A question I get asked a lot in my travels and encounters is, “Where are you really from?”
My answer is, “No really, I’m from the US.”
“No no no, what is your family? Your heritage?”
“My father is Cuban and my mother is French.”
“Ah!! I see it! That’s what it is!”
This is the point where I politely smile and change the subject. Actually, my father is what we’d call a Miami-Cuban. His parents, my grandparents, are the actual Cubans. He was born and raised in the good ol’ US of A and has very tan skin, dark features and a shiny bald head. My mother’s father always considered himself French. We called him “Pépère ” (pronounced pep-pay) and he spoke French with his parents, but he never spoke it with the family he made for himself, although most of his children ended up with French names. He, like my mother, was born and raised in the US, too. My mother never was able to speak French, but she was always proud of that bit – especially in her slim, beautiful looks.
My parents never spoke any other language than English growing up, even though my father could speak Spanish. His parents always insisted that we called them “Grandma and Grandpa” because “We live in America, we speak English!” is what they would always smile and say. I guess they never thought how much it would have actually helped us down the road in our lives, but that’s another topic.
I consider myself very fortunate in the gene pool, particularly out of what I received from my parents. I got my dad’s dark features – tan skin, super dark brown hair and eyes, and my mom’s slim features, which was a great source of lament during puberty, but which I know give thanks for!
I grew up in rural Florida, where there weren’t very many Latinos and Blacks were a minority. My father always joked that he spoke three languages – English, Spanish and Redneck, but he’s actually not too far off in saying such a thing. Our schools weren’t segregated, but there was a natural line that formed between the black and the white kids. I always had friends from both groups, and I never saw anything weird in it, and I’m grateful that my friends growing up didn’t seem to think it odd, either. It wasn’t really until later in life that I realized my parents were an interracial couple and what that meant, and for such a small community, I’m very grateful for the friends and teachers we had where I grew up, because I really didn’t know racism personally. That came later.
There came a time, when I was about 12 or so, when I realized that “being Cuban” or “being a Latina” was a culture of its own. My Cuban aunt and grandmother would tell me stories about my family history and look at me and say, “Don’t forget, you’re a Cuban too!” I would look at my arms and see the tan I’ve always had and agree, if anything my skin color showed it. And my fiery temper. And my natural and easy Spanish. And and and.
But the rest of the Cuban community, in fact, the rest of the Latino community, didn’t really accept me. I wasn’t as curvy as them. My Spanish was too proper. I just didn’t know things. How weird, to be told by your family whom you love and trust what you are, only to be rejected by the rest of that culture.
The funny thing was, that come high school, being Cuban became part of my identity. I was the only Cuban at my school that I knew of, so I got to create my own idea of what “being Cuban” meant. I took the parts I liked the most – being friendly, being loud and bold, being strong and courageous, being emotional and spiritual, loving to dance and eat, especially adept at throwing shoes and telling stories, and being tan – and became my own idea of “Cuban” which was accepted, loved and celebrated by my close friends and classmates. And I was happy with this. For high school, I was the Cuban and I was proud!
In college, that changed. I thought it would be good for me to get involved in the local Latino student community. And I really liked it, at first. I joined the Hispanic Student Association, I joined a Latin dance competition team. But I could see it, I could feel it from the rest, the “real” Latinos – I didn’t quite meet the criteria they had that made a “real Latino”. There were jokes in Spanish that were made at my expense, wordplays and such that they knew I wouldn’t understand because I didn’t live the language like they did. It was all okay at first, but it was a bit disheartening as it grew on. Due to a demanding schedule, I ended up leaving all of them, but I was also secretly a bit relieved. I didn’t like being told I wasn’t something that I had used as my identity for so long.
Instead, in college, I became “an actor”. I dove into the theater life and I was welcomed and accepted. And I was good. I was fierce and competitive. That was my identity – an actor! I had moved from a cultural perspective into an occupational one, and I drove hard and fast into it. I was even still able to pull out my “Cuban” where the rest of the Latino community wasn’t looking. After all, I was still tan. I could still nab a Latina part every now and again. But I generally wasn’t “white” enough for other roles in the larger productions. Thank God other students in other productions “colorblind cast” me in stuff for me to sink my teeth into.
Then I spent a semester abroad in London, and my whole world changed. I took a bit of a hiatus from acting and theater and performance, only watching it weekly and loving every bit of that. But I traveled at much as my pocketbook would allow. I met new people and made friends from all around the world. I made experiences that would delight and haunt me for the rest of my life (haunt as in, what people have told me about their lives from wherever they were from). I studied art. I studied myself. And again I found myself wondering those same questions that plague us all, “Who am I? What am I doing? Blah blah blah etc, etc, etc..”
I came from my time abroad depressed, lifeless and lost. I saw university as a waste of my time and money. I saw being where I was as a waste. Everything was a waste. Luckily my best friend, a world traveler and kindred spirit, took charge of me and brought me out of my rather dramatic funk and got me involved in a new community, an international one of students from all over studying at our university. I never dived back into my life as “an actor” so much again at university, and I think it was a bit obvious to my teachers and classmates. I was just trying to get by until I could get out again.
It was in this group of new friends where I met my now husband, who is totally and completely to
blame thank for my being here. He said to me one day, “Hey, wanna come home to Austria with me?” to which I replied, “I thought you’d never ask!”. I got an internship singing and dancing with a professional company for the summer and the rest was history. I finished off my senior year of university with many a hard lesson learned and jobs lined up for me in Vienna to fly off and away to, and I’ve been here ever since. In those summer gigs, I found myself again – as an entertainer, an artist of all kinds, a “künstlerin”, as it’s called here. Why limit myself to just acting, when clearly singing and dancing were something I was also good at and and loved to do? I could also fight, and pretend to do it well, and I came with a huge background knowledge of all the technical attributes of theater and performance which proved to be invaluable to me here, to which I fully credit my university program for.
But I was still tan. Lots of people looking at me funny in public. Confused, really. You see, there is a large Turkish population here and while I’m tan, I don’t look Turkish. I don’t look like much of anything Austrians are used to seeing. Pretty, yes, but still tan. Which brings me back to the question in my title, and to the topic of being a nationality, in this case, American.
I learned very quickly while in London not to say, “I’m from the US”, but rather, “I’m from Florida.” There are three states the rest of the world seems to recognize and judge less harshly than the rest of the US which they tend to lump together into a George Bush form, and those are New York (for NYC alone, really), California and you guessed it, Florida. The land of Miami, beaches and Mickey Mouse.
So while abroad, my “identity” would become Floridian. I can handle heat and humidity and hot weather with no problem, and when the weather drops below 75°F I shudder and grab a jacket and scarf. I know what to do to combat the heat, and it was and still is a learning process for me to handle the cold and snow. The winters in Vienna are long, cold, dark and dreary and I long for the sun and sand with every fiber in my being. I didn’t realize how much the sun and ocean were a part of me until I didn’t have it anymore. Sure, I love hiking up and down the mountains and sitting on the banks of a lake, but I’d trade any and all of it in a heartbeat for Cocoa Beach or Playa Linda. But I digress.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m very happy being a US American and I love my country. I’m not always particularly proud of some of the choices nor am I longing to live there again soon, but I’m very happy to have that passport and I am not looking to change it. I am proud of the many friends and family who have served and are serving now (like my brother) and I know not to judge the people who carry out the orders as much as I judge the people who trained them to obey without question and give the orders themselves. But I am also happy and proud to be, and I quote, “the American that breaks the stereotype”. I speak with little accent and I know geography and I question politics? Honestly, I know people’s ideas of the stereotype, but I wonder how I’m the first American they’ve met that doesn’t seem to be a GW Bush replica/minion – I’m not alone out there, home or abroad. But that title, that title of “being American” isn’t one I particularly associate myself with. I am, yes, but I don’t use that label for myself. I find it too confining, especially with my group of international friends and family members, my Austrian husband and world views – it’s all too small and too big at the same time to limit myself like that to one country. “A citizen of the world” sounds so hippy-dippy, but I really feel more like that than anything else. I am a member of YOUR community, whether or not we’ve ever met or speak a similar language.
After being in Austria for over four years now, I know I’ll never consider myself “Austrian” or “Viennese” even. As good as my German will get, or as much as I love to put on a dirndl and dance around, I’ll never identify myself with the culture here. But, going into my fourth winter here, with only one trip home in the past four years which resulted in visits to the beach when the sun was out and strong enough to tan, I have realized that I have full on LOST a part of my identity that I have had as a sort of security blanket for my whole life – my tan. I look at pictures of me with my (white) European friends, and I am actually shocked to see how light my skin has become. I honestly believe I wasn’t even this fair when I popped out of my mother, yet here I am. My husband plays tennis for a weekend and comes back tanner than me.
The thing I held on to, my tan skin, my ever-present bit of identity, is gone. Which of course makes me wonder if it was ever my “natural” skin color at all, but just the result of a lifetime in the Sunshine State? The one constant part of my identity has been ripped out my arms like a mean babysitter would a child’s teddy bear and hidden out of reach, albeit not quite out of sight. It was my solid proof that I was Cuban, then Floridian. And now – GONE.
So now it’s like I’ve been stripped to the bone. What to do next? How do I identify myself? Why is this so important to me? I started with the heritage, moved to the occupation, shifted to a regional identity, and now I think it’s only natural that my identity further morphs into a spiritual one. And that is still developing.
I wrap up this rather long evolution of my identity with this: I feel a million times better when I “get my tan back”, like my inner power is restored and recharged, but I’ve learned that only I can give myself an identity, and it can be whatever I damn well please. And I will accept yours, whatever damn well pleases you.