By Nicholle Lamartina Palacios
Huffington Post (December 1, 2014)
We live in a country where race is a dichotomy and people are literally separated into categories of black and white — but human identities are not that simple. When speaking about my own racial identity, it is impossible not to also talk about my ethnic identity. These two concepts go hand-in-hand. How one regards themselves ethnically and the cultural background that one has grown up with, will inevitably shape the way one sees themselves through a racial lens; it will also affect the way they are perceived from the outside. When talking about my own racial identity I cannot just speak about the color of my skin nor the box I check off on applications. Not only would that would be an injustice to myself, but it would also negate the reality of the complexities and nuances that arise when we try to essentialize and simplify people’s ethnological narratives.
My racial and ethnic identification have been majorly affected by the fact that I grew up in New York City, “the central diasporic location for [many] transnational communities historically and in our times” according to scholar Juan Flores, the director of Latino Studies at NYU. I was born and raised in Queens to an Argentine mother and an Italian-American father, but spent my formative years with my grandmother and mother in a Spanish speaking home. Growing up in Queens, the most diverse borough of New York, almost every single one of my friends was either an immigrant or the child of immigrant parents. Because of the wide variety of races and ethnicities, while living in Queens “where are you from?,” “what’s your nationality?,” and “what are you?” are common questions to receive and to ask starting at a very young age. Even if the person’s nationality is American and they were born in the States, they automatically connect themselves to their parent’s or grandparent’s countries, since this is what is expected. I have never heard anyone say “I am American” even if they technically were.
When presented with these questions, I used to respond with “I’m Hispanic, from Argentina,” and thought it was just as easy as that. I never identified with my skin color or with the racial categorization of “white” and always found myself connecting to a greater pan-Latino community, regardless of the race of these other students. My identification as a Latina from this young age is reflected in the AOL Instant Messenger username I made when I was 12 years old: BaNgInLaTiNa17. However, after entering college and starting to travel internationally and taking Ethnicity, Race, and Migration (ER&M) classes, I realized my ethnic identification was complicated by both my race and my United States nationality. Since then, my ethnic and racial identity has been something I have constantly struggled with.
Although my family is from Argentina, I am from the United States, which complicates my ethnic and racial identity. The spring semester of my sophomore year at Yale I decided to take a semester off of school in order to go live with my family in Buenos Aires. This had been one of my first experiences outside of the States, and was the first time I realized my racial/ethnic identity changed according to context (I should address that this was before taking any ER&M classes). I found out that within the context of Argentina itself, I was considered estadounidense [American] and that people considered me una gringa [a foreign white woman]; the labels “Latina” and “Argentine” did not travel with me to Argentina itself. As I continued to backpack across several other countries in South America, and eventually to several countries in Europe, I realized that the self-identifications I had grown so comfortable with since my elementary school days in Queens were often times not considered valid outside of the United States.
After returning from my semester off I had decided to take my first ER&M class at Yale, Latino New York. During the critical discussions of latinidad and how latinidad intersects with race, my whole outlook on my racial identification changed. Though I had become aware of my “whiteness” while in South America, I had been reluctant to identify as being white and to accept that I was una gringa. Although I still dismiss the notion of being a gringa, reading scholarly material and discussing racial relations with my classmates in my Latino New York seminar made it clear to me that despite being Latina, I have white privilege. Under the limited racial categories available to us in our vernacular, I am white.
During and after my Latino New York class, I began to spend much time thinking critically about my race and trying to understand how it has influenced and shaped my life. I wanted to know how my experience as a white-Latina varied from the lived experiences of other Latinos. I took note of the fact that with my European features and light skin color comes white privilege and the ability to merge into what is considered “American,” which is not an option many other people of Latino descent have. For fair-skinned Latinos the racial category of “white” is often assigned to us and available to us, which in a way seems a bit like an oxymoron. The term Latino has often been associated with marginalization and repression while the term white is associated with control and domination — these two words combined together is in and of itself a very complicated phrase to come to terms with and to reflect on.
Although I certainly cannot complain about being in a position of privilege when it comes to my skin color and Anglo features, I have realized it has shaped the way in which I connect to my latinidad and to the community at large. After a few Latino studies courses, I became aware that in order to be regarded as “Latina” I have to assert my latinidad and constantly prove it — either through my use of Spanish, my ability to dance to Latin dances, or by explaining my family history. This contrasts greatly with the lived experiences of many other Latinos, especially those of color. As one Dominican man who moved to Providence as a teenager said:
I think my children will be Dominican-Americans, my grandchildren, I don’t know. But you know, we will always be Latinos. You Argentinians look like Italians, you can merge in this country, but look how we look, our skin is different, our color is different, and also our culture is different and you know how much we value very much our ways. We can never merge, we are going to be like other communities, different, powerful but different. We are going always to be Latinos.
My experiences have also been affected by the fact that I am a second-generation immigrant. I first realized this after reading Jorge Duany’s book Blurred Borders: Transnational Migration between the Hispanic Caribbean and the United States during the summer of 2013. According to the concept of “segmented assimilation” he discusses, it is common for second-generation immigrations of racialized groups such as Afro-Dominicans and Haitians to be stuck in a path of “downward assimilation,” a phenomena in which a group of people adopts perceived “negative traits” from the culture they are assimilating into rather than “mainstream values and customs” due to their inability to find support within the mainstream culture. However, most second-generation Latinos that are not racialized, such as many Cubans, experience “selective acculturation,” the acquiring of certain “normative” aspects of society, and upward mobility in the United States. Through the lens of this framework, I relate more to the Cuban experience, in that my lived experience is very different than the many Latinos in NYC that have been racialized and continued to stay within what is considered the “minority,” thus not receiving the same opportunities that I have access to. Because of my fair skin and my “whiteness,” I am allowed the privilege of selecting which parts of “Latino culture” I want to relate to, ergo exercising selective acculturation. After reading Duany, realize that I can hide my Latina identity when needed in order to move upwards in our prejudice society, yet use my Spanish and experiences of growing up in a South American immigrant household when I so choose.
My cultural identity is not static and is constantly changing depending on my geographical location, the situation, and who I am speaking with. Race and ethnicity are imagined concepts, and they are extremely complicated to understand and define. I am Argentine, I am white, I am non-white, I am Latina, I am gringa, I am European, I am South American, I am American — I am all of these things. We must not forget that race and ethnicity should not be viewed as separate, independent entities; they are concepts that are constantly at play with each other and with multiple other factors. These various forms of self-identification and of assigned-identifications have had and continue have enormous influences on people’s self perceptions, their lived experiences, and the way in which communities function. None of these issues are simple nor straightforward, and there is definitely a need to create more spaces in which people can reflect on their own racial and ethnic identities and how they have shaped their lives and the lives of their fellow humans.