“What are you?”
This is the question I worry about my sons being asked as they grow up. My wife and I have been asked it throughout our lives. If they’re asked it too much, I worry they will begin to police their identity, to sand down the many different parts that make up who they are.
My sons are Latino, mostly. They are also mixed. I’m guessing people will read them as Latino throughout their lives, but I’m not sure. Latin (e, a, o, x) identity is interesting in the U.S. It expands (there are all sorts of new influences and ways Latinos express their Latinidad), and it contracts (some people try to compress the vast diversity of Latin America into a few archetypes; you already know what they are). If my boys don’t fit neatly into those categories, people will ask them that three-word question.
Considering the environment in which we’re raising the kids, they aren’t going to fit any archetype. Sunday mornings are a good snapshot. They wake to the aroma of rich hot chocolate frothing in an aluminum pitcher, onions and tomatoes sautéing for Colombian huevos pericos, and arepas sizzling in butter, the same way I did when I was their age. But when my wife Zoraida, son Marcel (age 7), and baby boy Naeem (1) come down the stairs, they find the Latin food isn’t complimented by salsa or cumbia music. It’s me in the kitchen singing Willie Nelson with my best honky tonk impression: “It’s a bloody merry mornin’, baby left me without warnin’…”
The boys love it. Marcel chuckles and runs to get his harmonica, his mini mullet tail bobbing behind him. Meanwhile, Naeem toddles recklessly into the kitchen at full speed, smiling with his whole face and raising his arms in the air. Zoraida is not as impressed. She snuffs the vibe by shouting over us, “Alexa! Play Sweet Soul Sunday!”
Whether the Sunday morning menu offers Roy Ayers and pancakes or Willie Nelson and arepas, it feels like love to the kids. It’s all part of them — and us.
The huevos pericos and hot chocolate are relics of my Colombian father, and the Willie is something to which my white-American mother and I still get down. Zoraida’s parents are Panamanian, but her tastes reflect her upbringing as an Afro-Latina in an all-Black community. Even the court at her childhood’s most sacred Latin event, her quinceañera, was filled with American Black kids with last names like Williams.
Our kids are steeped in all of it, and if they can embrace all of themselves, it will make them richer humans.
I’m confident that, as they get older, that richness will help them relate to more people. In a conversation, they’ll be able to name all the members of the Traveling Wilbury’s, because that’s the music they jam out to when they see my mom. At a Latin Christmas Eve party, they won’t be nervous to dance with people, because their Abby (my mother-in-law) has shown them enough steps in our kitchen. On the playground, they’ll compliment Black girls’ braids and know which kind they are, as they’ve seen how proud their mom is to talk about hers when she comes home with fresh ones after a whole day at the salon.
Having experienced their own various cultures intimately, my sons will see what cultures have in common everywhere: music, food, style, customs — people surviving and creating joy with what they have. Knowing these things, I hope they won’t stand at the edge of a new group and judge; they’ll walk toward the middle.
Still, being mixed might be confusing sometimes. As Marcel gets older and people see a brown-skinned teenager playing drums in our garage rock band, or hear him pulling up to a parking lot listening to the Traveling Wilbury’s, they might wonder, or ask aloud “What are you?”
I started getting that question when I was a bit older than Marcel at my elementary school, which was made up of pretty much all white kids. My father moved to Puerto Rico when I was 8. I’d come back from visiting him in San Juan tanned and wearing souvenir T-shirts with pictures of El Moro or the coqui frog. One time I returned with a woven multi-colored backpack that I probably got at a gift shop, and a kid on the bus asked, “Where did you get that backpack? Are you a wigger?” This was a horrible term that was normalized among white kids in the early ‘90s. If I told my father about these incidents, he’d just shake his head, grin, and cackle back a remark that helped me brush it off.
I absorbed that way of brushing things off and continued on my path, listening to early ‘90s grunge and wearing my Puerto Rican mochila.
As years went on, the question became more annoying. I moved to Mexico at 15, where my dad was transferred and started speaking Spanish at home full-time. The next year we moved to Spain and then to Belgium. When I returned to the States at 18, still looking like a white boy, but speaking Spanish, I got the question more than ever. I started having the impulse to lower the volume of the music in my car in certain parking lots. Some of the musical tastes I’d picked up in other places would have seemed weird or incongruent; I learned to turn it up anyway.
Marcel, at 7, hasn’t brought any similar problems to my attention, but people are already pushing the issue with me.
Last year, I was talking with a non-Hispanic Black chef friend at a bar about rice and when one should rinse it. My answer, for the record, was it depends. The conversation veered sharply after a few drinks. He said I would always know to rinse rice if I learned from my Latin parent, and further asserted that I’m ashamed of my Latino side and am confused about my race.
My friend had gone on this tangent once before, citing how I talk and dress; I’m not sure what exactly it was about my dress and speech that don’t match his expectations, but my patience was already thin. It wasn’t my first time dealing with this, so I knew how to respond. I said, “It’s not that complicated; my parents are just two different things.”
I don’t want the boys to have to explain themselves either because if they think about it too much, they’ll start curating their image
He looked down for a beat and then said, “Well, Marcel is Spanish (sic).”
I could brush off the questions about me, but when he started trying to define my son, it made me mad. The first time, I responded, “Yeah, I know, but he’s other things too.” He kept repeating it in various ways; I told him that I wasn’t interested in sorting out my kid’s ethnicity with him, but he kept it up, and the whole thing escalated into an ugly and embarrassing incident.
Shortly after, I told a Chinese American friend about that night, and she said, “Well, you’re white, but yeah, Marcel is Latino.” So I said, “Yeah, I know, but it’s OK to be mixed.”
The next thing she said made more sense: “I guess what I’m saying is, you read white, and he reads Latino.” She’s probably right. But don’t tell my chef friend that I read white.
My wife has had similar problems. We ran into a Black co-worker at the bar when we first met. When she went to the bathroom, he asked me, “Is she Black or Latina?” He didn’t seem satisfied when I explained the concept of Afro-Latinos.
We’re not asking for these conversations; I’m not interested in discussing my kid’s ethnicity with anyone. It’s tedious. But people are curious. I don’t want the boys to have to explain themselves either because if they think about it too much, they’ll start curating their image. I want them to feel free to love who and what they love. They should embrace all of their parts as a valid whole (especially since Black, white, and brown are what Latinos have always been).
Maybe it’s best to brush off that nagging question of “What are you?” swiftly, the way an older Puerto Rican man coached me to answer it when I was about 19. All it took was another three words. I don’t know who the man was. I only met him once. We spoke in Spanish, and he asked, “What are you?” I answered, “My parents are white and Colombian.” Maybe I seemed annoyed. He looked at me inquisitively for a minute and nodded. Then he boomed, “You should have just told me, ‘Soy yo, b*tch!’”
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