My daughter is half white, has a non-Latino last name, and navigates a space in between, of mixed heritage and lineage. She is frequently complemented on how “beautifully tanned” her skin is in the winter. When I say we speak Spanish in the home and our family is together, we are complimented on our efforts to make her bilingual. But, when I am out alone with my two daughters, the youngest yet too little to notice, we are looked askance at for not using English. Sometimes at the park I am mistakenly assumed to be their nanny, suddenly keenly aware of how the sun catches the blond streaks in their hair. It is strange that language can stake so many claims; so often are my children presumed not to be my own.
Because of her parental level of education, her name, and her looks, people will presume the best of my daughter, not the worst. She will meet her guidance counselor some day and likely be “the kind of girl” that gets into the great school.
I am grateful for it. The tables have turned. Her life will be very different from mine.
And yet, there is a bitter sweetness to it, a knowledge that things are not so simple, that this does not amount to a happy ending, that the way she is received by the world is a product of a colorism and a rejection of Hispanic heritage that remain pervasive in American society. Even in some segments of the diverse and broad Latino community, the concept of “mejorando la raza” (“bettering the race”) by marrying lighter is not only acceptable, but often desirable.
I want my sweet girl to understand that she may not always be judged by her character, that so many have and will face unfair challenges for their ethnic background or skin color, and that conversely there may be times where she will be at an advantage vis-a-vis others because of those same perceptions. As her mother I want to save her from pain, to give her the tools I lacked as I encountered prejudice early on. She is noticing the world, and it is my job to teach her to discern between what feels right and wrong, and how to navigate the gray spaces in which she will often dwell.
I lament that the veil of childhood is giving way, that she notices these differences already. There is a peculiar and intangible grief in knowing that there will be gaps, breaches in our understandings of one another’s experiences. Our early encounters, those that shape our views of the world and our place in it will have been different, and so a part of each of us will always be somewhat out of reach, inaccessible to the other. It is evident every time I say “Te amo” (I love you), and get a pair of small arms around my neck and an “I love you, mamá” back in English.
My daughter straddles two cultures, two kinds of belonging, in a way I never quite did. I struggle with how best to communicate to her that these children that she is already remarking as “different” are in a way her, and us, to explain that the connections one makes are always a product of more than our observations, that they are the sum of our experiences, of our combined expectations of “who is who” in our world. Identity is a complex thing, and something she will come to question, navigate, craft, and ultimately claim for herself one day.
As gently as I can, I feel obligated to make dents in her innocence to build her strength. It breaks me to do so, but particularly as a parent of color it is my duty to tell her, to explain, to prepare her.
I hope it is enough.