ESSAY, LITERATURE

“Latina, Morena Loca, American” by Lisbeth Coiman

0 Comments 12 January 2015

Small families dressed in Sunday’s best speak to each other in soft voices. Firm steps echo against the tall walls of the chamber when the District Judge walked into the somber room.
He introduced himself with a short speech highlighting the importance of the occasion for him, a dear friend of his among us in the audience. He then said “raise your right hand, and repeat with me. ‘I hereby declare,” he started as we joined in the recitation of the Oath of Alliance.

 

It took us fifteen years and three countries to reach this moment, the final stop to the immigration process. We walked out of the court with the celebratory crowd that snapped pictures and registered to vote. I asked my husband “Should I call myself American now, or some hyphenated form of our new nationality?”

 

If so, should the hyphenated addition reflect ethnicity or previous nationality? Should I include mental illness?

 

I was born and raised in Venezuela and grew up in one region of the country with a particular sense of African identity. In 1997, my husband and I moved to Canada with our two young children. I was Venezuelan, nothing else. In Canada, people saw me as Caribbean because of my darker complexion. However, I did not feel the recurrent need to identify with anything other than my own name. Most everybody we met in Ontario came from a faraway land, had a story, an accent, and a heritage, and had different facial features and skin color. Everybody else was Hyphenated-Canadian. That’s the beauty of diversity; you are just the same as every other unique person. After five wonderful and difficult years in the cold north, we became Canadian citizens.

 

Soon after, we headed south to an oil and cattle town in Oklahoma, US. When enrolling my son at an elementary school, I checked African in the ethnicity box of the enrollment form. The woman standing next to me looked me from top to bottom and said,
“You ain’t black.”

 

“That’s only half true, but then there is no box for me. I am a black Hispanic,” I said.

 

“This is a Canadian passport, isn’t it?”

 

I smiled at what unraveled. “Yes. I’m Canadian, but I’m a black Hispanic too. There is no box for Other.”

 

“Is white Hispanic alright with you?” She insisted.

 

Identity does not exist in absolute terms. If I were in my homeland, my response would have been “mujer morena, de sangre caliente, loca y con las uñas afuera” – brown woman, of hot blood, crazy and with sharp nails. Instead, I answered mildly, “No, ma’am. I don’t want to be contrarian, but I’m not white. I think it goes without saying.”
In another opportunity, red and blue lights signaled me to stop. A young man in blue approached my car. I lowered my window, put my hands on the wheel, and relaxed my neck.

 

“Why did you stop me?” I asked the young policeman by my side.

 

“You just missed a red light on the corner of Prospect and 14th,” he said. I was northbound. The intersection he referred to was two blocks ahead!

 

“OK, if you say so,” I said with resignation.

 

I swear his next question was, “What are you?”

 

I was dumbfounded. “Excuse me?” I said shaking my head.

 

He said, “What race are you?”

 

I took a deep breath and was ready to give him a mouth full, but then remembered where I was. A confederate flag flew every Sunday in a parking lot just a stone throw away from where I stood.

 

I said, “You don’t have a box for me, believe me. My father’s mother was black; my mother’s parents came from Spain. I’m a light skin Negro from the Caribbean shore of South America. I am married to a Christian Arab. I am a Canadian citizen living in Oklahoma, mother of two, and mentally ill. I have an accent and Spanish is my mother tongue. I am a legal alien.”

 

He tilted his head like a dog and lowered his eyes. My anger muffled by the sound of traffic nearby.
I continued, “I told you, there is no box for me. Check other,” and finished, “I’m The Other.”

 

“I’m gonna give you a warning,” he said as if changing the subject while extending a piece of paper to me. “You can go.” I threw the paper in the glove compartment and slammed its door, convinced that the warning read, “You have entered racist land, be careful.”

 

“Get rid of your damned boxes,” I told myself when the policeman was gone.

 

While most Latinos I know identify themselves as white Hispanic, I insist on calling myself black Hispanic. In reality, we are an increasing large population in all shades of brown born out of a luscious mixture of three main groups: African, European, and Amerindians. I am aware that some of my ancestors came to this side of the world in shackles as human cargo, while others had whips in their hands. Despite all the horrors that made our mixed ethnicity possible, there is no going back on the amalgamation that occurred and resulted in what we are today.

 

Living in Oklahoma for twelve years made me conscious of the racial divide in the US, and sometimes embarrassed at the stagnating ignorance around the topic that prevails in some parts of this wonderful land. After all, with a new nationality, one inherits also the dark chapters of the country. Even when people are blind and oblivious to the increased diversity in the population, I rejoice at every opportunity that life offers me to witness change, in the young white mothers with precious brown kids learning to do the child’s hair. We are living what Octavio Paz once called, “the era of Ethnic Baroque.”

 

As I repeated the last lines of the Oath, I celebrated my evolving identity. I am a Latina, a morena loca, and an American, the complicated quilt that represents my changing identity -a baroque creation.

 

"Nyado: The Thing Around Her Neck"

“Nyado: The Thing Around Her Neck”

 

Featured image by Njideka Akunyili Crosby (Charcoal, acrylic, colored pencil, lace, collage and xerox transfers on paper 84″×84″).

Read more of Lisbeth Coiman’s essays here.

Read Lisbeth Coiman’s short stories and poetry here.

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- who has written 1 posts on Yay! LA | Arts & Culture Magazine.

Lisbeth Coiman is a bilingual blogger and writer who has worked as college professor and translator. Lisbeth writes about mental illness, acculturation, identity, and immigration. You can read more of her essays on her blog at www.gingerbreadwoman.org, or you can find her poems and short stories at www.wattpad.com/Cayena. She lives in Palos Verdes Peninsula in Los Angeles County.

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