Not Just Skin Deep

“You can’t be Latina, you’re white!” my friend replied when I told her that I identified as Latina, unable to believe that I was anything more than the white skin she saw when she looked at me. I was shocked to realize that such a crucial part of my identity was invisible to her.

My mother was born in Barranquilla, Colombia and her family originates from both Colombia and Spain. My father, on the other hand, was born and raised in Madison, WI., in a family of German background. Both of my parents’ racial and cultural backgrounds came together to form a fundamental aspect of my identity.

While I know it is easy to look at me and see only my light skin, I identify strongly with my Latina heritage. I may not look the stereotype of a Latina in the United States, but my Latina identity still remains a prominent part of who I am. Because of my lighter complexion, my lack of fluency in Spanish and my “white-sounding” surname, people simply assume that they know all the parts of my identity, perceiving me as white and only white.

When people see only my whiteness, however, they do not see me. Assuming I am white solely based on superficial elements of my identity such as physical characteristics, language, name or actions ignores and marginalizes a huge part of who I am. Ignoring my Latina identity divides me from the complex convergence of my traditions, cultures and experiences. When others view me as simply white, I become disconnected from my entire biracial self.

My mother speaks to me in Spanish. My father cooks Latin American cuisine based on my grandmother’s old recipes. My family has reunions twice a year where we dance and sing to lively, upbeat, Latin American music. My Latina identity is not a fun fact or redundant facet of my life. It is an inextricable part of my identity.

I recognize the privilege inherent to my light skin and am aware that Latinos with darker skin face discrimination worldwide. I also feel, however, that I cannot fully connect to my own cultural heritage because my peers and teachers do not see my Latina identity. We simply cannot understand or fully respect the significant aspects of a person’s identity until we learn to see the spectrum of colors that make up race.

I refuse to be categorized based on my appearance. I refuse to conform to society’s beliefs on how I should act. I refuse to be restricted by a definition imposed on me by others that ignores my complete self. I will not be told that I am one thing when I know myself to be something else. My identity is not and cannot be solely determined by the color of my skin, the language I speak or the way I look.

Our community must transcend our superficial perceptions of racial identity and accept others’ complex cultural individualities regardless of whether we can physically see them. Only then will we truly be able to embrace the “Youth From Every Quarter” slogan we so proudly proclaim to be an essential part of our lives.