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.