During my lunch break I sat at my favorite lunch spot, eating my favorite food, from my favorite restaurant, listening to my favorite local singer, a beautiful young singer who reminds me of a combination of Regina Spektor and Zooey Deschanel and Audrey Tautou’s character, Amelie.
It’s a beautiful day and my husband sat next to me and we sat there just soaking up everything that made the day great. Just then two middle aged and barefoot hippies, a man and a woman started dancing, or at least, they started moving their bodies in embarrassing ways in public. The woman raised her arms over and over to expose loads of body hair under her armpits.
I thought it, then said it out loud to my husband, “White people are crazy.” He nodded his head.
Thinking and saying “white people” made me think of my dad, which lead me to think of my mom, which got me thinking about skin color and heart color, and weird childhood fantasies and missteps. I guess I should thank the hippies with two left feet.
I thought about how even though I’m half white, I’ve never, ever considered myself white. For a long time I even dropped my very Welsh surname and went by my mother’s family name of Gonzalez.
I used to put my hand over my sister’s porcelain hand, and I’d think of the neopolaton ice cream which is the only ice cream my dad would buy, and he’d only buy the generic brand. I’d think how her hands reminded me of the vanilla and strawberry part, and our mother’s hand reminded me of the chocolate, and I was somewhere in the middle. If my sister was vanilla strawberry cream, I was chocolate vanilla creamy cream.
When I was ten and my sister was thirteen my mother sat with us under a tree with tiny yellow leaves that reminded me of yellow skeletons. My mother asked us if she should divorce our father. My only question was, “Do I still get to live with you?” My sister said something I don’t remember. But I remember they both looked at me in disbelief. Do I get to stay with you? My only concern was that I got to stay with our mother. As long as I had my mother, my world wasn’t broken, hell, it wasn’t even trembling. Mother was everything to me.
My father’s family is as white as they come and my sisters fit in well. They had my father’s porcelain to rose cream skin and one of them even had white blonde hair. One of our cousins came to us when I was about eleven. She said, “I don’t mean to be rude, but, which one of you is adopted?” My sister and I exchanged looks, and my sister explained for us, as she always did for me, that we had the same parents and neither of us was adopted. My mother was brown and spoke Spanish and my father was white. That was that.
One time my father’s sister insisted while looking right into my gray blue eyes that I had brown eyes, dark brown eyes at that. Her granddaughter corrected her, “No grandma, she has blue eyes! See?” But my aunt M. insisted that since I had brown black hair and dark olive skin, there was no way that reality could hold that I had blue eyes. It was strange for me because my eye color was constantly being commented on by all sorts of strangers. At school it’s what kept the Mexican kids skeptical of my ethnicity, the genetic tattle-tale that I wasn’t all brown. In my freshman year two girls were making fun of my clothes. They thought since they were talking in Spanish I couldn’t understand or know. When I turned around and spoke to them in fluent Spanish their eyes widened. My blue eyes don’t mean what you think they mean, I wanted to say. From that day on I sat with those girls during lunch. Eventually we even liked each other.
I asked my sister once what she puts on forms that ask for her ethnic identity. My blonde, blue-eyed sister looked at me like I’d left my brain cells in my purse, “White, of course.” I’ve never circled white. Not ever. I’ve always identified with my mother in every way; skin color, hair color, even culture although I’ve only known her culture through her and never set foot in her native country.
So maybe I know nothing about race, color or ethnicity. All I know is how and with what and whom I identified.
But when I moved away from eastern Washington, to the very white and very rainy western side of Washington, it seemed like the weather washed some of brownness away. I had a hard time finding Spanish speaking people. The sun rarely comes out, so I became paler and paler every year. What does this mean for me? Does it mean I should start circling the same identifier as my sister? I speak Spanish poorly, and I’m a pale olive now, barely a shade over the vanilla ice cream in the divided box from Safeway.
The color of my heart and the way everything inside of me leans, I still identify with my mother’s ethnicity. I can’t help it. People ask me all the time, “What are you?” Most times I don’t mind it because it opens up a dialog about ethnicity and how much of your identity it does or doesn’t make up. My great great grandmother was black as night, I tell them. My mother’s face is a dark skinned moon, it radiates, it shines. My father’s crystal blue eyes are so clear you feel like you can swim right into and then through them.
My father and mother stayed together, by the way. They’ve been married for over 50 years. My mother never asked that question again. We all just went on, figuring out where we fit and who we belonged to. Now the belonging is a residual childhood hiccup that narrates our journeys as adults, as mothers, as wives.
My father has a silly white man dance too. I used to laugh and laugh when he danced. But my mother never danced at all. I wish my mother would have danced for me, too, so I would know the way I’m supposed to move through this world as her daughter…