My name is Kimberly Helminski Keller, and I am a Latina.
My Polish surname hides the reality that the other half of my DNA is Puerto Rican, a genetic mix of Spanish, African and Taino Indian. As a child, I described my multi-racial heritage as “Puertolack,” a hybrid of Puerto Rican and Polack.
We lived in Buffalo, New York in a neighborhood where most families were Polish, Italian or a combination of both. My father’s family had been in Buffalo for generations. They were among the original Poles who came to the U.S. in hopes of making a good living working on the railroad. My father met my mother while he stationed at an Army base in New Jersey. Her family came to the mainland in 1929 to escape Puerto Rico’s poverty. She was a definite contrast to the girls back home with her tan skin, dark brown eyes and dark, curly hair.
Childhood can be confusing when you’re the only white kid in a tan family
Life in Buffalo was confusing to me. When I was with my dad, no one looked twice at me. I was just another little brown-eyed girl with golden hair. However, the looks changed when my mother and brother were around. My mother was an absolute Latina beauty, and my brother inherited her tan skin and curls. They got stares from strangers. Some of our neighbors looked down their noses at them. A few parents told their children not to play at the “dirty spic” house. My own Polish grandparents, while never overtly prejudiced, were emotionally distant with us, but they lavished attention on our literal fair-haired cousin. I was too young to understand what was happening, but all the signs told my young mind that there was something wrong with me and the people I loved most.
I found solace and identity with my mother’s family, especially after my parents’ divorce. My grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins loved us unconditionally. You couldn’t enter a room without my grandmother or aunts plastering your face with kisses. My cousins would tease me about being the whitest kid in the family and told me chocolate milk would make my skin turn brown. I drank a lot of it because I desperately wanted to be like them. Both my grandmother and mother cooked amazing Puerto Rican foods such as arroz con gandules (rice and beans), papas rejellenas (stuffed potatoes) and fried amarillos (ripe plantains). I was exposed to great Latino music and dancing, but woefully, my dance skills were better suited for Polish polkas. My grandmother rarely spoke Spanish in the house, but I picked up quite a few colorful words when she’d get angry with my uncles. My only sadness came from when we were around other Puerto Ricans in the community. People stared at me when I was outside. I knew enough Spanish to understand the muffled conversations about “the white girl.” They laughed when I called my grandmother, “Abuela.”
Blessings and challenges as an adult
My life today as a multi-racial adult has its blessings and its challenges. I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to be a part of two very different cultures. Thanks to my mixed genes, my skin doesn’t show age as it does on my Caucasian friends. My hair is somewhat manageable during the summer heat; whereas, my mom, aunts and cousins rely on various straighteners to tone down frizz. I also have the ability to see life from both a white and Latina perspective.
Still, society wants to put me in an easily definable box based on the color of my skin. People get angry when I make my own box. I identify myself as Latina because my greatest influences in life came from that part of my heritage.
Seeing only the color of my skin
While in college, I tried to participate in a discussion about growing up in a multi-racial family. A group of girls were sitting in the dorm’s common area and talking about how it was to have parents of different races and ethnicities. I introduced myself to the lead girl and told her that I was Latina and white.
“Kim Helminski? That’s not Latina! That’s the whitest name I’ve ever heard,” she said. “You’re a white girl. You don’t belong here.”
I looked around the room. No one said a word.
“I am Puerto Rican,” I said again. “My dad was Polish, and my mom’s family came directly from the island.”
The girl straightened up and looked at me. “You’re not Puerto Rican. You’re white.”
I was ready to walk away, but I asked one more question, “How do you think a Puerto Rican should be?”
The other girls began to talk. Dark skin. Curly hair. Speak Spanish. Go to a barrio school. Move your hips. Be discriminated against.
Based on their erroneous criteria, I could not be in the discussion. I missed five of their six identifiers; however, they were dreadfully wrong about my discrimination experience. I’ve faced it on both sides, and I was facing it from them.
When multi-racial leads to multi-rejection
Being multi-racial means embracing all sides of your heritage, but unfortunately, the sides don’t always embrace you back. When I look “white,” I can blend in with the white community. But if I allow myself to tan in the summer, I’m not as welcome. I can speak Spanish, cook traditional foods and talk about shared cultural experiences, but other Latinos often acknowledge me with a patronizing grin.
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I’ve met a few other people who are multi-racial. Most live their lives in the culture that best matches their physical features. It’s easier to blend in than to stand out. I straddle the fence. I want to be part of both cultures, but I know that in reality, I am a culture unto myself. My self-culture isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it’s the best illustration of how the American melting pot should work.
As a mother, I want my children to appreciate their multi-racial heritage. My daughter has red hair, freckles and porcelain skin. My son has blonde hair and olive skin. The world does not see the diversity that runs through their veins. They see two very white kids. When my children were preschoolers, we took a trip to the local Mexican bakery with my mother. They were excited about all the pastries and began to chant, “Abuela! Abuela!” whenever they saw something that looked especially delicious. All eyes turned to them, and the snickering and murmuring began. My mother got angry. “These are my grandchildren,” she sternly said. She made a quick purchase, and we left the store.
Multi-racial: It’s trendy, controversial and really difficult to describe
Recent headlines make being multi-racial trendy – and controversial. Several public figures have been more open about their diverse heritage: Apple CEO Steve Jobs (German and Syrian), President Obama (Mixed European and Kenyan) and Senator Ted Cruz (Cuban, Irish and Italian) are just a few examples. Advertisers are also being more open. Breakfast favorite Cheerios recently got a barrage of complaints over a commercial featuring a multi-racial family; however, according to figures from the 2010 census, the ad reflects reality for more than 9 million mixed race Americans.
Latino (or Hispanic) does not meet the technical definition of a race and is viewed only as an ethnic group. Currently the U.S. Census only recognizes only white, black, American Indian or Alaskan Native, and Asian as “races.” Hispanics and other minority communities such as North Africans, Middle Easterners and Arabs are viewed as ethnic groups and have to identify with one of the recognized races. The system forces the creation of ridiculous and offensive categories such as “white Hispanic.”
What racial/ethnic identity matters most?
The term “white Hispanic” can certainly be used to describe me, although many, like the girls from my old dorm, would argue that I don’t meet the criteria for Hispanic ethnicity. If you look at the big picture, neither “white” nor “Hispanic” really define my true identity.
My Polish and Puerto Rican ancestors came here for a better life, but endured poverty, dismal education, crime and discrimination from other groups. They put up with slurs such as “polack” and “spic” while they worked to feed their families. However, they never wavered and strived to make sure things were better for the next generation.
Because of them, I have the identity they wanted when they arrive on our shores – I am an American.