Having an Identity Without Answers


I didn’t start placing weight on my identity until I left my country at seventeen. In Guatemala, I was la morena, la negra, like brown sugar my mama would say. My skin was an everlasting brown, ashy when I was at the beach for too long. I would get called aborigen at home by one boy, a derogatory reference to the people of the North East, where the slave ports had been. I didn’t think too much of it — I loved my skin. I loved its ashiness. I loved being under the sun, and how quickly I turned two shades darker. I was a brown girl, unaware of what that meant. 

I gained awareness of my racial identity when I moved here and people started asking: What are you? 

“Guatemalan,” I would say. 

“No, no, but like, what are you?” 

Back then I didn’t know the centuries of heritage I’d have to break down for these people. I’m not sure, is the honest answer. My mom looks white in the winter, but we’re not white. The Spanish colonised my people, so maybe we’re a bit white? Hispanic? But my dad, he’s like milk chocolate, and his dad has skin like coffee. Mixed race? Maybe… But mixed with what? My mom, she was la negra before me, my dad was el negro, not abusively, but with love. So what was I? 

The question swims around and around, tying my tongue. I’ve been tempted to take one of those ancestry tests that tell you where you came from, but what if I’m not happy with who it says I am? I’ve asked my parents, but we don’t know. From Guatemala, they say, like I used to, happily. Race, as this palpable concept, does not exist at home. Generation through generation, brown and black have been diluted not by white but by the indigenous, by the Mayan. Who am I, then? 

I met Afua Hirsch, author of Brit(ish), a book I cling on to, but she didn’t have an answer for me either. Identity is a journey, she said. I look for identity answers in other people of colour, though not of my colour, whatever that is, because there are none. But black women continue to guide me, to provide me with answers, they exist in some form of solidarity with my own incomprehension, whilst we are also entirely different. 

When I started actively identifying as a woman of colour, a brown woman now aware of the weight this carried, I struggled with the notion of “am I woman of colour enough?”, and I still do. Am I? Even though we were working class growing up, and my parents were for most of their lives, the large majority of my adolescent life, and up until now, has been spent as a middle class girl. I went to private school at home. My dad pays for my University, my rent, and he gives me money to live. I don’t work unless I have to. I’ve always had Christmas presents and birthday presents, we go on Holiday to the Amalfi Coast and the Basque country. I say this to point out my privilege. 

Afua pointed out that the experience of poverty is so inextricably linked with the experience of being black, or in my case Latina and brown, that we are made to feel that we are made to feel as if though we can’t fully claim our culture if we didn’t experience life in ‘the hood’, if we don’t talk in a certain way, if we don’t dress in a certain, stereotypical way. 

I was told by a white woman, at the very same event that I met Afua, “Where are you from? You sound so posh.” 

English isn’t even my first language. Posh is a code I’ve adopted, at these events, so that women like these tell me I sound posh instead of judge me for sounding the way I sound like in my head. Latina. Kind of like a hoodrat, but a classy hoodrat. Is that my identity? 

This limbo that I’m in, of being light-skin enough to be afforded privileges so many dark-skinned latinas and black women aren’t, of having lived in a country so poor I’m familiar with the ‘hood’ but spending my childhood in a house with a pool — it makes answering this identity question so much harder. I don’t know who I am, or who I belong to. I only know that I’m looking for a home that has all of the answers. 

Perhaps in a few years I’ll realise that I put too much weight on my identity, that it’s not what I look like but who I am, the traditions and the culture I choose to take forward with me and teach to my own children. Perhaps in a few years I’ll learn that I have indigenous heritage, or Afro-Caribbean heritage, or Spanish heritage. Perhaps instead, it’ll be a question I’m never given the answer to. 

This same white woman at the event, she asked me, “You’re Latina?” A pause. “So do you think of yourself as a woman of colour?”

I took a deep breath. Reminded myself of her age and her privilege. “Yes,” I replied. “Because I am.”