People have always been trying to figure out what I am.
They look at my kinky curly hair, my full lips, my broader nose: all things that point toward my father’s Blackness. My Blackness. But the color of my skin often pointed to something different.
My mother’s Whiteness.
My first recollection of articulating race involves my mother. I told her that she was White. My mother, a woman of Cuban and Puerto Rican descent, vehemently denied it, and I accepted that fact. I was a child. It was easy to believe her. She was the one who melded my mind, after all. If my mother wasn’t White, that meant that I wasn’t either.
As I grew older, people would look at me and ask, “Are you mixed?” Yes.
“With what? White?” No. I was wrong, though.
What my mother didn’t understand is that she is White and Latina. This became a point of contention in our relationship.
When my mother split from my father, she moved me to Long Island.
The area was more White than Black, but I could feel her — and others’ — open disdain for the “wrong” kind of Black folk. You could not be too loud, too hip, too urban, too… whatever. I was raised to be a “good” Black: quiet, smart, answering only when spoken to. I didn’t want to be like them.
I was happy to be called an “oreo.”
My mother instilled a false sense of hierarchy within me. When I went to a predominantly-Black school in Queens, I was bullied. I’d come home crying. My mother would pull me into her arms and say that they were just jealous because I was prettier than them because I had nice hair. She would comb through my naps and settle them with the products my older sister had taught her to use.
But she still really didn’t know how to control it.
So, my mother relaxed my hair. We’d gone through too many broken brushes, too many snapped hair ties, too many tears from my tender head.
The first time, I was younger than I could remember. I remember her roommate holding me up in the sink at seven years old, so she could rinse the Just For Me out of my hair. My father’s kinks had come to dominate it, making it more 4b than 3a. More Black than Latina, as if those two things were mutually exclusive.
The curls would never let go, so I had waves even after the relaxer. It stripped my hair to bits, and without the proper understanding of how to restore moisture, I exacerbated the destruction of my hair. I’d have to straighten it every day, my ends becoming brittle. I started believing my hair just didn’t grow, not understanding the damage that relaxers and constant heat were having on my hair.
This became really exhausting.
I would wash my hair every few days, and be forced to straighten it. If I walked around at home with my relaxer-curly hair, I would get yelled at by my mother. She had a saying when it came to looking “decent” around the house: “You never know who is coming around.”
I was embarrassed by the most prized possession of many Black women: my hair. All because my mother didn’t know what she was doing with it.
After my father, my mother almost exclusively dated White men.
She understood Spanish but was often too embarrassed to speak it. She liked to tell me that she told people she was Cuban, not Puerto Rican. People had negative things to say about Puerto Ricans, but not Cubans. My mother didn’t understand her love for proximity to Whiteness, and how it affected me, her Black child.
I was her only Black child. She went on to have children with White men, my younger sister and brother, until I felt like a dark stain on our family.
All throughout this, my mother insisted that she was not White. She did not understand the nuance of ethnicity and race, and that Latinx folk came in a number of colors.
She did not understand that her light skin, her pink undertones, her ever-uncurling hair… she did not understand that all of these things gave her privilege.
She did not understand that the fact that her Latina heritage was a surprise, not an obvious factor.
And she didn’t understand that that was not my reality.
As I got older, I realized who I was.
I was a Black woman, with a White mother. There were two parts of me I’d always known were true, but I hadn’t reconciled them together. I became angry. But I understood that my mom didn’t know who she was. She was caught in the paradigm of White supremacy, from her choices in men, to her choices in identity.
She wanted to hold onto what was special and “exotic” about herself, but she was also ashamed of her differences. Of the perceptions that had been thrust upon her.
That landed on me, her Black child.
I’ve reconciled these things. I’ve forgiven her.
But I still live with them. I live in my love for myself, though, in the wounds only time and my heart have healed alone. I’ve learned who I am.
I am Afro-Latina.