Thursday, May 31, 2007

So, what am I supposed to look like, again?

I am, by ethnicity, Hispanic (Latina, whatever you want to call it). Technically, I can't say I am Puerto Rican by nationality - we're all considered American citizens. But let's just say, to make it easier, that I'm Puerto Rican by nationality. Racially, however, I'm white.

Race in Latin America is a hodge-podge of different influences. In Puerto Rico, you had the Taínos, the native indigenous population that was wiped out within about 100 years of Christopher Columbus's arrival. However, their racial influence can still be seen today; in fact, my great-grandmother and her siblings all had strong Taíno physical characteristics. Then you have the Caucasians - first hailing from Spain, and eventually coming in from all over Europe. My maternal grandfather's ancestors came directly from Ireland, and their influence on my family is still around today with our skin color and, in a couple of cases, blue eyes. The third link in the racial chain comes from Africa, when the slave trade began and countless Africans were brought over and dispersed throughout the Americas.

After 500-plus years, these three racial influences have mixed and matched to such a degree that you can find everything from milky-white to ebony-black skintones. You have blue eyes, you have brown eyes. There are blondes, there are brunettes. In fact, I used to have a friend growing up who could have been the modern-day embodiment of Botticcelli's Venus. From our first Social Studies class, all the way to our high school Puerto Rican history classes, the concept of three races, one people, is drilled into our heads.

This is why I'm surprised when I hear Puerto Ricans exclaim that so-and-so is not a "typical" Puerto Rican. What is typical? The only typical thing about us is how different we can be from each other.

A couple of times I have heard from Americans "You don't look Puerto Rican!" My standard response is, "What do Puerto Ricans look like?" I never got an answer, but I'm guessing little and brown. Well, I am little, but not brown. In fact, aside from the distant link to the Taínos in my family, I have yet to trace down an ancestor (and I've gone back about 100 years) who wasn't white. Added to that, I don't have much of an accent when I speak English. My first and last names are in English. I don't really fit whatever idea they might have had in their heads.

But I have heard this from Americans far less than I have seen us Puerto Ricans stereoype our own selves. Our contestant for this week's Miss Universe pageant was a tall, skinny, long-legged blonde. People have taken to calling her Paris Hilton. And they had two complaints about her - that she wasn't attractive, and that she didn't represent the typical Puerto Rican woman.

But what if any of these people were to go to another country, and be told that they didn't look like they were from la isla del encanto? They'd scoff, and tell that person that they had no idea what a boricua is supposed to look like.

Our cultural and racial heritage was forged by a sometimes harmonious, sometimes unhappy marriage between three very different cultures. We are taught since we're pequeñitos that this is something to be proud of. And you know what? It is. I think back on all the different people who ended up in Puerto Rico - willingly or not - who little by little helped create the beautiful, vibrant people who inhabit the island today. Our diversity is a testament to the centuries of struggle the island has endured, and also to the centuries of unbridled zeal to create a culture that speaks for us and makes us fiercely proud of the little patch of land that has in so many ways shaped our lives and our memories.

I'm one of those people that some may consider to not represent, physically, the typical Puerto Rican. I will admit that sometimes it gets to me, and makes me feel like I don't belong - like somewhat of an outsider. But when I really think about it, I see that trying to live up to an arbitrary label is not - and never will be - what a "typical Puerto Rican" is all about. And those who insist on narrowing their view of what their people are supposed to look like are ignoring their own history.


11 comments:

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I get that all the time...the old "you don't look puerto rican!" and "where did you learn such good english?? you have no accent, so you lived in the states, right??"...what a shocker when I tell them that i have NEVER lived outside of the island and that my *awesome* english skills are thanks to my family and school. For the record, did you ever figure out what the HELL we're supposed to look like?? Yo también soy "jincha"!!!

-Vane

Anonymous said...

Saludos,

Hey, what's up? I ran into this blog and couldn't agree with you more.

I was born in PR and raised until I was 11. I live in TN. My family has their roots in Puerto Rico and it contains all three of the races. I always get told the same crap. I'm light completed with dark hair and average height of 5'6".

They can see that I'm "hispanic" just not sure what to make of me. My own people, sometimes, are very unaware, while others are more receiving. I think it's sad, to be honest.

I'm 34 and I remember when Puerto Rico was a true paradise. I see it as being so industrial and tourist based now, that, it doesn't feel the same. My family, they do make me feel at home when I visit. But, the rest of the people, just seem so distant from the humble days of old.

Don't get it twisted, I love my isla, mi patria. I just can't believe how time has changed, not only the atmosphere of the island, but also the minds of the people.

I think there is a true "missing link" of who we are, even in the island. I think the "idea" of what it means to be Puerto Rican has changed a lot. Perhaps, this will change back to the way it was in my days running through the canchas y parques without worrying about anything until it was late at night.

May we all reflect on what we once were and what we have become, as a people. May we really learn what our "pride" was.

Te deseo Paz y alegria.

www.myspace.com/prccrew

Anonymous said...

Haha so funny! my parents are from Puerto Rico but people always confused me for Italian ,Greek or even Lebanese but never Puerto Rican. Honestly I'm confused I have a tanned olive complexion black hair and green eyes, I mean I just look unique but I guess thats the beauty of being Puerto Rican we are just different and thats what makes us so special!

Guywithacause said...

Well although it is PC to say we look like everything, there are some definitive stereotypes that exist when thinking of Puerto Ricans. But this is easily identified by what is NOT "typically" Puerto Rican: Being Blonde with Blue eyes, 6 ft tall, lanky, or being 4 feet tall, with slanted eyes, or being African in appearance. Although all of these exist in our culture, none personify being PR. But what does then? Well tan skin, straight and curly hair, 2-3 inches less than average height (as compared to Americans), darker hair and eyes, and a mix of mulatto features with a dominant caucasian influence. Does this mean there are NO Blondes? NO slanted eyes? NO Blacks? No it does not, but those people do not represent the population in its totality, they represent SOME members of the population however. The reality is, PRs represent a broad rainbow, but there are underlying characteristics that MANY share, which is the stereotype that people use.

Guywithacause said...

I am also curious to know why you believe, racially, that you are white, when you indicate that you have Taino and Irish specifically in your bloodline, while you assume (As you do not directly state) that you must also have African (you indicate that as one of the ingredients in PR, and thus your, origin). How does the mix of Taino, Irish, and African blood = racially white? I believe your own assessment of your ancestry indicates you are racially MIXED, as is the essence of being PR. Furthermore, I think it would be helpful to post a picture of yourself, not one that can reveal your identity, but one that will demonstrate that I am wrong and you are in fact "racially white." Although, your expression of genes does not indicate race, I will put that aside and assume your appearance = your race, just to make things simpler.

Jen said...

Guywithacause:

I am surprised, frankly, that up till now my stating that I feel I am white, racially speaking, hadn't struck a nerve with anyone. That kind of statement, coming from a Hispanic, can sometimes lead people to believe that the person who calls themselves white is choosing to ignore other elements of their heritage.

As you may know, Taínos have not been around for centuries. I've been told by my family that my great-great gandmother had some Taíno blood, and I can in fact see some Taíno characteristics in her children (who would be my great-grandmother and her siblings). I see none of that in myself, nor in most of my other relatives. That there might be a smidgeon of a link in me? Of course. That it's clearly obvious to anyone who looks at me? No. I feel that to claim that I am part Taíno would be a stretch (much like it's a stretch when people claim to be 1/24th Cherokee), not to mention almost a joke to many (again, as it is when people claim to be 1/24th Cherokee). When I say I have only found whiteys in my family tree going back a century, I mean precisely that. And if I find any info to the contrary, I'd be delighted to know. I look back into my own ancestors because I want to know as much as I possibly can about those who came before me.

That many Puerto Ricans share some common characteristics is clear. But I feel that I need to re-state the point I was trying to make: that as a group we are so diverse, that to get up in arms about one person not looking Puerto Ricany enough is something that I find 1) strange, given our history, and 2) alienating on a personal level.

It may be the PC thing to say that we are diverse, but I think, coincidentally, it is also true.

I won't be posting any pictures that might prove to you or anyone else that I look a certain way, because proving myself to anyone is not my aim. But I believe somewhere in this blog you will find a link to my Flickr album...feel free to search through there if you wish :)

Gracias por leer mi blog,

jen

Guywithacause said...

Jen:

Although I understand that you believe to only have "whiteys" in your blood over the last century, what they appear has nothing to do with what they are. You may have caucasian LOOKING antepasados, but they are likely mixed moreso than you know or that they care to recognize.

Why do I say this? Because without mixing, there would not be a PR, and we are studied the world over because we are the only (maybe Brazil too) population on Earth with a true mix of three races. If you want to see the future of the world, look no further than PR. That is not to say that it is not possible for your antepasados to be all white, but the reality is, you are probably 50% "white", and 50% everything else (black, Indian, etc).

It would be easy for me to claim I am white due to my appearance and not fitting the stereotype, but I would be wrong. I may have the features and characteristics that are most associated with "whites", but that is irrelevant to my genetic makeup. It is nothing more than what genes happened to express themselves. Clearly I would check the box of caucazoid (aka caucasian), as I could not check negroid or mongoloid, however being "white" is something totally different. I am mixed, and although many groups are mixed but still claim the "white" moniker, PRs collectively (and uniquely I might add), have chosen NOT to accept this "white" moniker and instead embraced the 3 race/mixed heritage that is true to our history and ourselves.

However, I do not doubt that your family professes, or recognizes moreso, their whiteness over everything else, as many populations marginalize what is least desireable, the reality is it is highly unlikely that your four grandparents are "white" and not mixed. Whether they appear to have features associated with "whites" is irrelevent, it is just an expression of traits. Of course I do not know you or your family, and there are in fact a significant white population in PR (and outside of PR), but again, this is the exception not the rule, and is not representative of the population as a whole anymore than the black population of PR is. Maybe you are the exception! I know I am not, regardless of what I look like. Maybe you are miscategorizing white? Maybe I am. Oh the fun!

Anonymous said...

I totally agree with you. People say that I dont look puerto rican but that I look indian. 5'9 brown skin and green eyes. And even arabian on one occasion. Sometimes it gets too me because I look nothing like my moms side of the family. More like my dads, who seems to be completely taino. But despite all that, Ive learned to like myself.

Newark Guy said...

All this "you don't look Puerto Rican" is due to the fact that while Puerto Rico was whitened by Spain with the "cedula real de Gracias"/"royal decree of Graces", inviting all abled europeans to settle Puerto Rico and Cuba, the vast supermajority of Puerto Ricans moving to the US mainland hailed from the Mulatto underclass that represented 40 % of the island. This migration (or transfer)of Puerto Ricos's poorest Mulatto underclass to the mainland has resulted in the confusing paradox of a stateside Boricua community that is considered "brown", and a 79% white Puerto Rico, 2010 Census. My cousin went to audition as a child to a tryout for a cereal commercial aimed at Hispanic kids. She was rejected because of her blonde hair and pink complexion! She was told she was not "ethnic enough" and would not be recognized as a "spanish person" (brown & non white stereotype)

Newark Guy said...

There is a deliberate attempt in the US mainland to rob Hispanics of any European Heritage, all in the name of multiculturalism and the "new " value of being Non White for purposes of affirmative action.

Cultural example...While Rock en Español(spanish rock music) is huge in PR/DR, and Mexico, as well as all Latin America, In the USA, spanish language radio stations wont play it! They play Merengue, Bachatta,,Bolero, Spanish Pop, Regueton (violent regueton)....BUT REFUSE TO PLAY SPANISH ROCK! Why? Ill tell you why. If Latinos start hearing Spanish rock, they will soon hear American english rock. Before you know it, Latinos will assimilate into American Pop/Rock mainstream, causing less and less listeners for the US spanish ststions.

Puerto Rican heroes of Irish(wild Geese) descent such as
* Cayetano Coll y Toste( Puerto Rican Poet/educator)
*Ramon Power& Giralt Brothers (founders of Puerto Rico's once great sugar central industry.)
* Demitrio O Daly First Puerto Rican to reach the rank of Field Marshal in the Spanish Army.
* Alejandro O Daly oversaw by order of Spain,and was responsible for constucting el Morro!
* The Conway,,Miguel Conboy,and Quinlan families established Puerto Rico's First Tobacco plantations.
* Juan Nagle also innovated PR's Sugar industry.
*Federico Hernandez Denton, Puerto Rican Chief Justice.
*Ricky Martin (singer)
*Victoria Justice (young actress)
* Joaquin Phoenix (actor,no, he's not Brittish...BORICUA)
* James O Malley COO of Altamente.com (computer software & malware)
* Kenneth McClintock Puerto Rico house leader (D -NPP/pnp(new progressive statehood Party)
* Ada Perkins (RIP) Puerto Rican beauty queen killed by Drunk driver.

Many many more historical Puerto Ricans of Irish descent in the island. In fact, the Irish influence is MORE than the Taino influence,yet Puerto Rico's Irish heritage is deliberately ignored by US mainland Puerto Rican educators(who tend to be independentistas). Teaching Boricuas about Irish Ricans undermines the whole Taino victimhood ideology that traps young PuertoRican kids in a never ending circle of low achievement, victimhood,resentment against whites,even if the child's name is Pricella Gomez Colgan,o Luis Miguel Class (el cantador /singer Luis Miguel, IRISH RICAN)

All those names above would or will experience the "you don't look PR".

Tammy SResto said...

I totally agree with your statement. Many piertorricans do not like to accept that the have african running thru their veins. Another thing is that there has been many mixture of dominicans with puertorricans, and other cultures this has changed a lot on the similarity of piertorricans has a group. The truth is we are muts. I am puerto rican 5'7, brown skin, brown eyes, curly hair. My grandmother was brown skin and my grandfather white. My grandmother had a long nose with curly hair and grandfather straight hair bit my grategrandmother was dark with a big ass...so in my family you will find dark brown skin to white skin with green eyes...but conclusion...we all have black running thru our veins and we feel pround of it.