I Erased My Ethnicity to Blend In — But at What Cost?
After years of assimilation, I relearned the importance of loving myself — and my Puerto Rican culture — in full
Once upon a time on a Caribbean island, I would climb palms, knock down coconuts, and sell them for a dollar. But 35 years have passed since my family left Puerto Rico for the States. That’s three decades for this transplant to sprout new roots, time enough to bear three ripened fruits of my own.
My core formed on the tiny tropical island of Puerto Rico. Surrounded by the different hues of Caribbean blues, I grew up swimming anywhere that kept me cool. Then, when I turned 10, my dad’s government job transferred him to Texas. So we traded long, wistful days of beaches and swimming pools for the land of big hair, country music, and Friday night lights.
Soon after my parents bought our Plano, Texas home, a neighbor welcomed us by spray painting a slur on it. “Friends” prank called me and toilet papered our yard. Racist “greaser” jeers followed me down middle school halls.
Petrified, I tried to assimilate. My style went from surfer boy to that of Carlton Banks. I hid my curls under carefully curved baseball caps and traded pool play for structured swim team laps. Like a Judas, I disowned the smells and sights of banana leaf wrapped Puerto Rican delights visitors would spot in our house. I practiced saying “five” and “y’all” to master that Texas drawl.
Assimilation paid off. Around the time gang members back on the island gunned down my first cousin, my code-switching led to friendships and dates, as well as my election to both student council and swim team captain. From there, I experienced college, travel, job opportunities, and a global network of affluent White men. Both leadership programs and associations for people of color identified me as a rising leader. Still, I tended to participate only on the fringes to avoid piercing the White shield I spent years carefully crafting.
In my early twenties, I went to carnaval in Salvador da Bahia, Brazil. The country’s scents, flavors, and lifestyle awoke memories of my early days in the Caribbean. O povo’s joy and bliss accentuated the privilege of Black and Brown life —…