I’m Puerto Rican…Really

My mother is Puerto Rican. If you saw her you’d think she was a light-skinned African American. I always thought she resembled Eartha Kitt with a wide nose. My Spaniard father had a straight nose, white skin, and blue-green eyes. I favor my father in features, but have my mother’s hair and body type. That’s exactly what they said when I visited Puerto Rico when I was 10. “Ella tiene el pello de la mamá, pero se parece a su papá.” All of the relatives and their friends were gathering around giving me the once over. Some reached out to touch my hair. I guess they needed to make sure it was authentic. Yeah, it was curly enough — nappy enough. That’s Irma’s kid. “Hija de Irma,” they said.

I remember when I was about twelve-years-old; a couple of girls in the neighborhood were having a conversation about my body. “But she doesn’t have a chest yet,” said one girl.

“Yeah,” said another. “She’s flat. She’s so skinny and long.”

My sister looked at them and looked back at me. It sounded like she was telling them that I was so much younger looking than my age. And because I was so petite and slight that I would look silly with a chest. “She’ll grow when it’s time,” she said. I was faintly aware of the two girls peering toward me. Then they were gone. That was a big deal in that neighborhood. You had to develop early. You had to look like a young woman by the time you were twelve. The tits—the hips—the legs, it all had to be there.

One day, my aunt Olga came to my defense after my mother began complaining about my body. I remember catching the tail end of the conversation as I walked by the kitchen. “Diana’s skinny, but she has a great ass!” said my Aunt Olga. “Leave her alone, she will get her period when she’s thirteen. Stop fussing over her, you’re going to give her un complejo ” (a complex). My thirteenth birthday was several months away, but she was right. I did get it on my thirteenth birthday at church in the middle of mass. But that didn’t stop my mother. You see, I still wasn’t filled out. When I turned fourteen, my mother took me to the doctor for a physical. After we were done and the doctor was going over a few things with her, she interrupted him and said, “Do you think you could give her a little something so that she gets a little something up there?” My stomach felt like it had dropped right out of my body. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I was so embarrassed. The doctor froze — eyes wide, mouth open. He turned a crimson red, cleared his throat, and wrote something down on a piece of paper. That’s how I got stuck with a vitamin that stunk like liver and tasted like castor oil.

For some reason, there was something about my looks that didn’t sit well with Puerto Ricans in that neighborhood. But by the time I was seventeen, I had filled out — I was slender, toned, and shapely. I inherited that great muscle tone from my mother. All dressed up with makeup and my long hair blown and the questioning looks — turned to envious stares. It seemed to me that no matter what, I wasn’t going to be accepted. Not by them. That’s why I chose to spend a lot of time alone. I escaped through reading books, watching TV, or listening to music.

I could never understand why there was so much criticism. Puerto Ricans are a mix of whoever stopped on that island for a good time. Initially, the Taino Indians inhabited the island of Puerto Rico. Then along came Columbus, the Spaniards, the Africans, and god knows who else. That’s why features and skin color vary.  What’s so hard to understand? I’ve always felt like I had to justify the fact that I had Spanish blood coursing through my veins. I felt like I needed a t-shirt that said, “I’m Puerto Rican—I’m Spanish, no I’m not kidding.” It didn’t help that I spoke English well. When I was fourteen, one day someone in the neighborhood said, “You talk like a patty,” which meant white person. It felt like another stab at my light skin. I went to a top-notch Catholic School in New York City. I was well spoken and had good grades and that should have mattered more than anything else.

The best time I had and the most I ever felt accepted was at school in New York City. There were kids from all nationalities in our school. My friends were Cuban, Jamaican, Irish, Italian, German — you name it. We all had a good time and supported one another. No one ever mentioned skin color or cared about nationality. That was where I could be myself and enjoy my friends without the critique. We were just people; it didn’t matter what color or race. As an adult, I know many comments were made out of ignorance and jealousy. I know that there are different classes within all nationalities. The strange questioning looks still peer at me when I speak Spanish. So I just smile and tell them I am Latina. To be fair, other nationalities mistaken me for Irish or some other Caucasian lineage. I don’t let it bother me anymore. I don’t feel insulted. What matters is that I know my roots and that I am comfortable in my own skin. Besides, I’m having the last laugh, because I still don’t look my age.

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