Being Latina with White Skin

For most of my life, I assumed I was white because I was only looking at the color of my skin. People even called me “white girl” because I had no accent and looked, well, “white” to them. I even remember the time a group of Hispanic girls formed a circle around me and called me “gringa” until I ran off and cried.

Was I not one of them?
While I was born in America, both of my parents were born in Brasil. They were immigrants only here for 2 years before I was born. They came to America legally and worked hard to become stable in a place where they didn’t understand or speak the language. Although they had pretty stable lives in Brasil, they only came to America because my older brother needed open heart surgery and the Children’s Hospital in Boston was the only place successfully performing this procedure on children at the time.

Struggle with racial identity:
Because my only experience in America was as a born-citizen, I never thought I was different. Yet, it was the reactions and words from both Latino and non-Latinos that made me feel like an outsider. It wasn’t until white people told me “I wasn’t white” and latinos told me “I wasn’t latino” that made me face a decade long struggle with my racial identity.

My struggle started to get more confusing as I reached middle school. When I took tests or filled out applications, I saw few options for race and “white” felt like the “right” choice. I would look down at my arm and say, “I guess I’m white then.”

It didn’t occur to me until I took my first trip to South America that it wasn’t actually my skin tone that defined ethnicity or which bubble I would color in on paperwork. For the first time, I visited Rio de Janeiro, my family’s hometown. Although I never spent a day there before this first visit, I felt like I was finally home. The people embraced me and I felt like I could really be myself. There is a huge feeling of community as everyone knows and interacts with their neighbors and smiles are in abundance. It was the first time I realized I was proud to be Brazilian. I finally understood then what it meant to have culture.

Skin “privilege”:
Having white skin and fairly straight hair meant I could have “skin color privilege”. While I used that to my benefit, I sometimes look back at how awful it really was to use my skin tone as a way to fit in and move forward. Frankly, it’s sad. Because of my appearance, I could easily avoid judgment from people in certain neighborhoods or in certain settings. Of course, this also meant I was exposed to a lot of the racism that people would say didn’t apply to me because I was an “exception”.

I’m the child of two immigrants from South America. They struggled as much as any immigrant with dark skin and curly hair, but they had skin color privilege in America. Some could have easily assumed they were European, thus making them less like, what they referred to as, the “border hoppers”. It’s a shame that we live in a place where your background can easily make your life more difficult.

Embracing your cultura:
It took me a long time to understand how my race, my culture, my skin tone, and my appearance have played a role in how I got to where I am today. Once I realized who I really was and connected with my racial identity, I started filling out the right bubble on paperwork. I do this because we need to be properly represented. While the journey of understanding my identity is a long one, it’s been an empowering one so far. Between our traditions, our food, our dances, our music, and our passion for life, there is so much to be proud of. Our veins run warm with rich history and glory; our veins run warm with proud Latina blood.

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