The Color of Piraguas

“The Latina in me is an ember that blazes forever.” — Sonia Sotomayor

“Tú eres una mezcla de cultura, lleno de oportunidades que tu familia no tenía. Usalos, y olvide el mundo. Solo es ti que importa.”

My grandmother sits me down firmly and tells me this, but I can’t hear her. "Você é uma menina branca, que não entende." I can feel the bricks of the stoop biting into the back of my five-year-old knees as my eyes smart, hurt by the insults of the piragua vendor at the corner who sneered, jeering that blancitas weren’t allowed in this part of Newark. "Eres una blancita que no entiende nada." My sister saunters towards me, her olive-toned hands cradling her red shaved ice, and my face begins to burn, marring the constellation of freckles on my face, in the hopes I could grow up one day to look like her—Hispanic.

All my life I have felt the need to validate myself, to somehow point to the archetypal version of a Hispanic girl–dark hair, dark eyes, sun-kissed skin—and see a reflecting pool, an acceptable version of myself staring back with open arms. In my youth, I allowed my individuality to molt, rendered my persona putty to the ideas of the many in lieu of my own in the hopes that I would feel accepted within my culture. If all it took for me to be accepted as Latina by others was to sing along to a Hector Lavoe song or eat arroz con gandules, then I would immediately mold myself to those expectations—even though I knew I disliked (read: despised) beans. Facets of my personality were constantly in flux with what I thought others expected of me to resemble my kin. Although it wasn’t spoken aloud quite often, I didn’t fit in physically with the rest of my family members. With a longer frame and freckled features, I jutted out of the family portrait like a pale smudge on the frame; I didn’t fit in.

My insecurities wielded their omnipotence with a heavy hand, armed with an even heavier sword of a dichotomous family. Being the product of mixed heritage—Puerto Rican and Portuguese—I was the aggregation of two diverse cultures clashing together, a tsunami that rose within a little girl with eyes the size of two very different worlds. This little girl clutched her piragua, wiped away her tears and held her grandmother’s hand.

Yet, as a sword can be used to rob a man of his life, so can it be used to protect it. These words were my lifeline for years; they were a mantra I repeated to myself when others invalidated my cultural experience due to my appearance time and time again. My family, which once saddled me indirectly (in their embodiment of ethnic stereotypes) with the lot of self-doubt and timidity, bolstered my development on a framework of support and unity. Within my tight-knit family, I was welcomed without any hesitation as to whether I fit the mold seamlessly or not, whether I spoke all three languages fluently enough or looked the stereotypical part at a moment’s notice—they were home for me.


But this was me, tracing my silhouette with my own hands again. How easily they find their way around—the familiar road bumps, stop signs—a yield to pedestrians here and there. This was the same game I’ve been playing for years, telling myself that I’ve finally broken down this barrier, hurdled past this obstacle for the last time. This was going to be the day I called my grandmother and asked her for her bendicion. This was going to be the day I relearned Portuguese. This was going to be the day I went to the Fuerza meeting and proved to myself how Hispanic I am. How easily I sell myself different lies to justify the same reflection.

I haven’t made any calls to Newark lately, and I haven’t been to a Fuerza meeting yet.

The map of me hasn’t changed, despite the few hundred miles between me and the piragua guy. All the caution signs and dead ends are still hidden in these well-traveled roads beneath the skin—and the piraguas of my youth haven’t faded either. The vendor still does his rounds on sunny weekends on Mt. Prospect, and I still order the coco or limón – whatever that may say about me.

Change isn’t an immutable force of nature; it is a body I have held close to me for decades—a stranger, a lover, an enemy, an Übermensch-form of me, if you will. It is both the hope and fear for the future. My culture will become my culture only when I change my perception of it—not when the ideas of others change it for me. Yet somehow, knowing all this, it isn’t enough to reconcile my thoughts with this body.

Eventually, I know I’ll crack; I’ll pick up the phone and hold my breath while the ring reverberates, anticipation strung up like a marionette before my grandmother picks up the phone and tells me instinctively:

"Yo te bendigo y te favorezco."

And this will set me free.

Jessenia Class, ’20, is a Crimson Editorial Writer living in Canaday Hall. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.


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