Making Space For Grief While I Examine My White Latina Privilege

Los Angeles summers means finding any available pool at any available time to find refuge from the heat

White Latina privilege

Photo courtesy of Andrea Canizares-Fernandez

Los Angeles summers means finding any available pool at any available time to find refuge from the heat.  This, for me and my friend Cara, meant borrowing our friend Logan’s pool key on a Sunday afternoon while he was working. Cara, a blue-eyed blonde from California, took the lawn chair and tanning route while I swam eagerly, fully emerging myself both in the water and in the nostalgia of childhood summers perfecting flips and cannonballs. There were others at the pool, and I could see the joy of two young girls holding hands as they jumped into the water and the arms of their mother. They talked to each other in Spanish, and with their light brown skin I assumed that this was a Latin American family.

Did they know about me? No, no, no, I told myself as I treaded water at a distance, wanting to smile at them and maybe tell them in Spanish how yo tengo tantas memorias jugando con mi hermano en una piscina como esta. Yo les entiendo, mi Mami es igual, me decía “cuidado mija no te resbales” cuando trataba de correr al lado del agua. But I couldn’t. I made brief eye contact with them and turned away, thinking about how my freckled white skin and blue green eyes likely made me a distant stranger in a distant category.
That, in their eyes, I was more like my friend Cara than I was like them. White white white white….white presenting?

I hold my breath under water for a little bit too long as I feel deep guilt for wishing my skin was more brown. Because maybe then I would feel less alone.

As we continue to navigate the complexity of racial and ethnic labels that are both social constructs and have deeply important societal consequences, a conversation that I have seen on social media is the debate between calling lighter-skinned Latin people “white-presenting” vs “white.” From my understanding, some feel that the term “white-presenting” is an apt and appropriate term to describe oneself, because while they can appear as white in many circumstances, “white” does not encapsulate their Latin heritage, indigenous ancestry, nor the prejudice they have faced for their last names, their accents, their features, their upbringing.
However, the general critique I have heard is that doing so distances the “white-presenting” person from the responsibility of whiteness, which is especially unjust because these white-presenting people are really just considered as white to society and therefore in most ways receive the safety and privilege that white people receive.

For example, to the cops I am simply a white person and therefore am treated as a white person and don’t face the fear of police brutality. Additionally, perhaps the label “white” is in fact the appropriate and accurate label because for most Latin people, a portion of one’s ancestry is Spanish and other European colonizers. And (often) the more white you look, the larger the colonizer portion is of your ancestry pie, and thus grows your responsibility to acknowledge the harm and devastation that your ancestors caused. And lastly, just like the rest of the world, white supremacy reigns in all Central and South American countries and surrounding islands, thus the hierarchical structure of society is based on proximity to whiteness. Pale-skinned María may be “white-presenting” in Georgia, but in Colombia she is white and therefore structurally has more access to power, safety, and resources in Colombia.

This all rings true to me, as I, myself, have experienced a wealth of privilege due to my skin color, unlike other darker skinned Fernandez people in the world. There is no denying that strangers smile at me, that I am never the suspect, that I can feel more welcomed into white communities, and can get away with so much more. I can speak my mind and know that it is more likely someone will listen. The access to opportunity that I have is unquantifiable, simply because I am white.

And yet why have I had a long-standing aversion to owning the word “white?” “White Latina” is an identifier I more easily swallow, and yet for so long my insides would get prickly of the thought of associating myself with whiteness. Perhaps it is because for so long we have confused Hispanic/Latin as a race instead of an ethnicity, or as both. Perhaps it is because, while whiteness as a racial label is supposed to only signify skin color, it is often associated with so much more than that. Someone says “white person” and I think “Rebecca from Michigan,” or “Stacy in Des Moine.” At least in my experience in the US, being “white” is automatically associated with being Anglo. Being “American.” Being a Gringa. And my familia instilled in me at a young age that being gringa is NOT GOOD VERY BAD BASICALLY THE DEVIL.

And also, perhaps, it was difficult to embrace my privilege because I wasn’t giving myself room to grieve.

Growing up as the sole freckled blue/green-eyed redhead in my family is at best, special, at worst, isolating. It was a longstanding joke amongst my dark-haired cousins that I would be disowned if I ever dyed my hair. I was la blanquita pelirroja linda. And also, every summer spent in our country felt like I was a stranger in my homeland. I stood out like a strawberry in a field of wheat. Anyone I ever interacted with in Ecuador would do a double take when I spoke to them in Spanish. Vendors at los mercados would give me tourist prices and when I’d hit them in an Ecuadorian accent with a hard bargain like my Papi taught me, they wouldn’t bother to hide their open mouths and saucer eyes.

White Latina privilege
Photo courtesy of Andrea Canizares-Fernandez

I have lived so much of my life feeling ashamed of being a gringuita. Feeling the need to speak Spanish perfectly to my family, because if I slipped up then that meant I wasn’t like them, I wasn’t a real Latina. Spanish felt like it was my only form of proof that I belonged in my culture. That, and my Ecuadorian passport.

I have also lived so much of my life feeling like I didn’t quite fit in my Anglo communities. It felt like I should be the part because I looked the part. But it didn’t matter that I wore Aeropostale shirts, cowboy boots, and went to prom. I just wasn’t the same All-American girl like my peers were. I am rarely recognized as being Latina. It is such a privilege to be able to choose when to disclose my identity. It also can be so incredibly alienating. I am a veteran to comments like: “You’re Ecuadorian???” “¿Cómo puedes hablar Español tan bien?” “No way you’re Latin, you must be Spanish.” “Were you adopted?” “BOTH of your parents are Ecuadorian?” Sometimes I wish so desperately that a Latin stranger would see me at a store, on the bus, on the street as their hermana, their comadre. I wish to be seen. Perhaps, being called white feels like I’m being pushed even further away from the people I want to feel close to.

Three summers ago I took a DNA test because I was so insecure about my Latin heritage that I needed to know how much of my ancestry was Indigenous to South America. Turns out, about half. I wanted to scream it to the masses: SEE? I BELONG IN THIS COMMUNITY! PLEASE, LET ME BELONG!

Grief was something that took me a long time to feel. Whether it was consciously instilled in me or not, something I internalized from being raised by two immigrant parents was “the suffering you feel isn’t valid, and pales in comparison to the suffering of others, so stop suffering and ponte las pilas.” It has taken me years of therapy to figure out that I have nothing to prove, there is no external judge deciding the hierarchy of pain, and that negating myself from feeling my grief doesn’t help anybody.

And because of that, I am also learning that maybe, when it comes to racial labels, my DNA ancestry isn’t relevant. Maybe I can cherish and belong to my heritage and culture while ALSO being white. Maybe the pain and suffering I have due to and around my Latin identity is just as valid as the privilege. Both are true.

At 1:51pm on Wednesdays, aka right after my weekly virtual therapy session, I wipe my snot nose with the toilet paper I have learned to keep next to me for easy access. I let the remaining tears spill and feel both the weight of everything I have just spoken about for the past 50 minutes, and also the relief of having gotten to do so.

This is the process of grieving, and also the process of healing. I think this to myself as I hold my stuffed koala bear like a child. There is such nuance in identity. You are welcome to call me white. I will continue to examine my discomfort, give myself compassion, and let the tears fall as I confide in my loved ones about what it means to be una Ecuatoriana blanquita.

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