My daughter came home wearing a pilgrim hat today.
She has this sort of light brown strawberry blonde hair, and she wore a little jumper today with flowers on it. A pair of pink sparkly Mary Janes. She looked edible, that is how adorable it was, except that my insides went all haywire. We are Native peoples, not pilgrims. And what is she learning about American Thanksgiving? She is in pre-kindergarten. What blanks can I fill in? Small pox? Mass execution? Guns? Reservations?
Howard Zinn bounces through my head, and I kneel in front of her and say, "We are Native American people, Beezus. We are the Indians." And yet, I suppose, she, like me, is part pilgrim. She doesn't understand, and I don't know how to explain. She is little and the myth of Thanksgiving is beautiful, healing, forgiving and compassionate. I want her to learn about gratitude. I want her to share her harvests. Strangers sharing a meal, making peace, giving thanks--those are good things, but the whole white-washing-the-relationship-between-white-people-and-the-Native-Americans-through-Thanksgiving-thing depresses me.
I had to make sense of who I was, culturally and ethnically, eventually. How I identified, who I am, what I hold as my cultural heritage. And now I have to help my children make sense of that. I am a first generation American. My mother came to this country, but her people have been on this continent for a long long time. My mother is Central American. Her family is a mix of European and native--mestizo. In this country, my family were at one point aliens. Foreigners even though their history on this land spans longer than the people making those rules.
I have a pipe-smoking Indian great-grandmother who wore weavings and braided her hair together in a long loopy braid. And another who was Italian and Spanish who grew up in Panama cooking paella and spaghetti. My father is Irish and German. But what I look like is brown. Brown and not white. That is what people see--the brown. The Latina. That is how they treat me. And because I get ignored at jewelry counters, and followed in malls. I identify as a Latina, because I am treated by people as a Latina. I am brown. It does not deny my white father.
When I was younger, thinner and more beautiful, I would get asked where I was from on a daily basis as I walked down the street, waited to come into my building at work, buying my coffee. Mostly from men, sometimes from older women. It was a conversation starter, I suppose. I looked exotic, not American. People have asked me if I am from India, Turkey, Egypt, Puerto Rico,
Cuba, Spain, Italy, Mexico. People have wondered if I am half-African-American. Sometimes they would ask me in loud halting English, like my first language had me translating each well wisher. I would answer
"Schnecksville, Pennsylvania," because it was like a giant eff off to the idea what it
means to be a Latina.
I once dated a man who told me he could hear my Spanish accent when I got mad. Spanish is not my first language, or even really my second. I do not have a Spanish accent. I am able to communicate enough in Spanish to find a communist camp and get us hydrated, but I wouldn't exactly say I am fluent. We all project something onto the person we are with, what we want them to be, why we chose them them in the first place, but there was something about that comment that felt so alienating, so objectifying. In that moment, my identity felt so confused, even to me. I had always felt in between races, cultures, identities. I was seen as white in Latino communities and Latino in white ones. But the Latinos would approach me to say, "Speak Spanish more. We need you. We need you working in our communities, smashing the stereotypes that people have of Latinos." And I felt like I fit precisely because I don't fit.
A couple Halloweens ago, I was dressed as Frida Kahlo. I was drinking beers with my neighbors, and I said something about how I am turning into that crazy Chicana who dresses like Frida slowly once a week, then every third day, then every other day, then every day. And my neighbor said, "Oh, honey, you are white." And someone else nodded, and I grew red hot with confused anger.
Do you think I am white because I live in a nice house in the suburbs?
Because I am not doing your lawn?
Because I am not taking care of your children?
You think I am white because I am smart and articulate?
Because I am confident and look you in the eyes when I speak?
Because I dress in black and listen to the Smiths when I get depressed?
Why do you think I am white? Because of the color of my skin? Because of my voice? Because of what?
I said nothing.
It shames me that I say nothing. But I don't. There is a historical and upsetting history of white people passing laws about what it means to be white or black or Native American and making judgments on who is and isn't white. White people assigning racial identity has a long and dark history. Just because you have never met a "Latina Nerd", or a successful, articulate Latina does not mean they don't exist. There is not one way to be Latina, just like there is not just one way to be white. People who diverge from the racial stereotypes about money, education, articulateness, skin tones, and music preferences are not diverging from their own race. I hear it said about our president, the mayor the city near where I reside. It makes me bristle, because I understand what that feels like to be told that even though you are brown, you are not brown enough. I know what it feels like to be told you are not white enough too. I am both in equal measures. I am not white. I am not brown. I am not not white. I am not not brown.
When I just had Beezus, she of the blue eyes and blonde hair, people would approach me and talk about how beautiful she is. Coo at her and then turn to me.
"Is she yours?"
"Are you the babysitter?"
"Her mother must be jealous at how much she loves you."
That is a role people understand--brown lady caring for a white baby fits what it means to be a Latina in the well-to-do suburbs of New Jersey. But brown lady who gives birth to a white baby is confusing. Now with Thomas in my arms, my little baby with brown eyes and olive skin, people seems to understand something more about our family. That we don't neatly fit into a box marked Pilgrim. or Indian.
I am sharing this today, because that is how all these things feel to me--PICK WHO YOU ARE. Mark a box. White. Latino. Native American. And if so, which type? What nation? Are you an alien? Are you legal? Are you illegal? You must be something. Who are you? Let's define you. What is the color of your skin? Where are your people from? What kind of music do you like? What sneakers do you wear? What side of the Thanksgiving table are you sitting? Maize or creamed corn?
I am many things. My children are even more. I talk to Beezus about the Native Americans, the Five Hundred Nations, the myths and the religion, the food and the connection to the earth. I don't speak of the mass slaughter, the disease, the humiliation. I do not speak of Leonard Peltier or Chiapas. One day, but not today. I tell her about the reservations, the loss of their language, the racism. We pray for the people suffering. I speak in ways that explain why the Pilgrims told the story of Thanksgiving and not the Indians. And I include her.
You are Native American. We are Native American. We are part pilgrim too. We have a little bit of all parts of this country. And for that I am grateful. I am grateful to feel a little bit a part of everything. I am grateful to be part of your tribe.