“They’re going to treat you differently.” That’s what my mother told me in 1990 when I was seven years old. She is 21 years older than me and was working at the university where she had graduated from.
Mom is a second generation Puerto Rican from Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood, a historically Puerto Rican community. She was the first in her family to ever go to college. She became pregnant while she was still an undergrad. My biological father, an African American, left her before I was born. I didn’t know what he looked like until I met him in 2014 – but that’s another story.
My name is Yvonne and I identify as an Afro-Latina.
At a very young age I became conscious of the fact that I looked different because of my mother’s very poignant statement. Mom is a light-skinned, Spaniard-looking Puerto Rican. I was a child with piel de canela and very tight, coarse, curly hair. My abuela and her would spend their time putting baby oil and anti-tangle product in my delicate locks so that it wouldn’t hurt when they combed it for me as a baby. Once, mom had my hair cut very short. She claims that the hair stylist didn’t know what she was doing, and I ended up with an afro. Looking back, I think my mother subconsciously requested that my hair be cut this short because it might have been easier for her to deal with as a young, single, working Latina.
As I got older, my mom would straighten my hair with harmful products that would burn my scalp and damage my hair. Note, this was la moda at the time; all the black girls were getting their hair relaxed. My hair ended up looking like Rudy Huxtable’s from The Cosby Show, a cute poofy straight look that came down to my shoulders.
One day when I was sitting on the floor between my mother’s legs, as she slathered my hair in Pink Oil, and combed, tugged, brushed and pulled it into a tight French braid, she said it. She said, “They’re going to treat you differently.”
She proceeded to tell me that one of the high schools she attended was in a predominantly African American neighborhood, near Cabrini Green. Her hair had been kept long in those days because she was a Pentecostal Christian, like so many Puerto Ricans at that time. She said that the black girls would shout at her, tease and taunt her, and pull her hair. She said that they may have been jealous, and didn’t like her because she was Puerto Rican and had hair that reached her waist. I just sat and listened. She told me I was beautiful, but that because of my physical features, people from the black community might treat me differently. She said she wanted me to know this because she didn’t want me to be scarred like she had been in her early days.
Mom then began to educate me about what being high yellow meant; that it was a term defining a lighter skin tone and color that blacks associate with being both good and bad. The term holds racist roots stemming from slavery in the United States. Black slaves who had lighter skin were typically found working in their slave master’s homes; these individuals were likely to have been a product of a relationship between the master and a slave who worked out in the field. The house slave with lighter skin had more privileges by working within the master’s home, while the field slave with darker skin was kept out working in the fields doing the hardest labor on the plantations for peanuts, if that. This history left an energy that still permeates the black community today, has created dissonance and separation, and my mom wanted to make sure I knew the story of my people.
Maybe this was too much for a young girl to hear. But I honestly look back at this and thank my mother for it. You see, we live in a world that is so driven by a racial lense. Most everything we do is based off of what we can and can’t do, who we hang out with, and what music we listen to, based on the color of our skin color. That’s changing a little bit now, but back then this was very real. My mother was conscious that she had given birth to and was raising a black child. By her telling me that I would be treated differently, she showed me that she would be my defender and protector because that was her job. She loved me, and didn’t have a choice one way or another. Mom knew that because of my mixed race, blacks might snub me and the rest of society would treat me lesser than.
Being an Afro-Latina has had its ups and downs. On any given day walking down the streets of Chi-Town I’ll get a, “What you mixed with?” question from members of the black community. I’ve been told, “You have that good hair,” by them. I learned what types of products to use on my hair from my black girl friends, something that my mother couldn’t really have shown me herself. I learned how to ‘take weave out’ from my friends who purchased Indian hair – hair cut from the heads of poor girls and women in the East and sold to black women in the West as wigs and extensions.
I internalized at a young age that I looked a certain way and there was nothing that I could do about that. To some, I look exotic and those people question my heritage. To others, I’d look dirty or less than, and that’s when I would be treated differently because of my ethnic makeup. I quickly identified with a reality and existence that would later define me as an Afro-Latina, a term that I hold on to now as empowering. It would mean traversing life having certain privileges and also being denied access to things because of the way I look.
My mother’s words gave me armor to get through life; those words were emotional protection. Her words taught me how to love myself from the inside out and I will forever be grateful to mom for that.