Oh, high school—the time when we try to grasp who and what we are. Who we are comes, obviously, in part from the people by whom we were raised. My dad was born and raised in Puerto Rico; my mother was born in the Dominican Republic and raised in Washington Heights. I grew up in North Jersey. I have olive skin, dark brown eyes, and transitioning hair.
The only place I truly know is my rural hometown. Here, I went to a school where 95% of the student body was white; year in and year out, I was typically the darkest person in my class. From an early age I took note of this and hated sticking out. Despite receiving a great education and feeling safe in my community, I felt like a caged zoo animal. It felt like my classmates and teachers looked at me as if it was weird I was there. By senior year I was aware of how much I’d been programmed to talk and dress like the people around me. I found myself speaking in a higher octave when meeting new people. I followed every trend from Uggs to Victoria's Secret. I had assimilated to stereotypical white culture. This is, in part, thanks to the fact that I’d been relaxing my hair since the first grade.
The paste is painted on my hair—from my newly sprouted roots through the ends of my pin-straight hair—until my entire scalp is a white-gray color. Then, after washing and straightening, my hair is just like that of the blonde and blue-eyed girls in my class: straight, smooth, soft, and silky. In my mind, I become their equal. By straight-pressing my naturally tight curls, I eliminate a difference between me and them.
Whenever I felt like I was succeeding in performing whiteness, my mind allowed my caramel skin to fade away. I always felt happy in this little whitewashed world. But that confidence was always interrupted by the same question: "Are you black?"
Why would people who I’d known since first grade ask me that? It almost felt like a reminder: I wasn’t one of them, and I never would be. It annoyed me because I was trying so hard, and it made it feel like there was something wrong with being black. The question might seem innocent and curious on paper, sure—but their tone told me everything I needed to know. It always sounded abrupt and harsh, eerily marked by an underlying dark humor.
By senior year I felt empty and dissatisfied. I needed to get to know myself. Naturally, I decided to start with my chemically-straightened hair.
It makes sense if you think about it. My mom is an olive-skinned Dominican who’s never worn her hair natural. She worked hard and did what she thought she had to do to climb the Manhattan financial ladder. In my eyes, she’d basically discovered the perfect formula for women like us: relax your hair, get an education, get your nails done (and make sure they’re a modest length), always look presentable, and remember—you’re stepping on untouched territory. I can’t blame her for shaping me into her mini-me, but I do still owe it to myself to discover my truth.
I wanted to feel certain of who I was. I did my research to answer a few questions: am I just Hispanic, and what does that even mean? How can I participate in my culture after having a whitewashed childhood?
Through Google and social media, I began to educate myself and stumbled upon the term Afro-Latina. As it turns out, this label is relatively new—older generations had chosen to dismiss their African heritage, refusing to accept their roots. Learning about all of this reminded me of what’s underneath my relaxed hair—the part of me that physically demonstrates my African ancestry. At this point, I made an important mental note: I’m a mix of native islander, Spaniard, and African, and I need to be proud of each. That’s when I decided to stop relaxing my hair.
To be fair, I acted white with the hopes of getting respect, opportunities, and success. But I can’t handle the ingenuity anymore—it was driving me crazy. Now, in college, I’m proud of who I am, and discussing ethnicity isn’t an uncomfortable topic anymore. I no longer have an issue saying I’m a black woman. I am Afro-Carribean, I am Dominican, I am Puerto Rican, I am black, and I am Hispanic.