Coming Out of The Ancestral “Closet”

Coming Out of The Ancestral “Closet”

I find it more than a little appalling that in 2014, I am still being asked “What are you?” Not “What religion are you?” or your average, inappropriate social questions, which, by my standards, are still rude. No, it’s always been “What ARE you?”, with such profound emphasis, as if I am my own species. It’s become ridiculous, and as we’ve established, I am not a patient woman.

Growing up in New York City; a small, fair skinned, dark blue eyed, dark haired child, I was utterly adorable. I have pictures to prove it. My peaches & cream complected blonde, hazel eyed mother was very clear in my genes, but so was my olive skinned, raven haired, dark brown eyed father. I was clearly a genetic mix of my parents and maternal Grandparents. For years, my eyes had that perfect Asian up-tilt, a gift of my Tribal Siberian and Mongolian ancestry, something that I now enhance with eyeliner. I was about six years old when they changed in color from dark blue to hazel. It normally doesn’t take such a long period of time for a child’s eye color to change.

Where am I going with this? Well, I will tell you. I’ve known for about 8 years now that I am indeed part Latina. I have absolutely no reason to hide it or not discuss it if it comes up in conversation, especially now that Spain and Portugal are allowing Jews to return for citizenship. I have to say I was very sorely tempted to pack my bags and leave.

Growing up, everyone assumed I was either 100% Puerto Rican or 100% Italian. I am neither. In fact, I’m not 100% anything. I am so blended, I should have my own flag. My Latina roots come from Spain (Zaragoza) and Argentina (Buenos Aires).

Several months ago, while filling out some forms I checked the Caucasian box, as I’ve done my entire life, and followed up with Hispanic on the second portion of the form. It is truly the first time I’d done it, but I simply felt like not putting it down was to lie, and it bothered me, so I checked the box proudly. The woman handling the paperwork looked at me immediately and said “You’re Sephardic?!”, with such utter disbelief as she looked at the color of my skin and eyes, that I glanced up briefly from filling out the forms and said “I am Ashkenazi, Sephardic, Russian Siberian, and Jewish Asian.” In truth, that’s not even the half of it, but it was short and to the point. I didn’t owe her an explanation of my lineage, but I’d be damned if I was going to be treated any differently.

Really, why the hell does anyone give a shit?! Why did she? I later found out that as an immigrant to this country, she did not want anyone knowing she was Sephardic. I was slightly astounded, but anyone who is at an age where their Grandparents or parents may have died during the Holocaust is probably still hiding what they are. Having been born here, I suppose I do not feel the need to hide. I’ve never felt the need to do so, not ancestrally or religiously.

People tend to forget that Latinas come in all different shapes, sizes, and colors. Some are blonde and blue eyed, some are more like me, and others are dark haired, dark eyed, and always look naturally tan. I cannot tan to save my life, and since I detest sun damage and the sun on a whole, I religiously wear sun protection. Some of us speak Ladino, Yiddish, Spanish, Portuguese, or older versions of various languages. Some of my cousins, also Sephardic, speak French (My brother does, I do not.). I grew up in a bilingual home, my closest family friends did too, and they all spoke Spanish. I spent years studying other languages, and am now teaching my brother Italian, Russian, Ukrainian, and Spanish. I understand languages I don’t speak, but I base that on the fact that some of them are incredibly similar. I have been trying to learn Swedish for a couple of years now. Not for any other reason than I think it’s beautiful when spoken.

I’m a great observer of others, but I try very hard not to judge people based on race or religion. Everyone is an individual. If you treat me like shit, I am not going to judge your ethnic background for that, just you. If you treat me well, I’m not going to automatically assume that everyone like you will show the same kindness and respect.

I have friends from all walks of life, and I accept and respect them for their individuality. I don’t care where a person is from, so long as we treat each other with respect and courtesy. Most of the people in my life who are closest to me are not American born or American citizens (though I can now say for a fact that more are). Two of my best friends are Israeli and German. My boyfriend holds dual citizenship. He is Welsh born, returns to Wales several times a year to visit older relatives, but is not an American citizen. His parents and siblings are not American citizens either, but they’re some of the loveliest people, and to me, that’s all that matters.

I have a friend who, for damn near our entire friendship, would openly declare herself Hispanic “From SPAIN!”, she’d tell people loudly. She’s also part Cherokee, which shows. Honestly, it doesn’t matter, but now that our friendship has declined so badly, I have noticed more and more that she is embracing the fact that her ancestry is actually Mexican. It’s always been pretty evident to me, but would I ever have said a word to her about it? No. That’s disrespectful. That’s like catching me on a dumb day and then pointing out that I have some Polish ancestry. It’s rude and it’s not something you say or do.

I think what bothered me the most about her saying it so often is that people would ask her if she was Hawaiian, saying that she looked “exotic”, and I’d then think of Stefanie (FAWKESTEARS on this blog), who is Native Hawaiian. There’s a definite difference, not just in looks, but in so much more. She is not simply born and raised there, you can see her Hawaiian and Japanese ancestry in her hair, eyes, skin, and beauty. It shines like a beacon. Her Italian mother, we often joke, barely got a gene in. Between her and her siblings, she is the one who most looks like her father’s side of the family. For the previously aforementioned friend, ancestry and honoring it is clearly a big issue, so I never, ever tried to make her feel uncomfortable, nor did I ever press her on it. I feel it is something to honor and show respect, not hide from or deny, but that’s me and my otherworldly view since I’m still being asked “What ARE you?”

The next time someone says that to me, I might very well declare myself a vampire, purchase a really cool pair of colored contacts from Italy, and not say a word to anyone ever again, until the sun sets. Stupid questions deserve stupid answers, do they not?

So, this is me. Part Latina. Owning it, not ashamed, remembering to use my Spanish instead of forgetting that I can speak it, completely unconcerned if my honoring it bothers someone else. It’s my genes, my ancestry, and if you’ve taken issue with it, fuck off!

“Coming Out Of The Ancestral ‘Closet’” is copyright © 2014 by Lisa Marino & Blackbird Serenity LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

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4 thoughts on “Coming Out of The Ancestral “Closet”

  1. This. YES. This is why I still involuntarily brace myself whenever I get asked, “Where are you from?” Because at least half the time, there will be a follow-up variation of “But where are you REALLY from?” or else I get it in the form of surprise/confusion on the other person’s face when I answer the US of A. Genuine curiosity is fine but there’s a fine line between that and when it gets to be rude. I’ve been lucky enough not to get a straight-up “What are you?” but then it gets annoying dealing with people automatically assuming I’m from anywhere but a Western country.
    Sorry I’ve been MIA recently, I’m in the last stretch of school before I go back home to California. I miss talking to you! Hope you are doing well and have a great week ahead!

    • It’s obnoxious, truly. I get that too, but mainly because I have an accent. If I’m tired, my accent is very pronounced and people can never place it.

      I look at it this way, you were born here, so yes, you are American. Ancestry is a different question, but clearly they’re phrasing it incorrectly and I find that incredibly rude. I don’t ask people invasive questions, I feel it’s a person’s right to disclose whatever they feel most comfortable disclosing, and no more or less than that. It’s generally not my business any way.

      You’d be surprised how many times I hear “What ARE you?”. It is said with such contempt that I have to count to ten before I respond at times or I’m guaranteed to go off on someone. I’m generally very sarcastic and witty, but when a person is that rude, there’s absolutely nothing I can say that will be calm or polite.

      I know you’re busy with school, no worries. I will be around this summer. Take care of yourself and I will talk to you soonly.

  2. I completely agree with you and can’t imagine why it matters to anyone. Here, if anyone asks that question it is about religion. Interviewers at jobs are no longer allowed to ask as discrimination previously occurred depending on your religion – crazy. Some still get around it by asking what school you attended. It’s bloody awful that any part of us is judged by anything other than who we are not what we are. Closed minds make issues out of nothing.x

  3. It’s kind of a rude question to begin with – especially if you’re asking a complete stranger – but when it’s phrased as such (“What ARE you?”) it’s even more appalling. I get asked this question a lot (people seem to think I’m Asian, Hispanic or Italian – nope) and it’s super obnoxious every time. I think the worst offender was the guy in a pub who asked me, “Are you ethnic?” I told him I didn’t understand the question, but my god,WHO THINKS THAT’S AN OKAY THING TO SAY?

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