No Longer Half, But a Whole

“I like your black hair.”

These words, which were intended to be complimentary, hit me like a ton of bricks. My body language indicated to my boyfriend that he had somehow said something wrong, but I remained silent. My thoughts were reeling.

I was thrown back in time to 2002, when I first experienced a negative reaction to others’ interpretation of my appearance. Our second grade class was assigned to draw each other, and my classmate had drawn my hair with a black crayon.

“My hair is brown!” I told her, “Black hair is ugly.”

Again at 20-years-old, I was faced with the same thoughts that I’d tried to push to the back of my mind ever since that day in second grade. I looked at my boyfriend’s long blonde hair and thought about how much my 8-year-old self longed to have similar locks. To be fair, my hairdresser would describe my hair as “chocolate brown,” and calling it “black” would normally be an understandable mistake that any guy could make, but I couldn’t help but feel betrayed in this moment. My eyes welled up with tears as the child who had refused to deal with her own self-image cried out again, “My hair is brown!”

My insistence on having brown hair stems from deeply rooted issues with my mixed-race identity. Growing up in South Texas, almost everyone looked like me. My small hometown was predominately white and Latina, and I never had to feel like an outsider. That being said, the community I grew up in was not immune to racial divisions. My father (and my last name) is unmistakably white while my mother is Latina. Although both of them attended the local schools in a post-integration era, racialized economic zoning dictated that they attend separate elementary schools, each with students of mostly the same race. Our town, although home to only 5,500 people, has two cemeteries – one predominantly white and the other predominantly brown/Black. I have relatives in both.

My half-siblings from my father's first marriage are not of mixed-race, and although we look similar, it is obvious that I'm different. I was never treated differently by any of my father's family, but I did stand out among my white cousins, who all had freckles or blonde hair. I remember asking Santa Claus for freckles for the majority of my childhood, wishing only to be more like them, but my skin remained a smooth olive tone. 

So much of my childhood memories are saturated with Mexican-American culture, but I continued to grapple with self-identifying as Latina. I listened to people around me joke about the “Mexican part of town" and remained silent. I didn’t mention that my grandparents, who I loved dearly, lived literally just on "the other side of the tracks”. Nor did I mention that the church I attended regularly was the Spanish-speaking church in the same neighborhood. I thought that by staying selectively silent, I could remain ambiguous enough to be accepted as white by my peers. I then began going out of my way to avoid seeming overly Latina. I purposefully pronounced Spanish words without a Spanish accent (“kay-so” instead of “queso” etc.). I’d pass on tanning with my friends because I knew I’d tan several shades darker than them. I even avoided the peasant blouse trend for fear of looking “too Mexico.”

I look back on all of my efforts to “pass” as white and regret them deeply. When I came to college, I was exposed to a multitude of cultures and races beyond the scope of my small town in South Texas. So many people wore their culture proudly, joining the many student cultural organizations on campus and speaking their native languages freely. My own roommate, who hailed from El Paso, Texas, was so beautifully in touch with her Mexican heritage, I couldn’t help but begin to reminisce with her about the typical experiences of a Latinx childhood, like eating pan dulcé at my abuelita’s, making tamales with my tias, or playing Loteria with my cousins. I knew then that I’d been doing a disservice to my heritage. All my life, I had been trying to set myself apart from my Latinx culture, for fear of being stereotyped or looked down upon. I thought that in order to obtain success, I needed to associate myself with the dominant representation of success – whiteness. Instead, I should have been proudly wearing both of my races as a testament to the power of racial acceptance and representation.

Accepting all of myself didn’t happen overnight. I still sometimes resent my dark hair and the way it grows into visible prickles on my legs only two days after shaving. I still turn red after letting slip a “hijolé” when frustrated. But I’m thankful for my wonderfully diverse friends I’ve met in college that inspire me every day to embrace where I come from and be beautifully me. I'm grateful for the multi-cultural background that has fostered me into the person I am today.

I love my black-brown hair. I love my skin that's tan year-round. I love being Latina. I love myself.