Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Reason You "Don't Feel Puerto Rican"

I have very pale skin for someone who is Puerto Rican and Dominican.  It often surprises people to learn what my ethnicity is comprised of and, because people typically assume that I am White, I do not face as much racism as Latinos with darker complexions.  But this, in no way, disqualifies my experiences as a Latina.  And even if I didn't have this issue with my skin tone, I still have a wonderful ethnic marker in my thick, curly, and untamable Puerto Rican/Dominican hair.  Like Gabby Douglas at the Olympics- whom I commend for her badassery both in and out of the competition- I have had to contend with the most ridiculous internalized racism about it.  Women of my own fucking background have criticized and scolded and insulted my hair.  It was never good enough.  It was never straight enough.  By all traditional standards of beauty, it was "bad hair."  

But this post is not exclusively about that.  As with any human being, there is more to me than just my hair; there's a lot of stuff going on underneath it, too.  In high school that stuff going on underneath was pretty brilliant.  Dude, I mean I was a fucking extraordinary student in high school!  I'm talkin' I was in AP classes and I graduated fourth in my class of something like 100-140 students.  I was a big deal.  Unfortunately, my academic excellence came with a very strange consequence, and one of the most racist comments I've had to encounter in my personal life.

"But you're so smart."

That was the response that I got from OTHER DOMINICANS in my predominantly Dominican school when they found out my heritage.  Not only is it insulting to me to be disassociated from my ethnicity because I'm too good at being intelligent to fit in with my own people; it is insulting to you, the Dominican person who buys into the idea that the ability to learn and articulate oneself and get good grades is strictly a White thing.  It's that White mentality of "this is us over here and that's them all the way over there and we act like this and all of them act like that" and it's that divide that we KNOW doesn't actually exist so cleanly in real life but we somehow get convinced that it is until we start to believe that people of colour are "acting White" when they get good grades.  This particular brand of racism, in case you are unfamiliar with it, is the "internalized racism" to which I referred in my opening paragraph.  It's something that I know a lot about, not just from my time in high school or that issue with my hair, but because I am the daughter of one its proudest  participants.

My father (the Puerto Rican one in the equation) writes almost compulsively.  He writes books, plays, poems, short stories- all of which I stopped reading a few years ago out of self-preservation.  At some point, he wrote his autobiography.  I have not read it.  I refuse to read it.  I don't need to; I've spent my life listening to his anecdotes and reading this book will only infuriate me.  Even the title, Funny, I Don't Feel Puerto Rican, infuriates me.  (Please don't feel obligated to buy it or anything; I don't)  That line was his response, growing up in the Bronx in the '50s and '60s, to people who would say "funny, you don't look Puerto Rican" when they learned of his ethnicity.  This title floods me with unwanted memories of my own high school experience with my ethnicity and it pains me to know that my father truly believes that there is a certain way to be Puerto Rican. 

I don't want to be the person who tells other people how to identify, but I'm his daughter so I know where and how he cultivated this mentality.  It is, in large part, based on the 1961 film adaptation of West Side Story.  I shit you not.

At the tender age of eleven, my father saw West Side Story and identified more with the Jets than with the Sharks.  Thus, he concluded that he was more White than Puerto Rican, neglecting two imperative points in the process:

1. He was not an immigrant.  He was born in New York and so were his parents.  Of course he identified with the White kids!  They were the New Yorkers!  If the Puerto Rican characters had been 2nd-generation New Yorkers like he was, he probably would've felt more like them.

2. West Side Story was written by White men.  They were not accurate depictions of the experiences of actual Puerto Ricans living in New York; they were the brainchildren of some White guys who wrote down what they saw as being the major differences.  Even the Sharks' music is not based on Puerto Rican music: the "I Feel Pretty" number features castanets (which are from Spain), the structure of "America" is traditionally Mexican, and that mambo they do in the gym originates from Cuba but all those Spanish-speaking countries are interchangeable, right?  Additionally, those Sharks were portrayed by the likes of Russian Natalie Wood and Greek George Chakiris- great performances and all but fuckin' A for authenticity, guys!

My father and I differ in a lot of ways but I think I am most proud of the way that I refuse to allow stupid things like that to govern how I identify.  I know that I'm a Latina and if someone is gonna try to tell me that my experiences don't count because I don't resemble their pre-conceived notions of what that is, then they can show me the credentials that make them an authority on my life.  The fact is, I had a Dominican mother and a Puerto Rican father (whether he feels that way or not) and there is no stereotypical media representation or grade point average I can get that will change that.   In the meantime, I have decided that for my own mental and emotional health, I will start referring to my father's book by its true title: It's Not Funny But Internalized Racism and the "Us vs. Them" Mentality of White America Which is Informed by Media Representations of Latinos (That Were Written by White People in the First Place) Have Been Embedded in American Culture and Attempt to Disqualify My Experiences as a Genuine Puerto Rican.

It's a mouthful, but it's better than ignorance.  


  1. Dear Ms. Juicy, thanks for this posting, it echoes many of my own thoughts around this topic. My "favorite" racist remarks are the weird ethnic "compliments" such as "I LOVE Puerto Ricans," which the speaker invariably does not realize falls in the same category as "I HATE Puerto Ricans" by objectifying and stereotyping. Unlike you, Ms. J, I DID buy a digital version of your dad's autobiography, and while I haven't read it completely, I do recommend it to those who haven't heard all of his stories, as some of those are pretty good ones and illumine our family history.

  2. I'm sure they do, dear Vincent, and anyone who wishes to buy his novel can feel free to- I'm just not one of them.
    But yes, you are absolutely right about those "compliments," they are totally objectifying.