My mother tells me I look like my grandmother, a brown belle whose features I know only through faded photographs and choppy 8mm film strips. I try to imagine the experience of a woman with whom I seem to share a face, with her growing up under Jim Crow in the 1910s and 1920s as a black girl in Elizabeth City, N.C., and maturing into womanhood in Atlantic City, N.J. I don’t know much about her, but I know she was a badass because she wore pants, traveled the world without her husband, and bore her first child (my father) in her 30s. My grandmother dared to defy the norms of her time, and in that way, I think I look like her, too.
My friends, on the other hand, tell me I look like my mother, a bronze beauty whose eyes I have been swallowed by for more than three decades. As a child, I looked into the sepia-colored face of my mother’s childhood and declared she was me. She was born and raised in California to Spanish-speaking parents from Texas who were desperate to escape their Mexican-ness and assimilate into white American culture. Without any desire to be or pass as white, my mother bathed her skin in the sun even after warnings of getting too dark and risked being disowned for marrying a black man. A true chingona, my mother has lived life on her own terms. And I hope I look like her in that way, too.
While my Chicana mother shares her face and mitochondrial DNA with me, we do not exactly share identities. I share more of an identity with the grandmother I never knew. I am a black woman. I am a black woman who is half Mexican. I am a black woman who loves, respects and honors the Mexican heritage that is largely unfamiliar to her.
In my adolescence, I referred to myself (and my brother) as blaxican to honor both parents, even though I did not experience the world through a black self and a Mexican self. Many of the biracial kids I grew up around tried desperately to be in two worlds but struggled with the duality. They never seemed comfortable or satisfied with trying to belong in whatever space they occupied. I could not relate. Neither of my parents (or their families) required me to be one thing or another, and they let me decide how I would identify.
And so out of the womb, I bet on black. According to my mother, I have always been black. That is, of course, if you don’t count my middle school phase of dressing like a chola (that black lipliner with red filler, my God). I didn’t have any “I knew I was black when…” epiphanies or confusion about being both black and brown.
I spent my first 18 years in San Diego, a city encapsulated by whiteness and not nearly as diverse as you might expect of a city with a large naval base and a shared border with Tijuana, Mexico. And yet, I lived a very black existence. Though I can count on one hand the number of black teachers I had from K through 12th grade, my neighborhood was predominately black, my pediatrician and dentist were black double-HBCU grads, I worshipped in black Baptist churches all Sunday long, and did my early childhood development in a black in-home day care where I ate neck bones as a toddler.
Most of my dolls were brown, as were most of my girlfriends—a few of whom were biracial, the rest black mixed with black. Even my Mexican mother would be asked to bring her collard greens and potato salad to black friends’ cookouts, but she would remind me that she was not one of my little friends and inquire about the existence of my McDonald’s money.
I learned to code switch by spending time with my mom’s family. My aunts and uncles had white spouses, my half-white cousins were white looking, and they all existed in a world starkly different (and whiter) than mine. It was always very clear to me I was black and they were not, and I was also Mexican in a way they were not, but I never felt like I was treated differently or as though I wasn’t part of the same family. Even when my adoring preschooler cousin introduced elementary-aged me to her class as “the darkest person” in her family, I was unfazed. For much of my childhood, I didn’t see my color or cultural awareness as a barrier, and I didn’t seem to notice if others did.
None of this is to say I lived free of ignorance, hate and bigotry. Or pretended to be colorblind. As I approached adulthood, I became increasingly angrier and more confrontational when it came to issues of race—a militant existence that is apparently very common for light-skinned biracial black folks. In high school, I regularly felt provoked by peers and adults alike when they perpetuated tropes of lazy black welfare queens and dirty wetback illegals, only to pass them off as “just jokes” when I took offense. My non-black friends often accused me of being too sensitive and quick to play “the race card,” which only made me louder and more belligerent. I was a moody, menstruating, excessively hairy teenage girl who grew up in a household where reading the encyclopedia was a pastime and THIS WAS NOT CONSIDERED YELLING, so I was always willing to engage in verbal warfare with whoever was bold enough to test me.
I have nothing to prove in way of my identity, but I take seriously the guarding of the rich legacies passed down to me through the blood in my veins, the traditions I carry out, and the features of my face. I think it would be difficult to be proud and unwavering in one’s sense of self without also being intensely protective. I am grateful to my mother for encouraging me to love myself, my curly hair, and my brown skin as madly and without end as she loves me, my brother, and my father. While she may not have had the fullness of her family’s language and customs to pass on to her children, she alone was enough. Through her I have the audacity to delight in an existence most comfortable and affirming for me.
I am a black woman. I am a black woman who is whole because of the sum of her parts. I am a black woman who reflects the faces and fierceness of women who define themselves.