Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
There’s something about finding out that your little sister has talked to her friends about you, that just makes your day — even when you’re 25 years old. At least that’s how I used to feel. We all know teenage girls can be tough, but I never thought a casual comment from my 17-year-old sister would make me question my own identity.
It was a regular Saturday night when I decided to stop by my dad’s house for dinner and a movie, his favorite pastime now that my siblings and I are older. Stephanie was nearing graduation so the party planning had ensued and she had a few more friends over than usual that night. I was used to seeing the regulars, whose names I had finally learned, but some of these girls weren't familiar. The two newbies were sitting alone in the living room when I walked in, so I walked up and said hello.
“Hi, I’m Jenny. Nice to meet you guys.”
They smiled and said they were friends of Stephanie’s.
“Oh cool, I’m her older sister,” I said.
The stared at me blankly, until one of them lit up and exclaimed “Oh! You’re her other sister! From her dad’s first marriage right?”
I smiled. She had talked to them about me.
“Right! You’re the white girl,” said the other newbie.
In that moment, Stephanie appeared and I smiled and gave her a hug and a kiss. The excitement of thinking that my little sister, who can be pretty tough on the outside, had mentioned me to her friends had quickly faded. Even to her friends, I had been labeled “the white girl,” and while this was a label that had been regularly passed around on my dad’s side of the family (they’re all Cuban), for as long as I could remember, it wasn’t the kind of thing that I ever got used to hearing, despite how often I found myself at the butt of those “jokes.”
Growing up as a mixed-culture Latina, I struggled to fit in with parts of my own family. On my mother’s side, my family is half Cuban and half Irish-American. My grandfather was born and raised in Cuba (his grandparents were from Granada, Spain), and my grandmother was born and raised in Indiana (her mother was of Irish descent). My father was born in Cuba, and both of his parents were born and raised there as well, but on different parts of the island — and both had Spanish in their blood.
While the bulk of my background is Hispanic, I was born with fair skin, brown eyes, and blonde hair. Fitting in with my mother’s side of the family was never an issue mainly because my mother has the same fair skin, a lighter shade of blonde hair, and green eyes, although I’ve always felt like whether or not I looked like my mom wouldn’t really have mattered to any of them. The Irish-Americans I grew up with always seemed so fascinated with our Cuban culture that they loved having Hispanic relatives to rave about, and, of course, loved asking us to bring rice and black beans to every family gathering.
On the other end, my father remarried a Puerto Rican woman, and my sisters were both born with dark hair, brown eyes, and tan skin. While they weren’t always as tan year-round, they never burned in the sun the way I did. I envied their skin as a child. I had always wanted sisters, and to have two sisters as beautiful as they were made me the happiest big sister in the world.
But still, I would play with them or brush their hair and wonder why I didn’t look like them. The running commentary about my skin tone didn’t help that insecurity very much. They often called me “Casper” when we’d go to the beach in the summer and my father would always bring up his wedding to my mother pointing out how my “hillbilly” uncles had showed up in baby blue polyester suits and drove in on the back of a pickup truck. He’d mock their accents, joke that I kind of looked like them, and ask if I had any inclinations toward living in a trailer park. While I knew he was just joking, the humor of his words was often not enough to soften the blow, or to change the simple fact that I was different.
If I babysat my sisters and went out in public, people would ask if I was their nanny. They always looked surprised when I said I was their sister, and I’d explain how we had different mothers — mine was mixed while theirs was Puerto Rican.
This went on for most of my life. People would glare, give me inquisitive looks, and I’d have to explain my whole cultural background. If I spoke Spanish, it was always followed by, “Wait, you speak Spanish!? Did you take it in school? Is your boyfriend Hispanic?” I’d smile politely and, well, explain my background again. While it was hurtful to get it from my family, it was annoying to get it from strangers — and even more frustrating to get it from my colleagues.
It wasn’t until my baby sister jumped on that “white girl” bandwagon a few years ago that I snapped. We were at a water park — me, Stephanie, Andrea, and a friend of hers. Stephanie had been picking on Andrea about something and in order to divert attention away from herself, Andrea decided to target me. There was a very pale girl in the pool that day wearing a nude-colored bikini, a shade of nude that was so similar to her own skin tone that at first glance, I actually thought she was naked. All of a sudden, Andrea pointed out that the “albino girl who looks naked” is the same color as me and we could be twins. I was a little surprised by her comment — I mean, I may be fair but I’m not that fair. But given the circumstances, I brushed it off and kept swimming. Except she couldn’t seem to let it go and spent the next 15 minutes going into an elaborate explanation on how both that girl and I were so white, almost albino, that there was no way we weren’t related. She even suggested I walk up to the girl and meet my long, lost sister.
The vibe between my sisters and I got a little awkward and when Andrea’s friend left, so did we. Our sister time wasn’t so much fun anymore, so we started walking to the car. At that moment, the combination of hurt feelings and anger collided so abruptly that I fell into long rant about how hurtful it was to be bullied for my skin color by my own sisters. I’m pretty sure I explained the history of feminism to them and the struggles of Cubans who had left their homes in order to give their children a better life in America. Needless to say, tears ensued and I finally stopped talking. See, she didn’t deserve that rant. That was the first, and only time in her life, that she had ever treated me that way or even referred to me as anything less than her big sister.
Unfortunately, that was my breaking point. That was the last straw. I could feel the heat rising in my chest. I thought I might implode from the rage. I wanted to scream, I wanted to cry, I wanted to get out of the car and just run. I looked up at the rearview mirror and felt a jab in my heart. She was crying. My baby sister was silently crying. My words, my harsh and unwarranted reaction, had brought her to tears. I glanced into my own eyes for what seemed like an eternity. I wasn’t angry at some ignorant comment or misguided sense of humor, I was angry at myself. Angry for allowing someone else’s words make me question my own identity and my place within my own family.
My identity is just that — mine. And no one’s opinion should ever come between me and my own self-worth. As a bicultural Latina, my Thanksgiving dinner consists of homemade macaroni and cheese and arroz y frijoles. I grew up listening to both Pimpinela and Alan Jackson — and yes, I still listen to both. By embracing my cultures, on all levels, I finally got to know myself and felt connected with all aspects of my genealogy.
That fateful summer day taught me that I owed zero explanations to anyone in regards to my cultural identity. I replaced my shame with pride. I’m proud to come from a world as rich and passionate as my Cuban heritage, but it turns out, my Irish-American roots are just as colorful.
So now when I speak in Spanish and people ask me surprisingly ignorant questions as to how I know it, I just smile and walk away.