From The Bronx to New Jersey
Let me paint a picture for you: I was born to a Puerto Rican mother who, at the age of 19, moved to the Bronx and learned English. My father, raised in Flatbush Brooklyn, was a second generation American from an ashkenazi Jewish descent. My parents met at PS 43 in the Bronx when my mother went to school to do the parent teacher conference for her baby sister. My Abuelita didn’t speak English. My father was the teacher. Why does this all matter?
Two summers later my parents, pregnant with me, eloped to Las Vegas and got married at the Silver Bell Wedding Chapel. My father’s best friend was in tow as the witness. The following January, I met the world. A world that wasn’t super comfortable with ethnic ambiguity.
Most of my mother’s family (or at least the family I grew up knowing) lived in the South Bronx while some still lived back in Puerto Rico. I spent a lot of time in the Bronx, visiting my mom’s brothers and sisters and mother. During these years I was never spoken to in Spanish. My mother was still trying to perfect her English, so it was English only that we spoke in the house. Those days and nights with my Latin side of the family were usually boring. Listening to everyone talk around you and above you in words you can’t understand. Fortunately my Abuelita smiled at me a lot and laughed. She always made sure I had something to eat: Ham and cheese and pan and Pepsi and Malta; sometimes Goya, sometimes India. That was the usual on the weekends.
On alternating weekends I would ride in my father’s Cadillac to Brooklyn, listening to doo-wop on the way to visit his parents. My granny was very active in the Jewish community. She had a voice like a canary and would often sing at her synagogue. We would visit her up in the Catskills when she worked at the hotels over the summer months. She often gave me books about the Jewish holidays or literature that exposed me to Hebrew. She gifted me my first Jewish star and often insisted that my father practice more for the benefit of me and my brother.
My father wasn’t a religious man. He had other priorities. So we lit a menorah at Chanukah or went to holiday events at his family’s homes, but there wasn’t a lot more practicing than that in the house. Perhaps with the exception of matzoh and gefilte fish, which both my brother and I grew to love.
My parents started their lives together in the Bronx, but were concerned about us growing up in the city and in a studio apartment – it was so small you could put your dishes in the sink from the kitchen table. They elected to move us to a house in northern New Jersey and eventually to the town Wayne, where I would do nearly all of my schooling. What’s important to note here about Wayne is the demographic: when we moved there in 1988 it was 90% white with a noteworthy population of Jewish people. What I can assure you is there wasn’t a single other “Jew-Rican” in the neighborhood or any households blasting salsa music on a Saturday when chores were underway. I didn’t understand but at age seven, I already knew I was different.
What I can assure you is there wasn’t a single other “Jew-Rican” in the neighborhood or any households blasting salsa music on a Saturday when chores were underway.
With my mother Catholic and my father Jewish no one could decide how to raise us. We celebrated Christmas and Hanukkah, but really, both were more of a celebration of presents. In addition, my father’s best friend (the best man) was Italian and had a timeshare at a resort in the Catskills, where he always invited us to the week of Christmas. So we often were in Callicoon celebrating with him and his parents.
As I went through school I would continue to see my grandmother in the Bronx and listen to Spanish and be told to learn, but I didn’t think I was equipped. When I would try to speak Spanish some family members would tease me about sounding American or white. Although it was innocent, I grew shy and easily embarrassed about my identity and accent.
I love my grandmother on my father’s side very much, but I knew she resented the idea of my father marrying a Latina and not a Jewish woman. In Judaism the children follow the mother’s religion and with my mom not interested in converting, technically I couldn’t be considered Jewish. So, no Hebrew school for me or bat mitzvah. Or baptism or communion.
These days, in bigger cities in the US, these types of differences don’t seem to matter as much. I have met more people who are ‘spiritual’ and not religious. But in this town and as kid growing up in the 1980’s, it mattered. People, the census, test-makers, colleges – it mattered.
Not White Enough, Not Jewish Enough, Not Latina Enough
As I grew older I noticed my body and my curly dark hair and skin tone. I grew more and more self conscious. I only yearned to have long blond hair and blue eyes and a petite frame. When I looked in magazines, no one looked like me. No one told my story. I was insecure. I didn’t understand what could be beautiful about me. I was conflicted, full of self-hatred and frustrated. I also noticed how my mother was treated sometimes when we shopped. Her English wasn’t perfect, she didn’t look like most of our neighbors, and people judged her. They judged us. She was born Elba Gomez, but when living in New Jersey she used her middle name and walked around town as Iris Weitzman. I guess she was more comfortable with what it looked like on paper.
I carried this, “am I not white enough am I not Jewish enough am I not Latina enough?” for years. There wasn’t a census box for me. And when I started to hear people calling me “exotic” – including moms of high school guy friends as a warning to watch out for that girl – I didn’t know what to do with it. I still didn’t see myself as beautiful, so what was I going to do with your son? I certainly wasn’t a femme fatale.
I wanted to walk around both invisible and seen at the same time. It was confusing and exhausting. During this time my parents’ marriage was coming undone and there wasn’t a place for me to turn to; everyone retreated into their own corners to deal with their own hurt. While I was now learning adult emotions, I was also looking forward to getting away. I covered up the pain and frustration with trying to be mainstream. I put my energy into dancing: tried out for cheerleading, eventually becoming the captain of the team. It was a place for obtaining a victory during this turmoil. If I was busy doing I wouldn’t have to be busy dealing.
I still didn’t see myself as beautiful, so what was I going to do with your son? I certainly wasn’t a femme fatale.
I was often self-destructive. I chased after boys that never wanted to be with me. I would flirt with relationships that would inevitably never go anywhere. I built an impenetrable wall. I refused to be vulnerable. I convinced myself I wasn’t worth loving and marriage was off the table. Why not create your own rules? Can’t get hurt that way, right?
After I graduated from college, I moved back to NJ and more than ever grew to realize I didn’t belong there. I thought differently, I wanted to see more of the planet. I knew there were bigger things out in the world for me to discover. Many of my friends were looking to settle down, get married, start having kids – often with no interest to go any further than the Jersey Shore. So one April, at 23 years old, I decided to book a last minute all-inclusive trip to Montego Bay, Jamaica. At the time, I’d never been outside of the country by myself, but I knew with all of my being I couldn’t sit around and wait for life to happen to me. I needed to take the reins of my destiny and see what I was made of.
At the resort in Jamaica I ended up befriending a staff member of the hotel, who later invited me out into the country to see what life was like for him outside of the resort town. However, in order for me to be safe, I couldn’t look like a tourist. Although the temperature was in the 90’s and extremely humid, I had to let my hair out – big, curly and frizzy, put on a t-shirt (sleeveless wasn’t acceptable), jeans and sneakers. And off we went. The result of this journey into town became a pivotal moment in the course of my life.
Not only did I seem to fit in amongst the locals and was able to walk about town undetected, I started to grow a hunger for exploration. A new confidence was born. I could go out into the world, be accepted, and do it on my own terms. It was liberating and a shift in growing up happened within. By the power of time and circumstances things started to change inside. I grew up.
After returning from this trip, I was intoxicated with the idea of setting off on my own – even further away from ‘home’. Three months later I packed up my things, changed jobs and moved to Los Angeles. I didn’t know what it would have in store, but I believed it would be a better fit for me.
I moved away – to the other side of the country. When I arrived in LA I made friends that were ethnically diverse and of different sexual orientations. I was surrounded by dreamers, those who had been through worse, and some who overcame more. There were other Puerto-Rican Jews, Chinese-Germans, and those adopted into completely different cultures. Being different was common; old news. A big city was for me and I had to experience more of them. Over the next few years my confidence grew while my new community expanded. I discovered my own special relationship with God, ran a marathon, fell into a deep special unconditional love, accomplished more than I ever dreamed of. And of course, all the while I continued to travel by myself: Christmas in Maui and Rome, where I was addressed in Italian. Weekends in Miami, Portland, and Austin Texas – where things are bigger and that worked for me. My healing continued and this came with acceptance, self-love, and peace.
The coolest part about being ethnically ambiguous: you can immerse yourself in almost any culture and go undetected, dress like the locals and belong. My identity gave me an appreciation for diversity and cultures mixing. It helped me to understand people better, increased my patience with different ways of living and praying and helped me expand my perspectives. I could travel to foreign lands and blend in. I could go to any Spanish speaking country and everyone assumed I was fluent. I was a global citizen, a woman of the world. When I made the decision to embrace this unique opportunity, everything I felt growing up stopped being real. Since I’ve embraced my ethnic ambiguity people notice me and my beauty in a way that commands respect because I’m proud of what I am and who I am.
Since I’ve embraced my ethnic ambiguity people notice me and my beauty in a way that commands respect because I’m proud of what I am and who I am.
In 2006 when I eventually decided to try it out and dye my hair blonde, people starting thinking I was the black girl with the blonde hair. And when this new category emerged, I could handle it and didn’t mind the curiosity or the stares. As a result, when I was once chased in a gas station for being confused with Beyoncé, I certainly wasn’t offended, but grateful that my ethnicity is seen in everyone.
Don’t wait to love yourself. The world needs you as who and what you truly are.