“If people made African Americans and Latinos slaves, what would I be?”
My nine-year-old daughter Gina lay in bed, snuggled in between her two teddy bears. I stop tucking in her cobija and sit down next to her, my breath on pause.
“You mean if white people made slaves?” I say softly.
“Yes,” she looks up at me with her deep brown eyes, “Because some of my family is white.”
“Well, ” I begin, taking a breath, “usually white people consider you to be Latino or black even if you are multiracial, so I think you would be thought of as a slave.”
She has asked such a big question for a little girl who should be asking about what fun things we can do after school the next day, throwing me into a storm of emotions that batter me as I stroke the waves at her forehead and stay in my mind, clamping down my screams and tears.
“When black people were slaves, there were white owners who, who had babies with women who were slaves and the kids were not often claimed by them. They lived with their moms as slaves. So that and other history is why you would be seen as a slave.”
I tuck her in, sing her nigh-nigh song en español and promise to check on her later. A siren blares in the near distance and I barely register the sound.
In my room a few feet from hers, I lay across my bed, grab a pillow to my chest, and feel my heart fluttering inside, inviting me in with my fears. Instead, my eyes close tightly as I slip into an in-between space where the moment surrenders to the past.
I remember driving my daughter to her Spanish after-school program a few months ago. “What am I?” was her question that day.
“You have choices,” I had said. “It’s about how you feel culturally rather than a race. So you can call yourself Latina or interracial or other things.”
She sat quietly, her head tilted and her lips pursed in the backseat as I watched her in my rearview mirror.
“OK. I like Latina.” Ding, ding, ding! I won the race game that day.
I jerk up, sitting in the darkness as panic floods my body and I add a loss to my silently tabulated scorecard. She is trying to find her culturally assigned seat and I keep thinking I have already led her there.
Padding into the bathroom, I begin combing out my curly mass of hair, carefully dividing it into two even bunches. As I braid the first side, I regret picking a white donor for my twins. White as in English and French. I pretended the issue of whiteness would not emerge to bite my ass. I was being ‘fair’ since my partner at the time was white. I can’t say I would make the same decision.
Stepping lightly back into the room she usually shares with her twin Teo, I perch on her bed, stroking her forehead, her eyebrows, her sweet, perfect cheeks and slightly pointed chin. This is their Friday separate night date, when they each get a parent in a different house and get to make all the decisions.
She is asleep, having adjusted her bears and whispered to the four tiny Guatemalan worry dolls she has in a box under her pillow.
“What did you say to those muñequitas after our conversation?” I muse as I tiptoe to my room and climb inside my flannel sheets, hoping they will warm my cold and brittle soul.
Tired as my hijita, I crash into my sueños.
A week later I am lunching with my twins, enjoying a day off from school.
Teo is eating the biggest hamburger Barney’s serves, while a group of kids in wheelchairs watches in amazement. Gina is picking at her burger, having ordered bacon with it “because Teo likes it.”
“So Gina,” I begin, “have you thought more about the question of African Americans and Latinos being slaves?”
“Yeah.” She is dipping her fries into ketchup and carefully biting them while Teo takes huge bites that give him a ketchup goatee.
“What do you think?” I am holding my veggie burger near my mouth, ready to take a bite.
“Well, Mama Carolyn is white so maybe they wouldn’t make me a slave.”
I chew on her words, scared she is looking to her white parent protect her. She is understanding that she is not black or white, the two races that play out slavery for her, although she puts Latinos with African Americans.
“So how do you think people decide who is Latino?”
Gina shrugs and nibbles on her burger. “Teo, do you want my bacon?” Teo grins and grabs the two pieces, shoving them in his already full mouth.
“Why do you think people think I’m Latina?”
“Your hair and skin color,” she answers quickly.
I take another bite even though my appetite has gone to the dogs and edge myself closer to her legs swinging underneath the table.
“So you look like me.” I turn to Teo and say: “Teo on the other hand is lighter skinned and has really different colors in his eyes.” I peer closely into them: “Hmmm, there’s the black pupil, and then some dark green color, and then a circle of yellow and it’s all encased in a brown círculo.”
Although it is Gina and I conversing, it is actually Teo who could more easily pass, even though he has already been called a “wetback.” I wonder if she asks her white mother whether she will protect her? Even though I am a generation closer to the more modern slavery of service workers, I believed at her age that I belonged here. My error was thinking it would be easy, thinking others believed I belonged here. She knows it will not be easy. How does one lead a child who has not been shielded, like I was, by platitudes about how education, country of origin and English proficiency will make the playing field smooth and level?
The conversation in the café drifts into our plans for the weekend as I enjoy my thick French fries and watch my children giggle. At one point Gina looks up and I meet her eyes, see the searching soul within who counts on me to level with her, no matter how hard it is on all of us. We will talk more, but not today. Today we will go ride the Carousel and feed the cows and goats at the Little Farm in Tilden Park.
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