I knew that I was Latina growing up, and I didn’t. My mother, the keeper, would remain quiet on the subject; mostly, she said she didn’t know whenever I would ask. My last name was either a signifier or a coincidence. Sometimes she would change her story and say that I was Latina, on my father’s side, and that my grandmother lived in Venezuela but she had never met her and knew nothing about her. I couldn’t claim something I had such a weak grip on.
When she passed away and I found out that my father was actually alive, contrary to what I had believed all of my life, nothing immediately changed. My father and I weren’t close, we didn’t talk much, and I didn’t have any huge revelations about who I was and what I had come from, save for the occasional detail that left me confused about why my mother had never told me. Why she had hidden so much about something that should have been an integral part of my formation. I left the new tidbits of knowledge in a corner of my brain and let them gather dust at its own pace. It was easier that way, I thought. Maybe I was just not meant to know. I felt some longing, but it was buried so deep beneath a façade that declared “I don’t need to define myself with labels,” that it only came and went, visiting me in my moments of doubt.
Reconciling myself to this new culture was even harder because I had been living with my now-former guardian, a white liberal archetype who savored the idea of being accepting and “saving” others from themselves—including me—but who had no interest in developing knowledge of a culture beyond her own. There was barely room in our apartment for my mother’s Trinidadian roots to replant themselves, much less a whole new sprout that took up even more space because it included a different language, a concrete barrier. I tried to deny it, but I was actively being whitewashed. And that hurt more than my uncertainty.
Added to that, I had almost no Latinx friends, and the ones who were were sure of themselves had their unwavering accents and set-in-stone traditions. I felt as if I was trying to hop into a crowded pool with my clothes on: I was late, didn’t belong, and was in fool’s wear. When I did attempt to claim Latinx identity, I was usually met with a confusion that made me feel absolutely stupid for owning what was mine. How could I be Latinx and dark-skinned? How could I not know the name of this dish and that holiday or roll my “r”s or navigate a botánica with admirable ease? It was awful. I knew that none of this stopped me from being Latina, and that anyone erring on the side of criticism was wrong. You can be Latinx and any skin color, you can not know a single word of Español, you can not know every place that your family is from. You may not even know that you are Latinx. It is entirely possible. To invalidate any of these experiences is to assume that there is one specific way to be anything, especially something as fluid and intangible as a race or an ethnicity.
When I knew, when I really knew, was when I met Ingrid. My cousin on my father’s side and closer to my mother’s age than mine, she entered my life unexpectedly, a kind of archangel/mother figure/blunt fairy godmother hybrid. Immediately, she struck me as someone I was safe around, a familiar presence. Within our first few meetings, my cousin told me the history of our family: How the Franco name had left Spain a few generations back and transplanted itself in the Caribbean and South America; that my great-grandmother had been from Cuba and settled in Grenada and Venezuela. Ingrid also told me what her 12 years of growing up in the latter place had been like, how much she’d loved it, and explained how her own migration was embedded in this plot. All of a sudden, there was far too much to masticate.
My main concern, however, became my growing readiness to accept this part of me that wasn’t even new, just new to me. I felt guilty: When I was younger, being the wrong kind of Other was one of my worst problems, which hit the hardest in middle school where over half of my school was white and Eastern European. My Trinidadian heritage couldn’t be exoticized or eroticized because no one could even place it on a map. “Trinidad? Isn’t that in, like, Africa?” a boy once said to me as we sat on the stage of the auditorium. It was not the first or last time that someone asked me a question of a similar strain. I was angry that the names of our food made other kids giggle, and that I couldn’t find beauty in my melanin or coils of hair. My feelings about Trini culture changed drastically in the years that followed, but at the time I was absolutely frustrated. The criticism built me up, but it also mangled my connection to the culture that made me. Now I was faced with a part of myself that I relentlessly wanted to accept.
A bigger part of my guilt came from the fact that all my life, what little I did know about my father was filtered through my mother’s antagonism toward him. This is one of the most difficult topics for me to think about. I can’t ask my mom about it, and so I must rely on what she would occasionally say about my father in fits of anger, and what I have come to learn about him on my own. The two conflict in ways that bother me constantly. Regardless, knowing my mother’s feelings about him has made it difficult to not feel bad for embracing a lineage that I owe to him. And my former reticence about my Trinidadian culture makes the offense even worse.
I do not understand why there is a constant need to put values on each of our identities and order them in a way that forces pieces of ourselves to the bottom of the barrel, as if we can only be one thing, or as if the sum of ourselves is too much to bear the force of. My shame over realizing that I’d suppressed such an important part of myself as a kid convinced me that trying to understand my father’s culture would invalidate my Trinidadian heritage, and seem far too inorganic. This, of course, was something of a cop-out. The truth is, I didn’t know how to reconcile the labels I had for myself without the time and the understanding needed to do so well, and that terrified me. It is even more difficult to try to reconcile being two different daughters, to belong to two different families and lineages that should find their balance in me but instead have met much turmoil.
I still don’t know how to have these parts of myself feel fully at home with each other nor how to feel at peace with their coexistence, but I believe that the key is to stop worrying. Stop worrying about not knowing this word in Spanish or forgetting this holiday or thinking I have to play Identity Hopscotch, constantly jumping from one to another. I can wear all my flags at once. ♦