Life as my Brown Mother’s White Daughter

It’s a weird world where, growing up, people assume your mother is your nanny, or, as a more woke but not-that-woke person would say, “Your hot Latinx babysitter.” When the woman who pushed you out of her vagina looks like J-Lo and you look like Julianne Moore’s freckly ass, what’s a girl to do? Enjoy the white privilege while it lasts or fight for recognition as the Nuyorican Queen that you are whenever you dance to Fat Joe? Join me on the journey through my awkward life — the highs and lows of being my brown mother’s white child.  

My birth certificate says my name is Miranda Rae Hart, born on June 8th, 1994, weighing 8.5 pounds, and that my race is Hispanic. You are what your mother is, right? At least Judaism goes by that rule… but what about Latinos?

I entered the world with just as blank a slate as the next crying, buttery soft baby, but I was to experience my first identity crisis only a day after my birth.

My mother recalls: “I was stir crazy so I decided to take a stroll around the maternity ward holding my new baby. Immediately, I was stopped by an older white nurse. She asked, ‘Can I check your ID bands?’ Off the jump, I was defensive and said ‘No, this is my baby.’ The nurse kept insisting and even after I showed her she urged me to go back to my room and give the baby to her. I cried.’

Once the mixup was resolved, the hospital sent a fruit basket and the nurse apologized… repeatedly. (Take note: if you ever get caught for being super prejudice, send a fruit basket — it works!)

Safe to say, knowing where I stand as a Latinx was rocky from the start.

“My Doña Fella used a hot comb to iron out me and my sisters’ hair,” my mother would repeatedly tell me as she begged me to wear my straight hair down more. Hair is a huge thing for most women of color as society has made them feel they need to achieve the Eurocentric standard of beauty we see plastered on magazines and billboards. My mother blows out her hair once a week to get it straight. She never pulls it back with gel like my second primas that I’d met when we would visit the Bronx.

Yet, my father was the one who did my hair every day in elementary school. He’d slick my fine mousy brown hair into a ponytail with CVS brand gel. Not because it was at all needed but because he was a Wall Street guy — Wall Street guys love gel. I would run off to fourth grade looking like a friend of Tony Soprano but, in my head, this was a more Puerto Rican style. My mother would tear out ads from J. Crew catalogues for inspiration for my hair and leave them on the fridge, while I’d (of course) get my inspo through all things ‘Jenny from the Block.’

My mother often described me like this to people, “Wait until you see my daughter! She has blonde hair and blue eyes!” UM HELLO?! I HAVE EXOTIC GREEN EYES WITH GOLDEN SPECS AND I AM VERY CLEARLY A STRIKING BRUNETTE. It was as if she wasn’t taking a good look at her own child!

In my immature childlike mind, I wondered if she saw me as Christopher Columbus’s devil spawn.

Blonde girls at school seemed to have an unearned superiority complex. Did my mom think I had one? Maybe. White privilege is very real. I knew my complexion gave me privilege outside my own house.

I was one of three Latinx girls at my high school and I found that I got away with much more than the other two who had darker complexions than me. I also would use my ethnicity as a rather flawed way to flirt with boys. “Did you know I’m half Puerto Rican?” I’d seductively whisper to the boy sitting next to me in Physics. They’d usually respond with something off color like, “That’s why you have a butt!” I always chose to be flattered by the ethnically charged comments, when, in reality I was actually fetishizing myself because I wanted validation of my heritage so bad.

When my mother was young she went to summer camp and renamed herself ‘Barb.’ She said she liked it because it was a “wasp” name. When my abuela came to pick her up, she said “I’m looking for Lena.” Nobody knew who that was, but eventually, after a description, the counselor said, “Oh you mean Barb!”

Early on, my abuela nicknamed me Muñeca, which means doll in Spanish. My parents, brothers, and people who knew me in my Polly Pocket days called me the shortened version, ‘Muñee.’

Being called by that name is what makes me feel most like myself. And yet, for so long, I couldn’t bring myself to introduce myself as such. It’s almost as if, deep down, I didn’t believe I was Latina enough to have that name.

Today my mother and I can joke about the differences in our hair or complexion over afternoon phone calls. She says if I grew up in her childhood neighborhood my nickname probably would have been ‘Blanquita’ (little white girl) instead of ‘Munee.’ I make fun of her by telling my friends to call her ‘Barb.’

She’s in New York and I’m in Los Angeles. We’re physically a whole country apart but mentally we’ve become closer than ever. When we talk about the current climate of identity politics she goes back and forth between “Don’t you dare use me as street cred at one of those marches” to “YOU BETTER NOT LET ANYONE TELL YOU YOU’RE NOT PUERTO RICAN OR I’LL COME OVER THERE AND GIVE THEM A COCOTASO.” (A ‘cocotaso’ means a hit with your knuckles, to which I am no stranger.)

My life as my brown mother’s white daughter has been strange but I’ll never stop representing the culture my mother gave me. I’ll bring my kids to the Puerto Rican Day Parade even if they look like leprechauns and pronounce quesadilla with the “L” sound ( I’ll just gently correct them). I’ll forever keep slicking my baby hairs down and I’ll always love my nickname ‘Muñeca.’

At the end of the day, I’m my brown mother’s white daughter… as Latinx as they come.

Illustration by: Youheum Son, at youheumson.com.

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