my hair out. Even though I was into getting tan, my skin looks lighter here. You can see my abuela here (Papi's mother) and my Tia Nohemi (far right). Abuela has gotten paler with age but Tia is still dark. Mami (far left) continues to be the lightest member of the family, with white skin and hazel eyes. My facial features during this time in my life have everyone asking, "What are you?" When I was this age, I was confused for everything, even Japanese, which I think is insane.

This is a picture from a trip to Colombia when I was 19. My cousin, Dorcas, is next to me. She has curly hair like me, but she doesn't perm it. Her brother, Moneno (that's his nickname), is to the far left and you can't see it because of his cap, but his hair is wavy, not kinky like Dorcas'. My uncle, Dorcas' father, is at the far right and though he is dark, he is not Black. He probably has ancestry that is indigenous and/or from the Indian population that can be found in South America. There are many people of Indian ancestry that are in Guyana, which is east of Colombia.

College was an enlightening time and at this point I'm wearing my hair natural and calling myself a Black Latina. This is me working at Extra Bilingual Community Newspapers, which was Chicago's only bilingual newspaper at the time.

However, it was this look that got me the most dates, unfortunately. I would sometimes take two hours to blow dry my hair straight and everyone liked it. My parents liked it, my girlfriends liked it, and lots of boys liked it. I ended up resenting that people liked me more when my hair was straighter. I felt they were responding to what race my hair texture implied. But in the end, if I blow dry it and press it, I don't have to wash it for a few days. If I leave it curly, I have to wash and style it every morning. So, nowadays...

...I may go straight, or...

I may go curly.

So what race am I? I can't call myself bi-racial like the subjects in the video Nadiyah posted. I've often said I'm mixed or multi-racial, but many times I feel I must call myself Black because Latinos/as don't recognize or speak about our African ancestry often enough. However, calling myself Black does not mean that I am recognized as Black by others. What would you call me? Would you call me different things depending on the picture? What about my niece, Elizabeth?

She's the White baby in the middle of the photo. I'm freaking out because she smiled at me or something. She's Carlos' daughter. Carlos, when filling out paperwork for her birth, had to pick between two categories to describe himself: White or Black. He picked Black. His wife, Lori, was surprised at his decision, but the way Carlos saw it, he sure as heck isn't White, so he chose Black. What does that make Elizabeth, who has white skin and dark blonde hair? Is she bi-racial? Or is she everything that both sides of the family are? Or is she simply what she appears to be to any person who might be looking at her?

For me, she is family. We are all family.

**I have a poem, "Pressure Mix," that addresses being mixed in the NAACP nominated CHECK THE RHYME. There is a link to it on the right.