My last name—Cos-ca-RELL-i—ideally pronounced with a kiss of the fingers, like when a chef perfects his tomato sauce—is as Italian as spaghetti Bolognese, and my light complexion and dark, curly hair only add to that impression. To really understand my heritage, you’d have to look further—at my mother, for instance, who was born in New York City’s Spanish Harlem with the last name Sanabia, to parents who were born and raised in the Dominican Republic and immigrated to the United States as young adults. My mother is the second of their three daughters. Which all makes me half Hispanic, though you wouldn’t know it by looking at me, and I don’t announce it to most of the people I meet. My Dominican ancestry is a secret that I have never tried to keep.
When I tell people about that side of my family, the first thing they say is “No way!” The second is usually “So, do you speak Spanish?” “Un poquito,” I respond, abashed. Most of the blame is deservedly mine—after studying it for 10-plus years in school, I should be able to speak more than “a little bit” of Spanish—but I’m still unable to forgive my parents, neither of whom speaks English as a first language, for not raising me to be a trilingual genius-child. Instead, my upbringing was basically that of any American white kid.
Another question I get a lot is whether I applied to college as a Hispanic student for the admissions advantage that can come with being a minority. I didn’t—not because I’m ashamed of that part of my background, but because checking that box would feel like a lie. It would feel like cheating—claiming a minority status when it might benefit me, never having had to suffer any of the disadvantages that justify those benefits. I know that my parents had to overcome considerable hurdles to assimilate into a society in which racism and xenophobia are still alarmingly common, but those hardships are mere abstractions to me—nothing I have ever experienced directly, nor even been told much about. The people who raised me cleared that brush from my path before I was born and have largely shielded me from it ever since, not wanting to burden me and my sister with any baggage—cultural or otherwise—that we didn’t need to carry.
When my father moved to America at the age of 10, he changed his name—Guiseppe—to the more American “Joe” and taught himself to speak English with no trace of an Italian accent. My mother’s English is just as flawless, and, because of her wavy hair and freckled skin, she doesn’t always “read” as Dominican at first sight—her fellow countrymen are often surprised when she slips easily into Spanish. Neither of my parents ever describes themselves as minorities or as victims of racial or ethnic discrimination, and they’ve passed this apparent lack of concern on to me. As a family, we’re never treated as the Other. This is a luxury that comes with a fair amount of guilt.
This “burden” of mine is gossamer-light compared with the weight of racial prejudice, of course. My life is way easier than it would be if I didn’t “look” white. I’m not crying about any of this. But I want to describe how weird it feels, because I think the fact of white privilege feels weird to everyone, of all racial permutations. I want to talk about it, because not talking about it makes its influence all the more insidious.
It’s a privilege to be able to pass as white, because being white confers so many perks and exemptions. Because of their relatively light skin, Italian immigrants had a much smoother entry into America’s mainstream (white) culture than darker-skinned people ever have. When they began arriving in the States in the late 19th century, Italians were denied fair housing and employment, disproportionately convicted of crimes, and even physically attacked because of their ethnicity. Today, they are not even considered a minority.
Hispanic people, on the other hand, are still struggling to be accepted and respected in this country. I see this everywhere: people who look like my family being harassed by cops, portrayed as criminal or hypersexualized, being barred from even crossing the border into this place. It’s only because that part of me is hidden from the outside world that I’ve never had to experience any of this stuff. My mother’s family has never talked much about our Dominican-ness and how it’s been regarded and, yes, changed by America. And I haven’t exactly been a great personal historian: The longest conversation I’ve ever had with my abuelita about her immigration story was for a middle school project. The only time I’ve been to the Dominican Republic, we stayed at a resort. My grandparents didn’t come.
If I ever have kids, I wonder if they’ll even want to go to the DR, or if they’ll want to visit for the same reasons that my white friends do: tropical vacations at cut-rate prices! They’d only be following the logical progression that has moved through the past few generations of my family—from my grandparents, whose English is still shaky after all this time; to my parents, who didn’t think to teach their kids their own native languages; to me, who loves the Dominican-American writer Junot Díaz and the indie movie Raising Victor Vargas, but from a distance, because they’re just good, not because I feel any deep cultural connection to them.
And yet, I don’t want my family’s history to be forgotten. This is on me. The Sanabias are full of stories, and even if they’ve always tried to protect me from the more painful ones, it’s up to me to let them know I want to hear them. I need to, if I want to be able to pass them on. ♦