I’ve often blogged about my somewhat complicated relationship with my own ethnicity. Climbing the ancestral tree, all four of my grandparents were born outside of the U.S. — three in Puerto Rico, and one in the Philippines. Puerto Ricans didn’t become American citizens until 1917, when the Jones-Shafroth Act produced fresh conscription material for World War I. Since all of my grandparents were born earlier than that, it means all 4 of them were immigrants.
As fate would have it, they all moved to New York City (Brooklyn, to be specific) to find a better life. Never able to lose their accents, they worked long hours at menial jobs, all so that their children could experience the American dream that was ultimately beyond their grasps.
For my parents, the American dream meant leaving the City, buying a house in the suburbs, and assimilating.
It was pretty easy for us. My brothers and I were all fair-skinned and didn’t speak Spanish — that was the secret language of my mother and my grandparents. I was a good student, and I lived in a house that looked like every other house in the neighborhood.
It took many years for me to understand that I wasn’t your run-of-the-mill white kid. Ironically, the same parents who raised me to be ethnically neutral encouraged me to indicate that I was Hispanic in order to get into medical school. I refused, and ended up with a degree in Computer Science.
And yet it gnawed at me — this notion that I was able to slink chameleon-like between identities, invoking the race card when it proved advantageous, and relying on my pale complexion the rest of the time. I often feel simultaneously cheated out of being more in touch with my ancestry, while at the same time enjoying traffic stops that end in mere warnings, and border crossings that end with “have a nice day”.
I’m reminded of November 1979, after a summer spent largely at the beach left me with a dark tan. I was in a TV lounge at Harvard University on the night Iranian students took over the American embassy in Tehran. I was brown, had a bushy beard, and wasn’t a student. For the first time in my life, I was racially profiled.
Since then, I’ve learned that prolonged exposure to the sun is bad for you, so I’ve returned to fold of the privileged pale. I remain humbled that so many fellow Puertorriqueños do not have that same option. And yes, it’s wrong.