When I was little, I had white-blonde hair, blue eyes, and skin dark enough that the Latina women at the laundromat would berate my mother for trying to “pass me off as white.” They thought she was bleaching my hair—that, based on my skin tone, I was half Latina myself. My mother told them again and again that, no, I just came out that way.
It’s an issue that has surfaced semi-regularly throughout my life. My grandparents called me “Texican.” At the time I considered it an affectionate nickname, and I’m pretty sure that was how it was intended. However, in retrospect, it’s somewhat racist, too. And inaccurate. Because I’m not Latina. I’m Creole.
But that doesn’t stop people from assuming. My daughter’s third-grade teacher went through the entire school year thinking I was Latina. I get people who walk up to me and start speaking Spanish until they notice my blank stare. I mean, I grew up in Texas, so I know all the signage: salidas, basura, piso mojado… tacos y mas… Anything else I may understand or recognize (besides si and gracias) I’ve extrapolated from having spoken French, the languages being similar.
My early French wasn’t even “real” French; it was the Cajun dialect of Southern Louisiana. Later, I took French in high school and college because I figured it would be easy. And it mostly was except for having to remember which suffixes to use for the various tenses. Thank God they all sound the same when you speak it.
My dad’s family came from France in the 1780s. They weren’t Acadian (Cajun) in that they didn’t go to Canada only to be relocated later; they sailed straight to New Orleans then ventured out and settled in the Vermillion Parish area. At some point those lily-white French ancestors (who were actually from English stock that had settled in Brittany) mixed and mingled with, well… stories differ. But the result down the line was that some of us have olive skin that turns toasty after even a few minutes in the sun. My dad has the dark hair, too, but the blue eyes. My hair got darker as I got older but never as dark as his.
Fictional character Peter Grant (from the Ben Aaronovitch series of books) once said something about his “winter plumage” and I identified so hard with that remark. From late spring through early fall, for as long as I can get regular sunlight, I’m a nice brown. It feels like the right, real me. But come winter I turn a sickly yellow. I hate it. I spend winter longing for my color.
That said, I know that I don’t actually understand what people of color go through on a regular basis. My features are Anglo enough that, aside from that occasional assumption about what language I speak, the only real hassle I receive is for my gender rather than my skin color. I have the luxury of embracing my heritage without fear. If I encounter police, I generally don’t worry. I’ve never had cause to think my color would prevent me from getting a job. Or that, when I go into a store, people might think I’m up to no good because my color gives them preconceived notions about my morals. Maybe I’ve just been really fortunate, since I know Latinx people do face a number of prejudices. If I looked fully Latina rather than mixed, maybe that would make a difference. I don’t know.
Since I can fill out a form and mark “Caucasian,” I guess that’s how I identify. And how people see me, at least most of the time. But there are times when I hesitate before checking that box. Am I really? I wonder. Well, I live as a Caucasian. Which means I live a privileged life. Something I’ve been thinking long and hard about lately.
“You’re lucky,” an old Latina woman told me once. “You can pass.” I don’t think I understood at the time just how lucky that makes me. I may never fully comprehend my fortune.