Life as a White Latina

When people meet me, the conversation inevitably steers toward my family history and the origin of my last name. “Oh my god, Karen. You can’t just ask people why they’re white.” Well actually, apparently you can as long as you infer it or turn it into a joke that no one laughs at.

My background is mostly Puerto Rican and a little bit Spanish from my dad’s side while my mother’s family is a mixture of European whiteness (mostly Polish, German, and French). I identify the most as a Puerto Rican since it makes up almost half of my background. My last name showcases this, yet you’d never know I was without the name indication. And even with this pride and personal identity as a Puerto Rican, I still hesitate to confidently call myself a Latina. I feel as if I haven’t earned the right to do so.

Every now and then someone tries to reassure me that they can tell I’m Puerto Rican from the shape of my eyes or by some vague part of my face that resembles what they’ve started to associate with Spanish-speaking people. What they’re expecting are characteristics of any famous celebrities they know — particularly dark, flowing curls and perfectly tanned skin rather than my pale face, dark green eyes, and light brown hair.

After awhile, the comments about how I don’t look Puerto Rican at all become exhausting. It usually requires an explanation where I offer reasons why my skin is whiter than expected until I’m excused for not looking “ethnic” enough. In the words of my mema (grandmother), “What the hell does a Puerto Rican even look like?”

My mema was half Puerto Rican and half Spanish, a first generation Hispanic living in America with her mother. She married a Puerto Rican man and had four children together. She spoke in Spanish with her mother and made delicious Puerto Rican meals almost every night. My mema also had light brown hair that she dyed blonde in her old age, blue eyes, and fair skin.

My mema (left), her sister (right), and her friend (center) celebrating mema’s 80th birthday.

In photos of my dad growing up, cousins with thick, dark brown hair and tan skin surround him. In a sea of stereotypical looking Latinos, my dad stuck out with light brown hair and blue-grey eyes. He’s the one my equally fair-skinned brothers and I inherited most of our looks from despite our Polish, German, and French influences.

I’ve been raised as a white American woman with a barely acknowledged diverse background. My family doesn’t talk about our Puerto Rican and Spanish ancestry, but a passion for different cultures and languages fueled me to embrace rather than disregard them. To make up for the general indifference in my family, I became obsessed with acknowledgment. Yet when discussions of heritage come up or I’m filling out a form that asks for my race/ethnicity, I find myself torn between feelings of guilt, obligation, and pride. I struggle between what’s appropriate and what’s true — technically I’m a Latina, but I doubt many other people would consider me as one. If I check off white on these forms, the recipients will point to my last name with confusion. Yet if I check off Hispanic/Latino, they’ll be equally perplexed by my appearance. I find myself wishing for an “other” option with room to explain my choice.

In a way, this is part of what my relatives wanted when they decided to leave Puerto Rico (and Spain, Poland, Germany, and France) to head to the United States. They wanted our family to become Americanized, but I’m not sure they understood what that would entail down the line. In the process of acclimating, it appears we’ve forgotten — or perhaps buried — our roots. After a certain amount of years passed, it was no longer seen as relevant or necessary to discuss how exactly we got here. We still eat the occasional dinner of rice and beans, recalling memories of my mema’s unrivaled recipe, or uncover a long forgotten book of Puerto Rican fairytales tucked deep in the back of a closet, offering them a nod of recognition before putting them back on the shelf. Aside from that, no one mentions the Hispanic elephant in the room and continues to disregard that our relatives ever lived anywhere besides New York.

I try to remember the stories my mema told me about her mother and life as a Puerto Rican living in New York because it’s the only connection I have to that culture now. These stories are largely where my pride comes from; my mema was my inspiration in life, and I cherish any connection to her. Her outrage at people’s shocked expressions when she told them she was Puerto Rican lives on in me, however, it doesn’t get expressed with the same fervor. I never had to live through the struggles or discrimination of being a Latina in America, and no one would ever look at me with the expectation that I could understand either. I feel a distance from my Puerto Rican roots, as if I’m lingering around the edges of a club I feel inappropriate joining. It’s a club I desperately want to belong to as my mema clearly did, but one where I’d feel uncomfortable explaining my presence.

My life as a white Latina is similar to many other white women in this country. I grew up in a mostly white, middle class neighborhood in the suburbs where we lived a modest yet comfortable life. We had multiple televisions and cars, and even had the white fence shielding our yard. The most discrimination I’ve faced is criticism on how my appearance doesn’t fit the stereotype of what people expect me to look like when they hear the name Nicole Ortiz.

There’s also a level of guilt that I can never seem to transcend. It’s there when I tell people I can’t speak or understand Spanish. It’s there when my heart swells with camaraderie among other Puerto Ricans, the ones that seamlessly flow between American and Latina, interweaving Spanish and English into their conversations. And it’s there when I mention that the only time I’ve ever visited Puerto Rico was for half a day on a cruise. I want to remedy these flaws and explain away my shortcomings — I’ve taken Spanish classes and made plans to explore Puerto Rico beyond its touristy charms — but it never feels like enough. In the end, I still come across as an American woman on a Puerto Rican vacation attempting Spanish with a poor accent rather than a Latina trying to reconnect with her roots. I was born so far on the outside that going back in doesn’t make sense to people anymore.

When I was younger, there were times that I wished it were easier to trace my ancestry rather than being made up of a hodgepodge of cultures; I would have preferred to have been born fully Polish or fully Puerto Rican. But now that I’m older, I appreciate the strange mixture and the pause my background provokes in strangers. I’m a white Puerto Rican that can cook up a delicious dinner of rice and beans one night and pierogies the next.

In this case, I think it’s important to offer a nod toward each of the different cultures in my family’s history. Appreciate the Puerto Rican, Spanish, German, French, and Polish parts equally rather than wishing them away. And maybe in that time, I’ll start my own club for people that come from other mixed backgrounds and also feel like they don’t have a defined group to fit into.