By Rana Zoe Mungin
The key, ultimately, is to blend.
Granma speaks Spanish, but she’s dark enough that no one asks, just assumes, really, that she’s the same: black, Afro American, whatever you’re willing to say. Her people are from PR, but she was born on St. Croix, the only kid with a different daddy, cursed with the sharp European features of her mother with skin the color of coal (that’s from her papi). It’s a death sentence, really. When you’re dark-skinned, it doesn’t matter how pretty you are; you’re always going to get shit.
Granma gets married and has a baby, but she eventually leaves both of them in St. Croix. She’s too dark for the in-laws; nappy-haired, like there was too much Africa in the water where she was born. And I don’t care what anyone says, negrita isn’t always a nice word.
When Granma moves to New York, she locks up her Spanish like a bad thing. She straightens her hair, wears bright red lipstick that makes her skin shine and the men call. She never dates another latino, but there are Russians and Jews instead. She copies the ways that they talk, heavy with parts of Brooklyn she’s never even visited, staining herself with a heritage not her own. There are anthropological terms for all of this (acculturation, assimilation, appropriation) but whatever. Granma was making shit work.
Granma gets married again, this time to a black man from Carolina (like the rice) named Herbert. My Granpa has a complexion like tea with too much milk, pale gray eyes like an animal. There’s a bit too much of Africa in him, too, but Granma gets pregnant and she’s Catholic so they get married and when the baby is born (my uncle), he’s the color of tea with just enough milk. Not white, like Granpa, but light-skinned enough to pass the brown paper bag test. Granma doesn’t know about things like that, just her own prejudices about black skin, and her kids—all café con leche complected, arejust light enough. When they move to East New York, it’s Granpa who’s assumed to be the non-black anomaly. Granma doesn’t even allow herself to have an accent, other than what she’s picked up from the Jews. It’s easy. She fits.
Two generations later, this is the identity the colors my skin: dark and ill-fitting, unsuited for the labels my grandmother embraced, a way to avoid the rejection from the place where she was born. ‘Black’ is a label that can define anyone with a little pigment, hair not exactly straight. For years, inmy house, we permed our curls into submission. To Granma, that was the right thing to do.
Even through my grandmother’s denial, there was the endurance of culture, routine and instinctual: Mass on Sundays, all rosaries and the Jesus-candles that they sell in the corner stores (bodegas, because where Granma was from had followed her all the way to East New York, and when I’m a kid, everything is en español. The flags that hang from the houses are red, white, and blue, but instead of fifty starts, there’s only a single one, centered in a blue triangle, viva Borinquén).
Granpa taught my grandmother how to make pig’s feet and collards; biscuits came from a can. Still, every other product in the pantry was Goya, and when Granma cooked, it rice and beans, plantain, roast pork. But even if her culture bled through to our stomachs, she never gave us the words:arroz y gandules, tostones, pernil. And without words, without language, it’s as if you have nothing. Without Spanish, you are denied any ownership to being latina—a label Granma cast off like old clothes, something you donate to the church, because you don’t need it, and you’re okay with the idea of never getting it back again.
This is something I never acknowledged about my grandmother. My life tasted like adobo and sofrito, and Granma still spoke Spanish, she did—when she called her sister (Titi Alicia), still in St. Croix, or when she cursed out my uncle’s baby mother, a Dominican (dios mío, what crazy kids). I was like every person who told her she’d been born someplace there was too much Africa in the water. Granma couldn’t be Spanish because she was too dark; by the time I knew better—after she was dead—I couldn’t be Spanish because I didn’t have the right words.
It’s a peculiar absence, missing something you’ve never had. My father was rather absentee, but fathers are hardly necessary. Useful, perhaps, but I didn’t notice that mine wasn’t there. And yet, as soon as I acknowledged my grandmother’s heritage—built into my very name, there isn’t a story for la rana, not like the coqui, but if you know enough, you know it means something, which I was completed oblivious to for the first ten years of my life.
Lacking Spanish left me unable to express something essential to myself. It is not just about food, or the rosary. It’s not just the sound of Granma’s sandals—chancletas—when she was still here. It’s the sound of my mother’s sandals, now, though the only Spanish she knows is from Dora, and what she’s picked up in the bodegas over the years (“Ay, papi, you cheated me out of forty cents!”)
It’s the loss of the ability to relate to an entire community, conversations I may only have if someone condescends to speak to me en ingles. Sometimes, they don’t have the English. Sometimes, they don’t want to share, like the Spanish is a secret, a key to membership some people don’t want you to have. Not all Puerto Ricans—not all Latinas—are curly-haired and fair-skinned. You can’t be denied if you know the language (negrita’s not always nice, I told you), but if you don’t have the words, then there’s nothing for you to hold.
Oh, you eat rice and beans, nena? That’s nice. Your abuelita didn’t teach you Spanish? Ay, pobrecita. Sometimes, though, that’s how it goes.
Photo: Courtesy of Zoe Mungin