Hispanics/Latinos · Jews/Jewish/Judaism/Orthodox Judaism

My nickname growing up was "white girl"

A short video on growing up in Washington Heights:

I love the Heights. With Dominican food, Dominican people and Dominican Spanish at every street corner, I can’t help but feel like I’m home when I come down from Riverdale to visit. I am, after all, a Dominican-American so why wouldn’t I feel most at home in the epicenter of Dominican life in America? And now that I’m Jewish, I can appreciate the kosher food, Jewish people and well, that some of those Jews are actually speaking Spanish, too, once in a blue moon at the Golan Heights restaurant. (I also get overly excited when I spot people speaking Hebrew and am able to understand what’s being said.)

But I HATED the Heights growing up there. Possibly, because my nickname was “white girl” and people meant it in the nastiest way possible, I didn’t feel at home in Washington Heights. It took me years to realize why I really didn’t fit in. From the point I was placed in bilingual kindergarten with kids who spoke mostly Spanish, whereas I spoke Spanglish, things were off. When I wasn’t being teased for speaking too much English, I was being teased for not speaking enough Spanish. By first grade, even though I had plenty of Dominican friends, I seemed to gravitate towards other outsiders, the nerdy kids, the few black, Asian, Greek and Arab kids….

High school, which was an art school, with kids from all times of socioeconomic, cultural and racial backgrounds was a reprieve. So I was shocked when I had to deal with the same old thing in college, I’d dealt with in Washington Heights. In college, people, particularly Hispanic students, would ask if I was half-white. People would ask if I was really Hispanic because I felt more comfortable speaking English. Because they questioned my identity, I felt uncomfortable in it. Was I really Dominican? Nobody but me seemed to think so. I was stuck in some limbo: too American for Hispanics and not American enough, too exotic even, for whites.

It wasn’t until I started writing about this issue for Latina magazine that I realized that it wasn’t just being light-skinned and having kinky hair that made other people think I was biracial or somehow, less Hispanic. Unlike the parents’ of many of my classmates, my parents had come to New York as teens (preteens in my mother’s case) so there was this overwhelming cultural divide between me and a lot of my classmates. Somehow, I was first-generation American but I operated like second-generation American in a sea of immigrants who had very strong ideas about what Americans (whites) acted like and what Hispanics acted like…even if that wasn’t what Hispanics were like “back home.” I’d never had to “learn English” (which is probably why I find it so insufferable when people ask when I did). I’d never had to translate for my parents like so many of my friends did. I’d never suffered in some way it was expected I should have suffered.

And there was something else. In the Heights, in a school full of mostly Dominicans, you weren’t just a nerd (or in my case, leader of “the Nerd patrol!” according to Jose Bozo), you were “white.” You were acting white, talking white. And even if you weren’t and didn’t see it that way, you learned that even when you were in a school full of whites (in college), that even white people saw you as “acting white” but unlike your Dominican friends, they complimented you on it. Never once realizing that they made you just as uncomfortable as you were growing up when your Dominican classmates teased you for the same thing.
When people ask me, usually white Jews, why I’m so hung up on identity issues, I don’t even know where to start. I remember being so angry when I Tweeted: “Are you afro-Caribbean if you aren’t black but have an afro?” and someone responded, “Who cares?” Me, obviously. And not just me, people around me, people in my family who have always commented on my skin color, my hair, my English, my Spanish. They just don’t ask the same questions in the same way.
What people see as “identity issues” is something I have been dealing with my whole life and will continue to deal with, on a much larger scale now as a Jew of color, often the only Jew of color in the room. I find that I feel most at home with Jews of color, most at home with other Hispanic converts, most at home with mixed people Jewish or not, people who have traveled similar roads, people who have lived in the in-between, lived with similar discomfort who don’t ask me constant, probing questions but then wonder why I have so many “issues.”
I also know, more than most, certainly better than Alice, that if I stumbled over a hookah-smoking caterpillar in Wonderland who asked, “Whooooooo are you?” I’d have one heck of an answer. Now if only I could get Tim Burton to make it into a IMAX 3-D experience.
Note: This blog was written in response to the YouTube video below:
“Acting White” at the Bus Stop

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