Marie: Throughout my life, people have assumed that I am Mexican or Latin American. One time, this lady came up to me in a store and immediately started speaking Spanish, then got pissed off and started yelling at me when I told her—in my extremely limited español—that I didn’t speak it. (I’ve also been mistaken for Japanese and, a few times, Chinese.) I am actually Filipino and Italian. Growing up, I often felt confused and alone because there weren’t many kids who looked like me, but I recently read that, among children, the multiracial population has increased 50 percent since 2000, which makes me wonder if those kids are experiencing the same frustrations that I did, or if people are less obsessed with checking just one box these days. (I hope so.) Either way, I wanted to talk to my fellow Rookie Leeann about what it means to be biracial and how it’s shaped the women we are today.
Leeann: I’m half Irish and half Puerto Rican. My mom is an Irish-American from western New York. My father, who passed away when I was very young, was born in San Juan and moved with his family to the South Bronx. But all my life people have thought I was Asian. There were a lot of Asian immigrants in my hometown of Rochester, New York, and I was close friends with a lot of the girls. Teachers were always calling me Anh or Thuy or other friends’ names. We spent a lot of time joking about our clueless white teachers, because to us it was SO OBVIOUS that my Cambodian friends didn’t look like my Vietnamese friends, and that I didn’t look like any of them! I used to chalk it up to overburdened teachers in crowded city schools, or the fact that I had the classic Asian girl haircut: long dark hair with blunt bangs! But as I got older and became more politically conscious, I realized this is a really common frustration for Asian people: being lumped into this one category when there are actually a ton of different ethnicities and identities that are invisible to a lot of non-Asian people.
Marie: My mother came here from the Philippines in the early ’70s and my dad is second-generation Italian by way of Massachusetts. I just found out today that I have English, Scottish, and Irish blood. I AM A HUMAN GLOBE. There weren’t many Filipinos at my elementary school. I felt a bit lost and alone, which sucked balls because I was already awkward as it was. I was one of the smart kids, which we all know was not cool, and I was chubby and cripplingly shy. Can a sista get a break?! In high school, I FINALLY met a couple of other cool half-breeds like me and we became BFFs. But at some point came the anger and frustration. There was this one instance in high school where I was trying to enroll in a class at a community college during the summer and had to fill out some paperwork asking for my ethnicity: Caucasian, Asian, African-American, and so on. I told the lady in charge that I wasn’t sure what to do and she responded, “You can only pick one!” My face got hot and my eyes got all watery! I think that specific incident, along with people assuming I was Mexican, fueled some sort of Where do I belong?? rage, which resulted in a few angry rants to unsuspecting people soon afterward.
Leeann: Yeah, it’s always been partially funny and partially frustrating to me. Having to constantly assert your actual identity is annoying. I think the point might be especially sore for me because my father passed away, and I’m not in touch with the Puerto Rican side of my family. It feels like my race is the only thing that connects me to this really important part of my past. I’m really proud to be Puerto Rican and really proud that everyone says I look eerily like my father, ’cause that’s all I have of him, you know? I don’t have to be proud of my Irish-American heritage in that same fierce way.
Marie: Do you find that some people will be like, “What are you?” You look “exotic” or whatever, but they can’t put their finger on it. When someone finds out I am Filipino they usually just ask me to cook them pancit or adobo. I can’t blame them, because dat shit is good.
Leeann: Oh my god, I’ve gotten some really interesting reactions. From white folks, there’s usually A LOT of surprise, because I “read” as white or Asian to them. The surprise itself doesn’t bother me if it’s just matter-of-fact, getting-to-know-you type stuff. But then there’s the offensive kind of surprise, where it’s clear that this person is just struggling to put me in an appropriate box. The most common examples are people going, “No! Really?!” Like, OK, you wouldn’t be this surprised if you weren’t carrying around very rigid ideas about race that I don’t conform to. What really bugs me is when people say, “But you’re not really Puerto Rican,” meaning that I don’t fit their stereotypes of a Latina. Or this question: “So do you put Hispanic on applications?” I’m always like, “Yeah, because otherwise I’d be lying.” I love (meaning hate) the implication that I’m only mentioning a fundamental part of my identity to gain some imaginary advantage. Only white people are under the impression that being Puerto Rican has ever gotten anyone anywhere in this country! I think it shows what a fucked-up relationship people have to race here. If your race is not immediately apparent, or doesn’t conform to certain stereotypes, people immediately start policing it. Petra sent me a link to this video piece by the performance artist Adrian Piper that explores this so eloquently. The first time I watched it I got goosebumps.
Marie: What’s the reaction been like among other Puerto Ricans?
Leeann: They’re so refreshingly no-big-deal about it! They seem happy to know another Puerto Rican, and this is true of everyone I’ve met from a Spanish-speaking country. There’s a real solidarity there, which is nice, because sometimes I do worry that I’m not “culturally Puerto Rican” enough.
Marie: Filipinos always seem happy to meet other Filipinos! It’s always cool to meet another Italian, too, but there’s not a bunch of them in one place on the West Coast. L.A. doesn’t even have a Little Italy, which has always BURNED MY BRUSCHETTA.
Leeann: Have you ever been a victim of racism?
Marie: One time I gave a dollar to a homeless dude, and his form of gratitude was yelling, “Gung ho, la choy!” Another time, I was at Magic Mountain, and a group of older kids started doing that racist hand gesture where you stretch the corners of your eyes with your fingers. They yelled “chink eyes” at me and my friends. I was 10 at that time, but not so naïve that I didn’t notice that these kids weren’t white. They looked like the latest incarnation of Menudo. (I loved Menudo.) So it was not only my first experience of racism, but also the first time I realized that people of any ethnicity can be racist. It was a very Do the Right Thing moment.
Leeann: This is complicated, because I have white skin, and I “pass” as white, and there’s a huge amount of privilege that goes along with that. So the racism I’ve experienced is very small compared with what other people go through. It’s shocking when that curtain pulls back—and even my shock is a privilege! The most blunt example of racism I’ve encountered was when a former boyfriend mentioned to his mother over dinner that I was half Puerto Rican. Now, I loved this woman so much, she was wonderful to me, but it was just so clear that this information, like, rocked her world. She put down her fork, looked at me in this weird, appraising way that she never had before, and said, “No way. But your features are so refined. You must be more Spanish than Puerto Rican.” She said it with this kindly tone, like how you would reassure a friend if they said they were ugly. It’s clear from her statement that she thought that being Puerto Rican was not beautiful or “refined,” and she wanted to reassure me that I looked…white, basically! This was her idea of a compliment. I remember trying to explain to my boyfriend how that felt.
Marie: Did you have any celebrity role models that you looked up to?
Leeann: Man, I really didn’t have too many! I always felt a little bit (OK, a lot) of connection with J. Lo, and I thought it was awesome when I found out Joaquin Phoenix was “sorta Rican” like me (pretty sure I coined that term, by the way!). But for the most part, it was reading people like Malcolm X, bell hooks, and Angela Y. Davis that just resonated so much with my experiences and beliefs and gave me a framework for how I think about race. Reading about the history of the Young Lords, the United Farm Workers movement—all these things that made me really proud of the history of resistance among Hispanic people and determined to embrace it.
Marie: You know, I wish there was a Cool Mestiza Chicks newsletter back when I was growing up, but I wasn’t aware of one. (Though some internet research just showed me that there was! There was a zine called Bamboo Girl, and probably more like it. Listen, we didn’t have the internet back then.) And half-Filipino celebrities were almost nonexistent, though I was REALLY excited to find out that Lou Diamond Philips (from the movie La Bamba) had Filipino blood! Outside of school, I hung out with kids who were like me, daughters of my mom’s friends, so I did get to experience that kind of common bond, even if it wasn’t in school. How do you feel about being mixed now versus when you were growing up?
Leeann: I’m just sort of over denying a part of myself for other people’s comfort. If people think I’m mentioning my race to get a pass, it no longer makes me question my right to identify as a Latina. I am who I am, I’m proud of it, and if somebody has a weird or racist reaction to it, that says a lot more about them than it does about me. Also, I’m a helluva lot more mouthy than I used to be, and I am not afraid to call someone out for a racist comment. It’s led to some uncomfortable moments between friends, but if I don’t say anything, I’m just internalizing all that discomfort. I’m a big believer in handing it back to them.
Marie: I definitely am proud of being Filipino and Italian. I’ve embraced growing up in two cultures because that’s what makes me ME! Also, I have learned that my surroundings were just as much as an influence as my actual ethnicity. I constantly joke that I am the Number One Fake Mexican because, growing up in Southern California, I was so immersed in Latino culture. I probably understand more Spanish than I do Tagalog or Italian. I wish I could go back in time to tell Young Rie not to get pissed off about being mistaken for Mexican. Do you think things have changed since we were kids?
Leeann: I honestly don’t feel that things have changed much! I’ve gotten the “you’re not really Puerto Rican” as recently as this year. The best-case scenario is when someone seems to know that they SHOULDN’T make a big deal out of it, but even that seems awkward. For me, the matter-of-fact response has just never been the norm, from white folks anyway. It’s usually either awkwardness or prurient, exoticizing interest—did I mention the former boyfriend who used to ask me to do a “Rosie Perez voice”? Ugh. I did it a few times and then I realized, um, I don’t even think Rosie Perez really talks like this! There’s still an incredibly backwards attitude towards race in this country, and attitudes toward multiracial people are so telling, because they get at the heart of how people really feel about racial boundaries. What do you think, M?
Marie: I think there’s two sides to the coin. On one hand, the statistic regarding the increase in America’s mixed-race population gives me hope that the little half-Filipina girl sitting in class right now doesn’t experience those feelings of strange isolation and prejudice that I did. On the other hand, I agree with you that racism is still very much alive and thriving. Anyone following the news lately can’t really argue otherwise. Also, I don’t understand how the entertainment business is still extremely lacking in racial diversity. Like, where my Pinoys at? Yes, there are more famous Filipinos on the big screen nowadays, but it’s a travesty that my people are still so underrepresented. Lemme get a shout out to my fellow mestizas Hailee Steinfeld, Cheryl Burke, Shannyn Sossamon, and Nicole Sherzinger! Vanessa Hudgens, you will probably have to play me in the Lifetime Original Movie. ♦