Many Sides, One Story

“Really? But you’re just so…white.”

It’s always a surprise when I tell people that I am half Puerto Rican, and most times I am met with disbelief. My father is white and Jewish, and my mother is Puerto Rican. My pale skin, auburn curly hair, and last name all make me appear to be completely white and Jewish. People are shocked that I was raised Catholic and am also bilingual.

I vividly remember doing a family tree presentation about my ancestry in the fourth grade. That day on the playground, the other kids from my class were all talking about their ethnicities. At the young age of nine, I began to realize my differences. I heard my classmates speaking of their own backgrounds: Irish, Italian, Polish, Jewish with a European background—all typical of my New Jersey hometown. When I said that not only was I half Catholic and half Jewish, but that my Catholic side was Puerto Rican, one girl came up to me and said, “That’s not possible.” That was the first day I recognized that being biracial would be a different experience for me and that not everyone could relate to or understand my identity.

When I was eight years old, there wasn’t even an American Girl doll that looked like me. They were all simply one thing: white, black, or Asian. Some were blonde, some were brunette, and one was a redhead. And that was all. I was American—born in Long Island, New York and raised in New Jersey. So why wouldn’t American Girl have a doll that looked like me? I couldn’t grasp the fact that other people did not acknowledge biracial individuals.

I spoke to Emerson freshman and business of creative enterprises major Xea Myers, who is half Italian and half Jamaican. She, too, has felt disregarded and invalidated due to being white passing.

“It was difficult at times. I would go to New York to visit my dad’s side, and his family would make comments like, ‘You’re so white, why isn’t your hair curly anymore?’ (my hair is treated and straight now), and tell me that I had lost my Jamaican accent,” recounts Myers. “My friends from school wouldn’t understand why it took me longer to do my hair in the morning, and why it was so thick, coarse, and curly despite my very fair complexion. People always tell me that I look like something else. But despite these things, I love being a part of two completely different cultures.” 

Throughout my own school years, I was often the only one with curly hair. It was not difficult to spot me in class photos. When it came to filling out forms for school, I would always check off both “white” and “Hispanic.” When the forms were returned to me, I would sometimes only see a check next to one of these categories. I became a pawn that they used: I was whatever they needed that year for the quota, despite the fact that my identity was not just one thing. 

The two sides of my family are drastically different. At times, I know that my Jewish relatives might be disappointed that I didn’t have a bat mitzvah. And at other times, I know that my Puerto Rican relatives wished that I had learned Spanish earlier on in life, as I did not become fluent until my senior year of high school. And in middle school and high school, when both sides of my cultures had traditional milestones that I was expected to choose between, I felt torn. I wished that people could just see me—my personality, my interests—not just my ethnicities and cultures.

But despite what I may wish for, appearances are what people see and judge first. And physical appearances are only part of being biracial. The cultural practices are far more important. Sophomore marketing major Julianne Stein, who is Asian American with Chinese heritage, was brought up in a mixed Jewish and Asian household. 

“I definitely think that my childhood was different from my friends who identify as one race. I have simply been exposed to more different cultures and traditions than them,” says Stein.

Despite the fact that balancing two cultures can be challenging at times, at the end of the day, they are both major parts of my identity. I feel lucky to have experienced many different cultural practices—a gift that not everyone gets the chance to experience. I get to have Jewish latkes on Hanukkah, and traditional Puerto Rican pastéles on Christmas, followed by my mother’s famous temblequé for dessert. Learning about different cultures, even down to the smallest details, has allowed me to have a more well-rounded understanding of the world, and more compassion for others. They are a part of my story. And I wouldn’t trade them for anything.