Am I one of “those hyphenated Americans”?

This morning I responded to a tweet about the electoral college and slavery, and so naturally in minutes I was faced with the joy of being marked as “other.”

This time was different, though. I’m a light-skinned Puerto Rican who since age 10 has mostly lived around non-PRs, so I’m used to being labeled “other,” usually by ignorant-ass well-meaning white friends.

In high school I was walking upstairs talking with a friend who said something horrible about Spanish-speaking people. When she remembered I was there, and not white, she said “I’m talking about spics. You’re one of the good ones.”

A friend I hung out with every day after school for years “found out” I was Puerto Rican late in high school. “Wow,” he said. “I can see Dan [a darker-skinned mutual friend, also Puerto Rican] climbing up trees barefoot looking for coconuts. But not you.” He wasn’t kidding.

In 2016 I could not vote for Hillary Clinton for a million reasons, one of which was her less-than-heroic history with Puerto Rico. A well-intentioned white girl I’ve known for years felt entitled to whitesplain to me why I was wrong, and why I, as a Puerto Rican, had to vote for Hillary, proceeding to list a series of issues and concerns that had nothing to do with Puerto Rico or Puerto Ricans.

Too many times to count, friends, even lovers, have made it a point to other me to others. “This is Matthew,” they’ll say by way of introduction, then “He’s Puerto Rican.” Like they’re announcing a contagious disease. One girlfriend introduced me to her mother, and when I asked afterwards what her mom thought confessed, “She was disappointed. She was expecting someone more like Ricky Ricardo.” I’m not kidding. I’m also not Cuban.

I’ve spent most of the last 30 years of my life around white people. Dating white people. I’m engaged to one. It’s not any less hurtful than when I was a scared teenager who called the police because a white man was waving a bat at a Puerto Rican woman, because he’d threatened me and another teen and a child, and the neighbors who came outside, rather than help diffuse the situation, told me, as the police I’d called pulled up, “You’re gonna get it now, spic.” It’s not any less hurtful than when the cop heard the woman say something to me in Spanish and asked if I was Puerto Rican, followed with “Is there a father in your home?” It’s not any less hurtful than white people assuming the privilege of judging my ethnic authenticity.

You tell white people this and they don’t believe. I’ve heard it said they’re only really comfortable talking about race with other white people. In my experience, it’s true. They don’t want to believe some real shit. They hear it, and they don’t literally think you’re making it up…but they don’t quite believe it. They don’t have to.

They don’t have to know that Puerto Ricans are Americans. They don’t have to know the history and the blood and the abuse that sentence is soaked in. Why it hurts so much to have your identities questioned; why it hurts in a different place to assert that connection. I’m Other ‘cuz I’m not white. This is Matthew. He’s Puerto Rican. He’s other ‘cuz he’s light-skinned. ‘Cuz he don’t got an accent. ‘Cuz he don’t speak Spanish too good. ‘Cuz he speaks English too well.

Nobody’s more hyphen than a light-skinned Puerto Rican. Too vanguard for the rear guard. Una isla de Cassandras.


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