What are you?


I remember the first time I thought I might not be White. I was about 8 years old, in my elementary school’s cafeteria. We had been learning about heritage in class that day, and everyone in my Michigan hometown, it seemed, had ancestors who came from Denmark or Holland. They were all blonde-haired and blue-eyed. I remember a classmate turned around and looked at me and said, “What are you?” “I’m a kid,” I answered, confused. “Just like you.”

“No,” was the reply. “I mean, what are you? Are you Italian? Indian?”

I was confused. “I’m an American,” I said, proudly. I knew my mom’s family went back in this country a long time, and had fought in the Revolutionary War. Why would I be Italian?

As I grew older, I became hyper-aware of my dark hair and dark eyes. Everyone in town—and in my family, it seemed—was tall, blonde, and blue- or green-eyed. They all had little ski-jump noses. My nose was big, round, and wide.

But my dad was a tall blonde Dutchman, and my mom always checked “White” or “Caucasian” on my school forms, and—why would I question my parents?—so I grew up White.

Except for the many, many times, White people did not accept me.

It gnawed at me, the question I received more and more the older I got: “What are you?”

By high school, I knew I wanted to go someplace where I didn’t stand out because of my features. Someplace where people looked like me. I chose New York City, where I instinctively knew there were people who looked like me, and where, I thought, no one would ask, “What are you?”

I moved, when I was still green, to Spanish Harlem.

There I was embraced by people from all over the world, but especially people from Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Spain. I was at home in Spanish Harlem: No one cared what I was any more. But they still asked me questions: Are you Cuban? Mexican? Argentine? Chilean? Jewish? Yemeni?

My answer, however, never changed: I’m an American.

“But what about your parents?” they’d ask.

“They’re American, too.”

“Your grandparents?”

One time I went to a fancy salon on Capitol Hill, in Washington, DC. The blonde woman washing my hair bent over me and hissed: “I have to use a different shampoo. You have ethnic hair.” It was the same tone people used to whisper, “She has cancer,” back when it was a taboo thing to say.

Sitting there, my hair sopping wet in the sink, I wanted to get up and leave, but I was immobilized.

White people often made comments like that to me, especially when they first met me: “You must be something. Look at your nose!”

I bit my tongue. Even those in my community who thought I was White would often say, “Yeah, but you’re different. You’re not like other White people.”

I wore that affirmation as a source of pride.

Later in life, I moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was there, in the ignorance of such a “liberal” place, that I couldn’t take it anymore.

I came home one day from a workshop at Wellesley College. I commented to my roommate, a blonde, blue-eyed Democrat from Wellesley, that it was such a lovely campus, it made me want to go to school there. “It’s never too late,” she mused. “There are so many scholarships for minorities.”

I didn’t know what to say, or where to start: Do I explain how difficult it is for minorities to go to school?

But the reality was this: Clearly, White Anglo Saxon Americans do not consider me White.

Race is in the eye of the beholder. If I were blonde and blue-eyed with a little ski jump nose, how different would my experience be? How differently would people treat me?

Would people still ask me “What are you?”

I realize any racism I experienced is at the light end of the racism spectrum. I in no way experienced the life of harassment those who are black or brown experience.

My own ignorance, no doubt, protected me: When I was confronted with “what are you?” and prodding follow-up questions, I would honestly say, “My mom’s family goes back on this land to the early 1700s. My ancestors fought the British in the Revolutionary War and each other in the Civil War. I’m an American.” Usually, at this point, people backed off.

Denied any information that could peg me as a specific ethnicity, what could they say?

I asked my mom who my biological father was. She cried. How could I ask such a terrible question?

It was the 1970s, I told her. I don’t care if she had an affair. But I needed to know who my biological father was.

She cried, and said my “dad” was my dad.

I called my Grandmother. She sighed, and confessed my dad wasn’t my biological father. My mom had an affair with another man—a Mexican—and he was my father.

But then, to her, anyone with dark skin who spoke Spanish was a Mexican.

But it was enough. I had to know.

For over a decade, I badgered my family members. I confronted my father, who insisted he was my biological father. But my mom’s cousin, and my mother’s brother, both confirmed my Grandmother’s story: My biological father was a Mexican my mother had gone to college with. All they remembered was his first name: Ray.

I tried to obtain my mom’s college yearbook from the year I was conceived. Turns out, the school didn’t print one that year.

So I asked my parents again, who is my biological father? The man who raised me, of course. How could I ask such a thing?

But I knew, deep inside, I wasn’t 100% White, and my “father” wasn’t my father.

But what was I?

I submitted a saliva sample to an online service to learn my heritage. Those who knew me were horrified. Giving up my DNA to some random corporation wasn’t my style.

But I had to know the truth.

For two months, I waited, some days excited, other days, afraid: What was I? Was I prepared for the answer? What if my intuition was wrong, and I was 100% Caucasian?

When the results came in, I logged on to the website to receive them.

And I cried.

I’m still crying.

My mother’s side was clear, and matched family stories: French Canadian, Scandinavia, Finland, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and Great Britain are all mixed.

But the other half of me is what’s dominant: I’m 25% Native American, from Southern Texas and Northeastern Mexico, from two tribes.

And the rest is nearly 25% Spanish, with a bit of African and Middle Eastern.

In other words, my father was a Mexican.

I called my mother, told her I had the test done, and asked her for my father’s name.

For thirty minutes, she denied it. She called me a liar. She berated me. How could I do this to her?

She refused to tell me my father’s name, and finally, I couldn’t take it anymore.

“You’ve pretended I am White for my entire life. I’m not white. You can’t pretend any more.”

My mom, angry, said, “I’m the most colorblind person you know.”

And then, I lost it. “You’ve done to me what White people have done to Native Americans and people of color for hundreds of years. You’ve robbed me of my heritage and my birthright. It’s a genocide of the mind. You can’t do this to me any more. ”

She got really quiet.

But I was furious. I had been robbed of my heritage. My story—my ancestors, my blood—had been stolen.

My mother’s lie had stolen my true identity.

It is a crime, I think: In her selfishness or greed or shame or fear or whatever it was, she attempted to commit a genocide of my mind and my spirit, my birthright and my heritage. And she almost got away with it.

I hung up on her, and called her back when I had cooled off. She answered the phone, and gave me his full name immediately.

It took me about two minutes of creative googling to find him.

For two days, I researched everything I could find on him: Where he was born, who his friends and kids are. Who he is.

Then, I called him at work.

I asked if he knew my mother. Yes, he said. I told him my name, and asked if he is my biological father.

“Yes,” he said. “Valerie, I want you to know your mother never let me see you, but you’ve always been in my heart.”

Suddenly, my entire life made sense: The compulsive way I sought out, and adore, Latin American culture, especially Mexican culture, embracing it and learning its language, food and songs long before I knew it coursed through my veins. But it is the belief systems of my ancestors that have gripped me most of all, that I didn’t know until now were theirs: I was guided to love the land, to listen to animals and the forces of nature, and to the spirit of my ancestors (though I didn’t know it was theirs as I listened). I understand that plants and the natural world are sentient. It is a compulsive truth I dared not confess, but do so here, because it is as much my birthright as my compulsion for making of the sign of the cross. I wasn’t raised in church, but Catholic ritual is, somehow, as intuitive as listening to the birds for knowledge of an impending storm. It was all born of an instinct, a primal need, that I have to respect these things. I never understood it before now.

So I am happy: The genocide wasn’t complete. There is a spirit written in my genes, in my ancestors, that flows naturally, intuitively through me and around me.

Almost immediately, my biological father answered my questions: I’m a mix of indigenous tribes (which is quite common as tribes were pushed off their land and forced to live together), and my great-grandmother moved to Mexico as a child from Spain. She married into an old Spanish family of Northeastern Mexico.

And now, when I tell people I am a quarter Native, that my father is Mexican, people of color simply nod. One of my black girlfriends just smiled and said I’m a child of God. My Mexican friends say they always knew I was part of La Raza.

White friends, though, they look at me, and change the subject. Or say, “but you’re still white.” Another started referring to me as a “spic” until I, shocked and speechless at first but then in no uncertain terms, corrected him.

That racism, I realized, has colored my entire life. I understand the man who raised me now. He was and still is my dad, but he’s known since my birth that I wasn’t his biological child. And now I understand why, when he divorced my mother to marry another woman—a racist Republican—I wasn’t invited to their wedding, or into their home. I understand now why he continues to tolerate her terrible treatment of me—and why he virtually cut me out of his life when he married her. She knew he wasn’t my biological father.

But I didn’t know.

Her hatred of me, and my father’s subsequent abandonment, have reverberated in my life in ways I never understood—but are now crystal clear: Her racism and my parents’ shame are two of the biggest influencers of my life.

I vacillate now, between anger and hate, and peace and joy; Between love and compassion—imagine carrying a lie like that, a shame, for decades!—and anger and hatred of my family’s crime.

And I am furious at the crime of the genocide my people experienced. It boils in me. I am a quarter native, but I have no language, no culture, no ritual. It was stolen from me even before I was born. There is no museum for me to go to, no memory left of who they were or what their lives were like. It is my dominant genetic make-up, and I am left with nothing but my intuition and a few stories from my biological father, and what has been scraped together online, much of it from the pathetic records of the Spanish who wrote of their encounters with my tribes: That they were feces eaters who had no culture.

Imagine having your culture erased, eliminated, and degraded so completely.

Eleven thousand years of history, gone.

I know forgiveness is sweeter than the bitterness of my tears, but it isn’t easy.

All I know now is that I am so thankful, so blessed, to understand where I come from and why I am who I am. My biological father is alive, and I am so thankful for the opportunity to get to know him and his family. My family.

And I am so thankful that my ancestors guided me to know my heritage, even before I knew it was my own.


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