Ser Mujer, Ser Latina: A Cuban-American’s Letter to Her Past “White Girl” Self

Dear Laura,

You are not a white girl.

You have never been a white girl. You never will be.

Yep, now you’re looking at me with wide eyes. You’re not outraged – you’re confused. What? What do you mean, I’m not white? I’m really pale.

See, that’s the thing. I know why you’re confused – because you don’t know what you are just yet. You don’t see it yet, but it’s there: that you’ve assimilated into White American society, that you’ve assimilated into White American society’s standards of what constitutes a white girl and what constitutes a Latina.

You feel it, don’t you? The feeling that you don’t belong at the table laden with arroz con frijoles negros, with carne de puerco, with ensalada y tomates y yuca.

You feel like a poser, don’t you, when you speak Spanish with your padres y abuelos, even when it was your first and only language for years? When your accent, when you speak Spanish, carries the distinct timpano of Cuban Spanish?

You feel that you don’t belong in la sawesera in Miami: in the community where all the signs are in Spanish, where two languages breed a third, where everyone is loud and cordial and talks about Cuba all the time – where the stoplight is the greenlight for people selling flowers, bottles of water, fruits to try to make a living – where music blares from ever car, there’s a cafeteria and un bakery at every estop.

You feel like you don’t belong because you’re quiet and soft-spoken by nature, because you speak, write, read, understand English perfectly. Because you don’t have tan skin, dark hair, and a Taíno heritage coming out in your cheekbones. Because you don’t get loud and rambunctious and feisty and spicy when you’re angry, because you don’t have an accent when you speak English. Because you’re not hot-blooded. Because you’re six feet tall, broad-shouldered and big-handed, and your face carries a distinctly European look to it. Because your surname isn’t Rodriguez or Gonzalez or Menendez, but a French-Catalan one instead. Because you’re hardworking, sensitive, don’t like parties too much, and watch a lot of BBC shows.

Because you don’t act, look, speak, think like a Latina.

You’re the Latina who passes.


And who taught you that? Who taught you that, because you have none of those qualities, you’re not a Latina? Who dared to tell you what you are and what you are not? Who solidified in you that “Latinx” qualities and “white” qualities were a thing?

When you watch the TV shows where Latina women speak haphazard English, and their accent and language is considered exotic, and they’re tanned with huge tits, and they’re cleaning all the fucking time, and their name is always Consuela or María or Juana, and they’re wearing loud clothing and high heels and don’t have anything more than a Bachelor’s they didn’t finish, and they let themselves be part of the machismo culture you yourself despise, of course you’re going to cry and say to yourself, “I’m not Latina, am I?”

When white people step back in shock when they ask you where your parents are from and you say, “They’re Cuban” – when they marvel, “Wow, you speak English so well!” and “I had no idea you were Latina – you don’t look like it!” and “You’re so well-spoken!” – when they ooh and ahh at you like some sort of exotic creature – of course you’re going to cry and say to yourself, “I’m not Latina, am I?”

And when you’re at a party with your family and friends, and they’re laughing and dancing and eating carne asada and drinking whiskey and rum, and you’re in the corner quietly reading a book because you’re an introvert and apparently there is no such thing as a Latinx introvert, of course you’re going to cry and say to yourself, “I’m not Latina, am I?”

When you’re with your Gods – when you feel closest to Irish Powers, when you love the Norse deeply, when you feel guilty when your heart blooms in love for Ochún and Yemaya but you know you’re not one of Theirs and They’re not one of yours, of course you’re going to cry and say to yourself, “I’m not Latina, am I?”

Why not?

Why do you have to believe that, when you know that you are? When you know that you are not responsible for the ignorance of white people – for people who do not understand the difference between Hispanic and Latinx, for people who do not understand that Cubans come in all sizes, shapes, colors, from blond-haired and blue-eyed to pitch black, for people who do not understand that the Latinx community is vibrant, diverse, wide and rich with both possibility and reality? Because people do not understand that you really don’t fucking understand when people tell you “You don’t look like a Latina” because Latina isn’t a fucking look?

Because people tell you, “But your surname isn’t in Spanish!” and that’s enough justification for them that you’re not really one of those people – is that enough justification for you?

Why do you subject yourself to this – to being told what you are and you are not by a society that does not understand nor respect you? “You’re not Latina because you have really pale skin.” “You’re not Latina because you speak English perfectly.” “You’re not Latina because you don’t look like one.” “You’re not Latina because you’re really well-behaved, serious, analytical?”

And my, how they treat you as a source of pride. You do, too. That’s what you were taught. You were taught to be proud for passing, for fooling white America.

That look of shock used to satisfy you. “Holy crap, we had no idea you were Cuban-American! Wow!” Then they’d congratulate you for the pleasant surprise you sprung on the them, give you a dollar to thank you for the entertainment, and leave – like you were a a guessing game at a fair.

“Honey, did you see that? She’s Cuban, but her English is so perfect! She got a Bachelor’s in English literature and everything! So smart! Good for her!”

Why do you tell yourself that this behavior is acceptable? Why do you try to tell yourself this as an attempt to be at peace with yourself?

That because you’re intelligent, well-spoken, quiet, reasonable, you couldn’t possibly be a Latina – as if Latinx people couldn’t ever be these things?

That because your European ancestry shines powerfully in the body that your mother and father gave you, because of your Roman nose and strange features and long legs, and because of widespread general ignorance about the extent of Europe’s colonization of South American and the Caribbean, you couldn’t possibly be a Latinx – as if Latinx people all looked the same, as if Europeans could never travel?

That because, when you pass, you don’t have to put up with the bullshit that your Latinx brothers and sisters put up with daily? And you tell yourself, “I have white privilege, technically, and that’s okay.”

And, when white people discover you’re Cuban-American, you become “sooooo ethnic.”

Querida Laurita,

You are not a white girl.

You have never been a white girl. You never will be.

You are Latina. Your parents and grandparents fled from communist Cuba to come to America. They sacrificed everything they had to come here, to have children and grandchildren borne into free soul. They had everything taken away from them by Castro’s government, and they came here and they raised you in Cuban culture.

You are Latina because that is what you are – and no one has the right to tell you that, because you don’t fit their standard of what a Latina is and is not, you’re not what you are.

Eres mujer. Eres Latina.

And by Gods, you will speak all the fucking Spanish you want – hasta hablar por los codos si quieres.

Even if you don’t, you’re still Latina.

That’s how it works, mama. That’s how it works.

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8 thoughts on “Ser Mujer, Ser Latina: A Cuban-American’s Letter to Her Past “White Girl” Self”

  1. Great post, you have all my respect.

    Since I never left my country (Brazil) I don’t know how hard it is over there but my parents told me some stories of when they lived there and everyone thought they were Mexican or even Cuban and spoke Spanish.
    I know how diverse down here it is, and when people think about Brazilians a shy introverted white girl is never on their mind, I don’t fit the stereotype either, but the American stereotypes are far from the diverse reality for any culture and in all South America diversity is something we don’t lack.

    Like

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