I often think about my great grandmother, my bisabuela. Her name was Belén. It means Bethlehem. We called her Rafa – it was a thing on my mom’s side of the family, nobody went by their real name except my mother.
And yeah, if you’re asking ‘What about you, Angel?’ Little secret? The right way to say my name is Ángel Luis, but I go by the English pronunciation Angel b/c I enjoy not rolling my eyes seventy-four times a day.
I was lucky enough to have her in my life for 21 years, though, that’s the outcome of a family where your grandmother married at 15 and your mom married at 18.
I’m 40 with two grade school age kids. My grandfather had two grand kids by the same age. Wild shit.
Anyway, we’re talking about the older lady. I keep digressing.
I remember her stories. The way she prayed the rosary every single day at 1PM with the radio service broadcast over AM. I remember her rocking chair and how she used to scoop me up into her arms and sing little songs as she rocked me back and forth. She liked men’s cologne and always wore that sandalwood junk you could buy at the pharmacy.
She always took my face in her rough bronze hands and remark about how happy she was I was “blancito”. “Bello, como un Italiano.”
My great grandmother was mixed. She was the daughter of a Puerto Rican Taino woman (as much as she could have been considering things, but the blood was there) and an Italian migrant who came to the island with his brothers when the youngest murdered a man back in Calabria. She envied her father’s paleness in comparison to her mother’s family and valued that her own daughter married a man with Spaniard blood and was even more enamored with my pasty ass father. She was in bliss at the sight of my blonde girlfriend (who would become my wife) and always spoke about the great white possibilities of our children.
Back then I never quite understood her obsession. I chalked it up to old school racism – and don’t get it twisted, the racism was real. She was genuinely afraid of my Black friends and epithets were thrown around quite often. I would scold her and tell her she was being crazy, but we treated it like a quirk, even when that ire was directed at my uncle, who himself was darker than anyone else in my family.
Older and armed with perspective. I can’t forgive a lot of that thinking and behavior. I realize now there’s an abhorrent aspect to it, but I also realize there’s something deeply disturbing about my bisabuela’s fetishization of whiteness and its roots in trauma. When power is taken from you; when you’re trained to believe from the very start that you are second or even third class to your colonizers, what other reaction could you possibly have but to worship the source of their privilege?
And there’s the rub. A lot of white Latine realize their privilege don’t they? Add a little bit of that good old indoctrination and you get yourself an internalized hatred stewing. A very willing participant in the system that continues to grind so many of our people under the heel of the boot as opposed to the gentle rub from the toe. Whiteness, even if it isn’t explicitly the right kind of whiteness, provides a shield.
So what’s the solution? How do you get GENERATIONS of people understanding the flaws in their upbringing and the flaws in their systems that not only hurt them but hurt some of the people they love? I don’t fucking know. I can call out my own privileges until I’m blue in the face, I can share a million links to causes and writers that should have exposure, but am I affecting change? Am I doing the work or am I performing? If I keep quiet does it even count? Is this all worth thinking about if its constantly centering me?
Since I landed my agent, my writing has been less and less fearful of exploring these thoughts. I’ve gone from someone terrified of my own heritage to someone who can’t stop unfolding the layers and layers of half a millennium of colonization. At times, though, I find moments of intense pride. Imagine to share blood with a people who persevered through centuries of hell so I could even have the ability to mull over our place in the world and our identity. There’s certainly a privilege there, but no, it’s not enough to be able to think about identity and history in the abstract because a lot of that hell isn’t behind us – A LOT.
I don’t want to be an example of my people. I don’t mean that in a bullshit lovey-dovey, pseudo-liberal way. I mean it in the sense that I don’t want a very white mechanism like publishing to use me as THE Puerto Rican, as any sort of authority of my people in whatever genre I’d find a glimmer of success in. Rather, I want to be a battering ram. I want to be someone who breaks a door down to let everyone else in. And maybe that’s fantasy with the nature of this beast, but it’s one I’m willing to entertain for now.
And who knows, maybe someday when we meet again, my bisabuela will be happy to see simply me. Not the blancito. Just me. Maybe I can take her trauma and use it to fix something.