My sister calls me white-washed when we’re talking over the phone one night. We have light eyes and are prone to sunburn, like our Cuban parents who left the island nearly fifty years ago, making home in Miami. They remember little or nothing. We have the fair skin of our northern Spanish grandparents. We are white.
Since leaving home, my sister has made a personal crusade of declaring and promoting our ethnicity. Perhaps doing so felt unnecessary growing up in a city where to be Cuban was to be just like everyone else. Now, she’s joined the Latina society at her college, posts Facebook arguments on the confined representations of Hispanics, and deems me white-washed because of my apparent tastes in men: skinny Anglo boys, freckled and fair-skinned white guys.
“Or I guess, sexually Anglicized is what you are,” she rephrases it, adjusting the receiver to the other side of her face, I can hear, as she’s probably painting a toenail. She’s joking, but there’s truth in her words.
We’re talking about one boy in particular, who has dark eyes and thick eyebrows. I could look just as white as he does. And maybe that’s why I don’t share the same combative views as my sister. I’ve never seen myself as some sort of Other. I don’t have an accent. When people hear my name, they ask if I’m Italian. On the contrary, when I walk home through my largely Puerto Rican neighborhood, if I try to speak in Spanish I’m greeted with trepidation – here’s whitey, the latest gentrification tally, acting as if he’s some compadre.
I’ve been seeing this boy for six months, exclusively, though not very often. Between work schedules, friends’ parties, we’ll have a night together a few times a month. He and I stay up late those nights, he tells me how he’ll be leaving the city soon, I count the birthmarks on his shoulders. Eventually light climbs in through his window blinds, and with morning comes plans, a client meeting, an old friend in town that one of us has to rush off to.
That’s my problem, my sister says. Liking white boys. I’m catering to some guy I feel inferior to, because I’ve been sold that that’s what beauty is, or something like that. Perhaps I don’t embrace my ethnicity as she does. Perhaps I am a bad Cuban. I don’t wear the spirit of the island like an armband, an image of a people exiled – who have settled in an American city built on Caribbean wistfulness, the dusty memory of what was, rum and tobacco
and paradise drafting in from fifty years ago and the other side of the sea.
I’m not listening to her. I’m texting, “You free tonight?”
He’ll say maybe, but he’ll have to cancel. I’ll brush off friends and spend the evening waiting. I’ll paint it more romantic than that of course, thumbing an old paperback, a night to myself, though constantly checking my phone. I know it’s unhealthy, but like anyone who’s been in my situation, I won’t show it. All I want is to see him more.
It’s not that my sister is Anglophobic. There are slight attributes that make us stand out. In school, she’s had trouble voicing her opinion and being written off because of her accent, the slight elongation of vowels that Miami girls are prone to. While I’ve never experienced this, I know where she’s coming from, this strange reluctance to be homogenized. I am not the majority! I could yell. I am not a white hetero! I could order my bagel in Spanish. I could loudly tell co-workers about the men I’m sleeping with. I am different! is all we want to say.
But this isn’t what’s driven her to embrace our Latinidad. She regrets hiding her accent to give her classroom comments more credibility. She struggles with the pride she has for our ancestry, and through her crusade, has found an incredible comfort in our Otherness. I ask her why she’s suddenly taken on this identity and she tells me, not because she wants to be different, but precisely because she is, because we’re not in the Cuban bubble we grew up in. Because someone has to.
But I don’t feel this connection to our past–an island we were taught to venerate in elementary school, whose poetry we memorized, whose history, we were told, moved through our lungs.
One night, a year later, long after this boy is gone, I’m at a friend’s birthday in Harlem. We drink margaritas with my friend’s family, in the back of the Mexican restaurant his parents own. I know no one, but one man looks across the patio at me and, roused on booze, I play along. He walks up to me as a few men bring out a karaoke system. They sing boleros.
“You don’t know anything they’re saying,” this guy says, putting his arm around me.
I say nothing, though I know the words to every song.
His buddy tells him in Spanish that I’m cute. I lick salt from the rim of my glass and play stupid. Later I leave on my own. I’m not ashamed, I just don’t find myself as comfortable, and I envy my sister for it. As though I’m trying to fit into a crowd, a crowd of my parents and distant ancestors, ancient figures with stoic faces, Jose Martí and all the gang of artists familiar with the tropics, the tropics I only know as a hazy memory off my father’s tongue. Yes, they’re all there. But I’m outside, looking in.
We’re in bed one night over a year ago now, this boy and I. I try to tell him something, the something, and he says I don’t mean it. I guess I don’t mean a lot of things.
I guess I can be anything anyone wants me to be. What’s an identity but a way of making yourself what someone else wants? What is honesty but thinking you’ve made yourself who you’ve wanted to be? We reinvent ourselves. It’s the excitement of meeting a stranger.
We’ve all edited our story, translated from a tropic island to the streets of Miami, a second rendering via a handsome boy’s apartment, streetlight catching dust through the window. “Say something in Spanish,” he asks me. In the language of my grandparents, I say I wish I could hold on to him longer.
He asks what the words mean. I tell him his eyes are pretty.
He nods as though he understands.