Rodriguez Padro’s essay about her journey to asserting her identity is a captivating tale that truly resonates in our present. Having a similar upbringing, I connected with this story on a personal level. To witness her journey and how it comes full circle will leave you feeling like you read a complete memoir and invite you to reflect on your own identity.
Reflections from a Tinted Window
Nuria Rodriguez Padro
I was born “white” in complexion, “brown” by the sun, and “black” by my roots. As I deconstruct this loaded statement, I begin by considering the genetic contributions and influences of my father: a white European from northern Spain. At the age of four, I had never been to Spain, only communicated sparingly with my Spanish via phone calls or letters during the holidays, and resisted embracing the culture that represented the man who abandoned, mistreated, and oppressed my mother, brother, and me. The man I would later refer to as “Columbus.” From an early age, white became synonymous with Spain and the negative experiences and sentiments I tried to resist.
Resistance became an early defense mechanism for me as I struggled to embrace the positive and erase the negative attributes, memories, and associations that haunted me genetically, physically, mentally, and emotionally. Despite the genetic disposition of my light hue, I remember striving to be a dark golden brown as early as the age of four. This was the age I started preschool and realized that those around me represented a different category of the human experience. Their behaviors and values were so different from mine and I wanted to be more like my mother and the people I identified with from birth: Black Puerto Rican. I did not feel a national, racial, or cultural connection to those around me. My mother, who was of a darker hue, represented life, love, family, connectedness, culture, heritage, “home” (Puerto Rico), and beauty. In an effort to represent the amazing qualities I cherished, the darker I became, the closer I was to reflecting who I believed I truly was- a Black Puerto Rican and a “Padro” (my mother’s family name).
In college, I began to joke that the darker I became, the more I represented “Padro,” especially when winter after winter in the Northeast left me to the whiteness of a “Rodriguez.” Fifteen years later, I was only saying what the four- year- old girl was thinking, while all the while finding ways to show my definition of blackness and my connection to my Afro Latino roots.
As I grew older, particularly in my teenage and young adult years, black became a powerful word in my vocabulary, identity, and experiences. I associate black with positive attributes, as opposed to the standard definition found in dictionaries, which compare it to negative characteristics (e.g. devalued, dirty). In fact, I began to see black beyond the physical or cultural constructs that I had cherished as a young girl. I began to understand black as a form of resistance, a window to experiences that “the others” (whites) would not know, and a way to view my identity and the world around me.
As one of only thirty students of color in my high school, I befriended and protected those that identified as black, as they demonstrated the strongest sense of self-identity and the most similarities to my interests and upbringing. I never negated my Latina heritage, but strongly embraced my black identity through the people I associated with, the family that raised me, and the experiences I shared through these intersections.
The greatest disconnect to my Latino roots resulted from the isolation of my ethnic identity throughout my elementary, middle, and high school years. For instance, in my high school, Latinos represented only a handful of students. Of these few, I was the only one that “openly” identified with being of Latina- descent, while others avoided the topic or “blended into white.” I even recall watching one Latino call another Latino a spic, with the only justification being “because he was acting like one.” This is the “Latino community” (a complete contradiction for me) that I had during my school years in Vestal, New York. Disconnected from my roots, yet reconnected by my race.
Since I felt such a disconnection from my ethnic roots, I decided to attend my sophomore year of high school in Puerto Rico. The opportunity allowed me to reconnect with family, language, culture, and identity. I should note that, for me, black cannot be separated from Puerto Rican identity than that that of the U.S. born African American/ Black. This distinct intersection of my identity incorporates cultural implication such as values, traditions, and symbolisms. For instance, though my family and Puerto Rican culture, I learned to value the role of the community, family, and service- all of which represented brown and black people in my immediate surroundings. My times in Puerto Rico, before, during, and after my sophormore year, enabled me to embrace a deeper appreciation for Puerto Rico. These experiences and memories, through the eyes and interactions with my family. Left a darker tint on my identity and worldview.
Age and Generational Influences
My grandmorther has always had the strongest influence on my connection and love to my black and Puerto Rican identities. Through her eyes, I saw the value of family and how devalued she was as a black orphan in the late 1910’s. I was astonished to learn that my grandmother had been raised by several others, denied her family inheritance, and considered less than others because of her dark hue and African features. Through such experiences, I began to understand why my grandmother was the fiber that connected the neighborhood, and along with my mother, the two fibers that kept my family closely connected for decades. My grandmother would feed the sick and elderly in her community, actively participate in the local church, and receive family, guests, and strangers alike in her home, while showing compassion and goodwill to all that entered her home. In addition, my family has befriended many well- known historical figures, including Roberto Clemente and Martin Luther King, Jr., both of whom were known for their service to others, and were racially black. Such connections reaffirmed the importance of valuing the elderly, and all the history and contributions they can offer the younger generations. Furthermore, I learned lessons of patience, perserverance, and compassion through the life experiences of my grandmother and mother. My Puerto Rican family taught me the history, value, and wisdom of the generations before me. I cannot imagine my life without this knowledge and their wisdom.
Nationality & Indigenous Heritage
When I learned about the Tainos, the indigenous tribe of Puerto Rico, I fell more in love with my heritage. I tried to incorporate Taino- inspired words such as Borinquen and Boricua to demonstrate my appreciation and knowledge of my indigenous roots. I actively sought out Taino symbols in artwork, literature, and clothing. Somehow, being born on the island, plus, being aware of my country’s indigenous roots made me more authentic, legitimate, and connected to my beloved island and people than those born elsewhere; I embedded this perception as a badge and shield in my identity development.
Learning the history of my family and island, even if in bits and pieces in my youth, made an important impact on the development of my identity. Nationality was a way for me to be distinctive from the others that surrounded me in Vestal, New York. Despite my U.S. citizenship from birth, a privilege Puerto Rican citizens have held since 1917, I was never from Vestal; I was from San Juan, Puerto Rico. I made it a point to learn the name of the hospital I was born in as to validate my birth in Puerto Rico. I was a native of the Caribbean, not snow infested New York. I was a child of all that was beautiful, black, and indigenous to Boriquen because I was a child of Puerto Rico. As much as someone tried to say otherwise, by questioning how many years I had lived in “the States,” no one could take away from me that my birthplace, my “home,” was Puerto Rico. This became especially relevant for me, when others who self- identified as “Puerto Rican” questioned my “authenticity,” trying to label me as “Nuyorican” or born “here” (the continental United States), not “there” (Puerto Rico).
The Irony of Identity
These reflections of how race, ethnicity, and heritage intersect in my identity have evolved over time. I have had to learn to forgive my father, which I did before he passed away a few years ago. I had to understand that fathers- not all, but the ones who do- come from all different races and ethnicities and each have their own reasons. I did not want to make it about race. Ironically, at his memorial long- time friends were astounded to find out I existed. It felt like a surreal scene one could only watch in a movie and made me question the role of intersectionality in that experience.
Another irony is that I fell in love with a West African and we had a black son, whom I remind regularly that black is beautiful and that his life matters. He embraced his racial and cultural identities, which he would proudly say, “I am half Ghanaian, half Puerto Rican, half Spanish, and half American.” (He has learned fractions and gained insight into citizenship and ethnicity since then.)
During these younger years, he would bring drawings home that he drew in school of his family: his black grandmother (my mother), black uncle (my brother), black father, and eve his black dog, Romeo… I was always the white image in the drawing. Ironic, I would state I was black and insist that if my mother, brother, tios, aunties, and cousins were black, then surely I must be black, too. He would look at me with a smile of wonder and say, “Noooo. You’re white, Mami.” Five years later, I asked him if I’m still white. He gives me the same smile and says he understands the shell of my exterior is not a true reflection of my identity and experiences, but I’m still white. I’m back to where my journey began. Ironic.