‘Mom, Am I White?’ How I Fostered My Cuban Identity on My Own Terms
I thought my mother was the only barrier keeping me from reconciling my identity — but I missed something bigger
When I was 10 or 11, I went to my mom, forehead creased with confusion, and asked: “Mom, am I White?”
She barely held down a laugh as she reminded me, “Well, honey, you’re not Black.”
My mom brings this story up a lot, one of many in her arsenal of favorite anecdotes about my childhood. Long after I forget about the interaction altogether, the story lives on in comic infamy. I didn’t know what I was asking, and she didn’t know how to answer.
As I get older, I dissect my own intentions and I start to understand. I’m mixed: Cuban dad, White mom. But for a while, I forget the Cuban part — or at least lose sight of what it means. I give in to our household’s predominant culture: White Midwestern American, that amorphous blob of an identity.
There are little reminders, of course. My great aunt Carmen visiting, making the best damn flan, and watching while I finish the whole pan in one sitting. My abuela and abuelo trilling in their beautiful, thick, croaky Cuban accents. Abuela yelling, “Aye, Pepsi!” at their ill-tempered cat — whose real name is Pepper — when it scratches her. Abuelo calling me by accident instead of my father and exclaiming, “Joe-ny, so sorry!” Abuelo telling me lengthy, novel-worthy tales of Cuba, his time as a doctor there, and my abuela’s tenure as a lawyer defending women in divorce court. My dad taking me to the Cuban market downtown, where we pick out Goya crackers, Maria cookies, fresh plantains, and the biggest bottle of mojo sold. I feel special for a while, the direct line of a rich history. A different history.
Years and years of failed attempts to help my mom understand that she raised a mixed kid, and one interview of a dead White woman gets her there.
I hold my Cubanness with pride, a badge of honor, but I don’t really know what it means or where it places me in the world. I tell my friends at school because I think they’ll think it’s cool, and they do — my friend Catelyn programs me in her phone as “Sexy Cuban.” At my first lifeguard training class, I’m asked to share an interesting fact about myself, so I tell everyone I’m Cuban. An older girl sitting in front of me whips around and shoots me a brazenly sexual grin, as if my attractiveness just skyrocketed.
In the back of mind, I know that there’s a bit of showmanship here, a drama to the reveal. I’m White-presenting. I reap the benefits of that large and wide, whether I’m aware of it or not. But when I go out of my way to explain that I’m not quite White, that there’s more than meets the eye, it’s intriguing. It’s a curiosity. If my skin were darker, if there were no mystery, perhaps it wouldn’t be of interest or spectacle. Perhaps no one would care. Maybe I’d be treated the opposite, as something of disinterest. Something to shy away from, avoid, disparage even. An “other” in my deeply White Midwestern Catholic biosphere. Because I’m not quite White, but I’m not not White enough for it to be a problem.
A part of me does want the skin people would expect. That undeniable proof of who I am. Because sometimes, when people don’t know, they say things they think they can get away with saying when certain people aren’t around. And I either sit there, absorbing the shock of their casual racism, or I speak up. I say, that thing you just said about those people — I’m those fucking people. And everyone gets real cagey.
When I’m in 10th grade, we get a new Spanish teacher. Her name is Ms. Martins. She has a wild mane of curly red hair, thin black-rimmed glasses, and a constant frenzied energy. She’s barely five feet tall and prances from one end of the room to the other, making herself seem large, filling up the space. She dictates in a high-pitched voice with a hint of smoker’s gravel.
She’s fucking bonkers.
She struggles to keep her thoughts on track, drifting wildly from nouns to participles to occupations to fruits and vegetables. Every morning she insists we do the pledge of allegiance in Spanish. If anyone slips in a word of English or doesn’t participate, she stops and makes us start from the beginning. It sometimes takes 15 minutes out of our 45-minute class.
She reminds us how to pronounce español.
“It’s ES-pan-YO!” she exclaims. “Es-pan-yoooooo.” She draws out the last syllable, the final “l” disappearing in the back of her frog throat.
Ms. Martins speaks fondly of her long-term boyfriend. He’s Mexican. He’s the one who got her into teaching Spanish. She likens this to her passion, her vocation. To be a White woman teaching White kids Spanish. I don’t know why, but I despise her for this.
Less than four months into the year, Ms. Martins is let go. The same day, an older student overhears her crying her eyes out in a Taco Bell bathroom down the street.
As an adult, I try to initiate nuanced conversations about my ethnicity with my mother. They almost always end up in limbo. She says something about how, Yes, you’re half-Cuban, but you’re still White. I say something like, Mom, you think race is limited to biology. She says, Well, I have a degree in biology. I say, I know mom, but you don’t have a degree in race and ethnicity. Race is social and biological. She says, Why are you proud of being Cuban but not proud of my half?
This is usually where the conversation comes to a screeching halt, or veers into an untethered argument about her privilege and my identity crisis.
She comes to me one afternoon and tells me about an old interview with Lucille Ball she’d watched. Ms. Ball talks about the controversy around her and Desi Arnaz, who was also Cuban, being an interracial couple on a mainstream sitcom.
Her eyes sparkle with bemusement. “I have never thought of your father and me as an interracial couple,” saying it like it’s a French phrase. Years and years of failed attempts to help my mom understand that she raised a mixed kid, and one interview of a dead White woman gets her there. (I know Lucille Ball is a lot more than a dead White woman — don’t drag me.)
For reasons mostly uncertain, I direct my anger and confusion about my identity at my mom, not my dad. My dad and I have long struggled to connect, despite our striking resemblance in every way. A friend of my parents once crudely stated, “It looks like your dad just spit you out!” I’ve always felt closer to my mom, and thereby more prone to bicker with her. I project my disorientation about my identity onto her, as if she was the only one responsible for it.
I know this isn’t true, but I’m stuck playing the blame game. I’m angry because I feel a part of who I am has been divorced away. As a queer person, this feeling is not unfamiliar, but I’ve managed to settle that part of me, embrace and champion it. I haven’t yet gotten there with my race.
After Ms. Martins, there’s Mrs. Alvarado. Another lily-White lady who married a Latinx man and decided she had to validate this choice by learning and teaching Spanish. Or worse, she already taught Spanish and sought to validate that choice by marrying a Latinx man. Maybe that’s a reach. But I’m not convinced there isn’t a widespread fetish-conspiracy behind this all.
I find Mrs. Alvarado just as insufferable as the person she replaced. She eventually clocks me as the only Latinx person in the class. I can tell she expects more from me because of this. I don’t waste time telling her I’m not fluent, and never was. Why would I be in her Spanish class if I was?
Even though my name is already Spanish as hell, Juan Miguel Alvarez, I want to be like everyone else in class and pick a special name. I pick Mateo. Mrs. Alvarado addresses me, often with a sigh, in her squeaky, irascible tone, “Come on, Mateo.”
I ask, “Can I go to the bathroom?” She shoots daggers at me, doesn’t say a word. I roll my eyes, mutter, “¿Puedo ir al baño?”
“Sí,” she nods, glowering.
I didn’t want to take Spanish in high school. I wanted to take Latin, which I did freshman year before transferring to a school that didn’t offer it. Spanish seemed such an obvious choice, a boring one. Latin was cool and scholarly and mysterious. Spanish was the language my dad refused to teach me growing up. My lost birthright. Maybe I was afraid I’d be bad at it. Perhaps I was cocky and thought I’d be great and didn’t need any lessons. Or I was mortified, seeing other first-generation kids who grew up in bilingual households and seamlessly melded between cultures, chameleons, expert code-switchers, knowing I’d never straddle that line with such finesse.
Whatever the reason, I’m stubborn as all hell about it. I drag ass through my year with Mrs. Alvarado. When I’m a senior, I opt out of a language course and never pick up another Spanish textbook again.
As an adult, not being bilingual becomes the predominant insecurity around my identity. I desperately regret quitting Spanish early. I’d give anything to be bilingual, but no longer have the time — or confidence — to learn it all over again. When I hear non-Latinx people speaking rapid Spanish, I boil red with envy and shame. When I hear my dad speak it, I want to reach out and snatch his voice box, Ursula-style.
A Puerto Rican friend of mine in college chides me when I tell him I’m not bilingual, as if it’s a great oversight on my part. “Come on, man,” he says.
“Come on, Mateo.”
At present, I live in a primarily Latinx neighborhood in Los Angeles, and I find myself too embarrassed to try to speak Spanish around store owners and neighbors out of fear of being exposed as a fraud, a half-gringo. Trying to nonverbally appeal to them that we share similar lineage feels both trite and ignorant. My desperation for them to see me as similar feels borderline appropriative. Is it possible to appropriate your own race?
I never work up the courage to confront my dad on his wild misjudgment. That’s how it feels sometimes, his rejection of fostering a Spanglish household. But I’m failing to recall his own diaspora. My father was taken out of Cuba when he was two years old, right on the cusp of Castro. He has almost zero memory of his brief life there. All he’s ever known is his life here in America. Growing up, he learned English and Spanish concurrently. His parents would often scold him if his Spanish didn’t meet their standards, while at the same time dissuading him from ever using it outside the house. There’s the cognitive dissonance of being an immigrant: Assimilate, but not too much.
How can I blame him for avoiding going down that road with his kids? How can I blame my mom, who didn’t know any better, who was following my father’s suit, who didn’t possess a rule book? There really isn’t one.
Language seems to be both the concourse and the barrier to identity. It shouldn’t matter that I don’t feel Cuban enough because I don’t speak Spanish. Add it to the list of many ways I feel I don’t measure up. It shouldn’t matter that I’m White-presenting. Our country actively and virulently demonizes, exploits, and traumatizes dark skin. It shouldn’t matter that my mother’s Whiteness took over and enveloped the culture of our household. That’s what Whiteness does. It shouldn’t matter that my dad carries himself as a White man and doesn’t see himself as a person of color. His identity was fractured against his will, too.
What matters is the way I let myself question how I feel. I do feel Cuban. I do feel like a member of the Latinx community. I feel closest to that, and that’s what should matter. My misplaced identity is one of many things about myself I wrestle with daily, but the possibilities it affords are not to be wasted on self-pity.
Memory feels faulty when it doesn’t work the way you want. Like the politics of identity, my mind likes to play tricks on me. I want the things I know now to be the things I remember to prove something to myself about then, and to everything. Truthfully, I don’t remember asking my mom that question when I was 10 or 11. I have access to that memory based only on her account of it. The supposed genesis of my lifelong identity inquiry might not have been that illuminated at all.
There are a few other ways of thinking I got wrong:
I do have the time to learn Spanish; I’m just too lazy or focused on other things.
I don’t think Mrs. Alvarado was that mean. I think she was just anxious.
Maybe we never bought Maria cookies — just the mojo.
I’m still trying to piece it all together.