This is my coming out story.
I am coming out as a biracial American. My father is Bolivian and my mother is Pakistani; they met in their English class at community college in Queens, New York. Neither spoke much English but they found that nonverbal communication transcended common language. They used their hands to point to relevant objects or broke out into random fits of "charades" when they needed to. Perhaps more powerfully, it was the emotions they wore on their faces -- the laughter, smiles, and tears -- that helped them understand each other. Together they learned English. Soon thereafter, they got married and had four children. My siblings and I defeated the odds and went off to some of the best schools in the world: UPenn, Columbia, UChicago, Cornell; and for masters degrees, NYU and Harvard.
Below are pictures of my parents and I:
Growing up I went to a private Catholic school and largely identified as a Latina. It wasn't that I was ashamed of my Pakistani heritage, but I struggled to see how my Pakistani side affected my daily life. I spoke Spanish -- albeit not fluently -- and I was accustomed to eating traditional Latino dishes for dinner. I went to Mass on Sundays and enjoyed playing on one of our many zampoñas, traditional Bolivian wind instruments. For some reason, we had a lot of zampoñas around the house.
When I visited my Pakistani grandparents on the weekends -- whom I call "Nani" and "Nana" -- they would teach me basic Urdu. My Nani wears traditional Pakistani garb and bought me a few Pakistani outfits when I was younger. I loved them so much that I would organize (I use "organize" loosely) fashion shows after dinner and strut down the hall wearing colorful headscarves. That was the extent of my exposure to my Pakistani heritage.
As a child I looked very Pakistani, though people would say I looked Indian (unable to discern Pakistani facial features from Indian facial features). After September 11, I, like many other Pakistani or Indian children, was bullied by my classmates. They called me a "terrorist" and otherized me beyond what I was prepared for. "Otherization", in my opinion, occurs when one group establishes norms and expectations, and prohibits specific people from enjoying the benefits of meeting those norms. As an American, I was baffled to hear others making me feel like a distant foreigner. They bullied me so much about my heritage that I began to intentionally reject my Pakistani side.
I was confused about my race and about where I stood on the racial spectrum. When I was 11 years old, I accidentally stepped on a white man's shoes at our local ice cream shop. He called me a "stupid wetback". Pretty harsh, right? But the next day walking down the shallow hallways of my middle school, my peer shouted "terrorist!"
Talk about confusion.
Sadly I confronted my mixed identity when I was too young and naïve to understand the beauty in being Bolivian and Pakistani. Sometimes I overtly denied being half-Pakistani. "I'm Latina," I would say. In my adolescent years I even went through a phase to validate my Latino identity with physical changes to my face, wardrobe, hair, and language. I would curl my hair so as to appear more Latina and began wearing "Jersey dresses" to look the part. I spent way too much money on getting acrylic tips for my nails and started to wear makeup that would make my skin appear smoother and lighter. I used lip liner to make my lips look fuller -- like the Latina women on TV.
My phase lasted only about a year and my classmates stopped bullying me in middle school. But my rejection of my mother's heritage continued to manifest itself in different and subtle ways throughout high school and even, regrettably, during my earlier years in college. It isn't really until this year -- now that I am a senior and preparing to graduate -- that I am coming out proudly as half-Bolivian and half-Pakistani.
Mixed-race people go through identity crises because society views race as being largely "white" or "black". There is very little gray area. Even on standardized tests, I struggle checking off the correct boxes under "Race" and "Ethnicity". Even in studying history back in high school, I learned about race relations between white and black folk -- but never learned about the brown people in between. Were there Latinos around when slavery existed? Where were Latinos during the Great Depression? What were Latinos doing when Malcolm X and Martin Luther King were giving speeches on racial equality? Why weren't we in history textbooks?
(It wasn't until I took a class called "Latinos in the U.S." during my sophomore year of college that I finally learned about the history of Latinos in this country -- and sadly it is a history deeply entrenched in worker exploitation, xenophobia, and the hypersexualization of Latina women.)
Race is also a mystery for many. It is annoying when people play the 'race guessing game' - where people ask: "What is your race? Oh wait, let me guess!"
It's arguably more annoying when my conversations go like this:
Person: Where are you from?
Me: New Jersey
Person: No, where are you really from?
I come from mixed experiences. I'm the product of my two wonderful parents who, despite the odds, were raised in Bolivia and Pakistan yet found each other in New York. I've come to terms that I no longer need to choose which side to proudly represent, nor would I ever want to. For many years there has been a void that I've been unable to fill by exclusively identifying as Latina. That void can only be filled by once and for all embracing both my Bolivian and Pakistani heritage. I will no longer be bound by the boxes that modern society has forced me to check off.
The biracial experience in the United States is a challenge because society wants us to choose one race. It becomes confusing for people to think that you may hail from a multicultural background; sadly, people want to cast you in one definitive category to avoid this confusion.
To the Latino people who felt I was never Latino enough: I am biracial. To the Pakistani people who felt I was never Pakistani enough: I am biracial. To everybody else who made assumptions about my background: I am biracial. And to the bullies who forced me to reject part of my identity: I hope your mom's basement couch is as comfortable as my new bed.
It is liberating to say it -- loud and proud.
Follow Cristina Lara on Twitter: www.twitter.com/CristinaLara