The director suggested we three theatremakers walk into a bar to discuss notes—no easy punchline. During an emotionally and physically tiring rehearsal process, I looked forward to this small sanctuary. The only queer among us, I longed for land more mine than theirs.
The interior looked and felt like a set for ‘small-town gay bar’—sticky, semi-dark, perfumed by years of spilled cocktails. I perched on a stool, sandwiched between the others, a gloriously tacky ‘Dyke Night’ poster on display in my direct line of vision—a literal sign from the queer cosmos. My collaborator hunched onto the limited square footage of the seat beside me like a Sandra Boynton cartoon hippo, and our director hugged the oversized bag on her lap. The only customers inside, we took dainty sips from our drinks. Outside, the summer sun beamed on.
Conversation and notes played out. The project was political. All art is arguably political, but this piece—especially this scene—was truly political. In this mythological re-telling of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the scene and song titled “Anarchy” (or “The Looting Song”) closes with a young Black man shot by a White officer. Clearly, the decision to write and present this section had been purposeful. Our White director lowered her voice and cut to the chase: You’ve got to be careful. You’ve got to be aware. You’ve got to understand what you’re dealing with here.
Patronizing, yes, but I heard her. She wasn’t wrong. I smelled the alcohol on her lips as she leaned in and warned me. I mean, you’re not White, but Whitish. You’re Whitish. The words curdled like bad milk in my ear, draining into my consciousness.
Truth be told, she merely amplified a lifelong confusion.Whitish means you are the colonizer and the colonized
On Ancestry.com, my DNA test revealed a mutt from three primary, unsurprising regions—not to mention a few outliers. I have ties to the Iberian Peninsula (i.e. Spain and Portugal to Cuba), African roots, including a recently updated range from Cameroon, Congo, Nigeria, and Senegal, as well as the Ivory Coast and Ghana, and, of course, a percentage Indigenous background, likely Taíno. It’s an estimate, but an understanding.
I wonder: How much of my ancestors is me and me is them? Who was forcibly taken? Who had a choice? What traces remain in my body, in my mind? Is this possible? If trauma can be passed down through generations, what else do we carry forward in time? Is there an eye, an earlobe, a quirk that resembles someone no one can recall?Whitish means you have green eyes
Our family photos—reaching back to Cuba—are home to every skin tone.
My mother’s mother, whom I never met,
had the middle name “America.”
She was blonde with bright blue eyes,
born in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba.
More than once,
my mother recalled her light-skinned, blue-eyed cousin Chicho—
whom “The women were wild for back in Cuba.
I’m sure he had as many children,” she offered.
“He looked like an American movie star.”
Recently, my mother revealed that her fair-skinned cousin often commented on her father’s Blackness, though he never identified as such.
To say that racism never existed in Latin America is flat-out not true.
There’s a famous saying—¿Y tu abuela dónde esta?
(And your grandma, where is she?)—
which refers to the fact that you don’t have to look far
to identify the presence of mixed ancestry.
And yet, in a recent workshop ‘Addressing Anti-Blackness in the Latine Community’ with Radio Caña Negra, an advocacy organization run by a trio of Afro-Latinas, the facilitators challenged this notion. “You are not your black grandma—it’s never ‘we are all mixed’ when anti-Blackness comes into play.” They argued that if you look blanco (white), you are blanco, no matter who your family is or was, or what the world has told you. They highlighted the difference between racism and xenophobia and urged us not to conflate the two.
Although there are plenty of Latin American people with light eyes and light skin, I constantly hear: Wait, both of your parents are Cuban? or a thousand other variations on this question. It’s ironic because Latin American representation in media is exceptionally bad—it’s rare that a telenovela features an Afro-Latina, let alone a Latina of more clear Indigenous heritage or Asian background. Think about the range of Latinx pop stars we all know and love: Ricky Martin, Gloria Estefan, Shakira, Juanes, Jennifer Lopez—all fair. Arguably, White from the perspective of many.
Most people assume I’m mixed in the traditional sense of the term—one parent of one background and the other something else. Both of my parents were born in Cuba, and their parents before them. My lineage on that Caribbean island, particularly on my father’s side, stretches far into the reaches of history. That being said, my father had a rich almond tone to his skin—a color my mother adored—while my mom has a lighter, freckled complexion.
So, I am the first generation of my family born in the United States, arguably the second generation, depending on your take on the semantics. Then, there’s the question of Cuban-American or of Cuban descent. Which do I have a right to claim? In her standup show, Fresh off the Bloat, Margaret Cho calls out queer people for always minimizing themselves. She ducks and bends her frame, enacting folding herself through a crowd: “Excuse me. So sorry. Yes, forgive me.”
I often find kinship with mixed-race or biracial people—the ones who live in a strange limbo of their own identities. I already proved a conundrum to most adults as a boyish child in New Orleans. Remarkably, my mother allowed me to chop my hair shorter and shorter over the years until my father and I sported matching crew cuts. People would mistake me for a young man, and I never minded all that much. I would get lost in the boys’ and mens’ sections of department stores regularly. I dreamed of comfortably sporting the oversized Hawaiian shirts, the leather dress shoes, the neat primary-colored collection of ties. My preferred uniform at the time: a pair of cargo shorts and a boxy plaid shirt along with my tight hoop earrings. Silver, simple. Not unlike the ones I still wear every day.
In the sixth grade, our social studies class somehow fell into a discussion on earrings. Most of the girls in my class told stories of recent trips to the mall to get theirs pierced after begging their moms. “I’ve had mine pierced since I was a baby,” I spoke up; a certain amount of pride soaked my voice.
“Well, of course. For someone like you—from your background—that would make sense,” the teacher remarked, matter of fact. I remember feeling caught, even if I wasn’t exactly sure what she meant. I asked my mother that night as she prepared dinner. Very quickly, I understood.
“At what age did you become aware of your race?”
Our facilitators asked as a final question during our workshop.
I am not Black. However, am I White?
I think I’ve always wondered—
as far back as I can recall.
This is living on the periphery of Whiteness.
- My best friend, a (Black) Haitian American woman, gifted me a copy of Stuff White People Like in high school. I flipped through it like a guide. Was this proof?
- I grew up in the moment before Hispanic became Latino and then Latinx or Latine, in a predominantly Black and White city. I wandered through the combined Latin and Asian-American supermarket in the far reaches of Kenner, where we could find yucca and other treasures.
- I heard the word Hispanic most frequently through the mouth of a boy I thought I could love before I understood what love meant. The word always came as a surprise, as if he needed to remind me of my otherness.
- The night I met my future brother-in-law, a White Michigander from the Upper Peninsula, at a crowded Mexican restaurant, he shouted across the table: “I didn’t know they could be as light as you are?!”
- At the back table of a crowded bar, we joked that I could still have a future as a kicker in the NFL. “Yeah, there are loads of great female Hispanic soccer players, so that makes sense!” added the White man across from me with an oblivious smile.
- My step-niece referred to a class of White children in rural Michigan as “normal.” My throat clogged, alarmed. Normal does not equal White—please understand.
- In the same rural area of Michigan, an elderly White male doctor in a local clinic nonchalantly responded to my growing collection of mite bites with: “Usually, people with dark skin and dark hair don’t have this strong of an allergic reaction to bites. But we’re all different.”
Uncle Joe and my dad were first cousins but grew up like brothers. He’s easily my favorite relative and always has been. Joe is about three shades darker than I am and loves to tease me about my light skin.
I helped my mother into an airport-bound Lyft. It was late summer, my body sun-kissed and brown. I wore a tank top—my tattooed shoulder clear, my wet hair dark and curly to match my near-black eyebrows. The driver, Jorge, emerged from the car to help haul her luggage into the trunk. He looked at me, knowing we were connected, understanding this care for my mother, like any good Latino child. I relished in that moment. Gracias, I smiled as I closed the passenger door. It felt uncommonly good to be seen.
The neighborhood in New Orleans, where I grew into myself, is known as one of the hallmark neighborhoods in the city. Granted, we were not in the most coveted of locations, but we lived in a large, century-old house nestled among a row of live oak trees. This Uptown neighborhood is known as a particularly White area of town. Our neighbor, a longstanding member of the community who grew up a street away, rang our doorbell one Saturday afternoon dressed in a bright cardigan—“Are you aware of the man in the tank top roaming in your front yard?”
Yes, as a matter of fact, we were. The man was my Uncle Joe—visiting from New Jersey—taking out the trash.Whitish means “they call us colored to keep us down”
My mother rejects the term “people of color,”
even as she begrudgingly accepts it.
She says, Look at me.
The truth is, when you’re Latino in this country,
especially with an accent,
it doesn’t matter your complexion.
You’re not White.
And yet, in the workshop, the facilitators share a meme that reads:
Being Latino doesn’t make you a person of color.
Being Latino doesn’t make you a person of color.
Being Latino doesn’t make you a person of color.
As a kid, my parents had our box of a kitchen remodeled by a copper-skinned man of Colombian descent with a deep Louisiana drawl. He and my mom became fast friends. Emblazoned on his red pick-up truck: his name—Diaz—and the image of a hammer in a gloved hand, like a communist emblem. I can still see it in our circular drive.
One day, a White electrician arrived. The man looked from my mom to Diaz and loudly offered, “She gonna understand what I’m saying?”
“She understands better than I do,” he replied.Whitish means shame
There’s no way to have this conversation without speaking about shame. Sin vergüenza—which literally means “without shame,” or a better translation: “shameless”—is a common Cuban, and more widely Spanish Caribbean, phrase. It’s one of my mother’s favorites. I find it interesting that the opposite of “shameless” is “modesty.” Put your head down. Do your work. Support your family. Life is difficult enough, so why make waves? Why cause yourself any more trouble? Understandably, this refrain was my parents’ unspoken mantra. I say understandably, though I haven’t always understood, I haven’t always wanted to understand.Whitish means Washington Heights speaks to you in English
One of the greatest questions of my life has been why my father decided his children should not speak Spanish, and secondly, why my mother went along with this choice. The most deeply complicated and touching part of the equation is how many of my friends—of all backgrounds, but particularly my Latinx comrades—say they understand. The greatest irony is that regardless, I am still an other to much of this country—even if my privilege is vast.
Hoy, entiendo mucho. I understand a great deal, and I now read and write to an extent in Spanish—though I constantly check in with native speakers for corrections and colloquialisms. I am still mostly uncomfortable speaking, even though I have a warm batch of family and friends who encourage me.
Two Latinx artists—one Mexican and one Dominican—approached me at the start of a residency: So, you speak Spanish? I have no canned response to this question, even though I’ve been asked as many times as I have been asked my background. I am a constant puzzle to so many observers. I love living in Washington Heights because I am surrounded by Spanish speakers—mostly Dominicans and a smattering of Puerto Ricans. Here is the neighborhood where my parents first met in the late 1960s, at the corner of Fort Washington and 161st Street. Cuban girl from Santiago meets Cuban boy from La Habana, and the rest is history.
Often, I sit on public transportation and listen—telephone conversations, gossip, grocery lists, lovers’ spats. My ears hungry for the sounds. I long for its roll, its beats, its melody. Once, a couple of teenagers bantering in Spanish on a subway car caught me listening. You’re from Spain? They asked me. I shook my head but smiled.Whitish means you’ve got Jesus-colored skin
In my fifth-grade religion class, we talked about Jesus, what he looked like.
One of my classmates asked: “Was Jesus White like in all the pictures?”
“Actually, he would have had olive-toned skin, like Christina—”
The teacher gestured in my direction,
and I looked down at my hands, my arms,
both proud and ashamed.
Umbrella terms are complicated. They’re unifying and divisive at the same time. For a long time, I avoided applying to anything for ‘artists of color’ because of my physical appearance. Of course, I was once a National Hispanic Scholar and applied to plenty of opportunities for then-termed ‘Hispanic’ students or individuals, but there seemed to be a line.
Right out of graduate school, a major playwriting competition for writers-of-color surfaced at a theater I admire. The stipulation listed that individuals of African-American, Asian, Latino, and Middle-Eastern descent were welcome and encouraged to apply. I consulted my colleague, a Cuban-American man who ran the diversity program at our institution. “You should apply and let them decide,” he suggested. I found this answer problematic and could see his impatience with my confusion.
As an artist, people expect you to spill your identities onto the table for entrée to the party, or fellowship, or program, or grant. I am a ____, ____, ____ artist. May you now understand how to fit me into your season, check off your diversity boxes—even if those slots are few and far between. A staff member at a major regional theatre once said to me: “It’s difficult to know which box to put you in” (i.e. Latino or LGBT). More and more I realized, the boxes would be made for me even if I did not check them myself. Even in that is great privilege, a reckoning with Whiteness.
I stand very firmly behind Issa Rae’s pronouncement, “I’m rooting for everybody Black.” The systemic racism against Black individuals in this country is too deep, and I wish for a cure. I suppose as far as the one-drop rule is concerned, I am Black, but for all intents and purposes, I am not.
I’ve often feared taking away others’ opportunities, despite the struggles my parents endured to get me where I am—despite prejudice and pigeonholing and microaggression.
According to the workshop I attended,
there is no such thing as a White-passing Latino.
In the facilitator’s words,
even an African American person who passed as White
was therefore White.
But what if you are ambiguous?
What if you are mixed?
What if you are who you are because of all parts of you?
Whitish means you’re ________
According to Ta Nehisi Coates, even the words surrounding race de-legitimatize people of color: “But race is the child of racism, not the father…. Difference of hue and hair is old. But the belief in the preeminence of hue and hair, the notion that these factors can correctly organize a society and that they signify deeper attributes, which are indelible—this is the new idea at the heart of these new people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, to believe that they are white.”
A year before my father passed, before we had any idea of the disease incubating in his system, he revealed to me that my great-grandfather was Chino-Cubano—in other words, one of the many Chinese men tricked into a promising financial solution in Cuba and taken as slaves.
“What was his name?” I asked immediately.
“I don’t know,” he replied.
Are the only histories that matter the ones we can see?
I refuse to believe that.
In Nella Larson’s landmark novel Passing, she traces the fraught, rekindled friendship between two women who pass. One who married a White man and who actively poses as a White woman, and the other who married a Black man and has no desire to be seen as anything but Black. Despite the deep love I have found in my wife, I sometimes wonder whether my choice to marry a White woman further erases me—or maybe, elevates me to a level of uncomfortable privilege. That is, whatever scraps of privilege two queer women might have.
Though I am not Black, when I read the following standalone paragraph in Zinzi Clemmons’ debut novel, What We Lose, I understood it down to my bones: “I’ve often thought that being a light-skinned black woman is like being a well-dressed person who is also homeless. You may be able to pass in mainstream society, appearing acceptable to others, even desired. But in reality you have nowhere to rest, nowhere to feel safe. Even while you’re out in public, feeling fine and free, inside you cannot shake the feeling of rootlessness. Others may envy you, but this masks the fact that at night, there is nowhere safe for you, no place to call your own.”
Despite everything, my mother has always spoken highly of her Cubanness. I vividly remember a car ride on Claiborne Avenue just before it turns into Jefferson Highway—past two enormous Sewage and Water Board cylinders behind a broad chain-linked fence. I sat in the passenger seat of our minivan—a handmade rosary dangling from the rearview mirror—as she relayed the story of her coming to this country. “I was your age,” she said. I felt a sense of pride knowing that somehow I shared this moment in time with her. I could not feel what it was like to leave your grandmother and home forever, but I could feel being ten years old—just as she was once. Maybe, in the sharing of her story, I became certain that I belonged to something. As divisive as our modifiers are, ultimately, it’s the connection they can bring—that’s what we long for, isn’t it?
Upon first arriving in New York, I became entranced by Romare Bearden’s work. His dancing collages of Harlem seemed to follow me like music through my early journey in the city. When I first encountered a photo of Bearden, his fair complexion struck me. A quick Wikipedia search of the artistic giant revealed he was the son of a White mother and a Black father. I had no idea.
The act of writing these pages feels like squeezing a thick sponge—
the downpour sudden, surprising, wrought with strain.
I want to be honest with the world and myself,
but it’s difficult when you live in between.
I want to acknowledge who I am—all the parts of me.
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