This I Believe

Vanessa - Syracuse, New York
Entered on September 4, 2007
Age Group: 18 - 30

I believe that only I can decide my own ethnicity. I was born with my father’s traits. I have fair skin and straight black hair, characteristics very different than what is considered traditional for Puerto Rican women. Little did I know that these physical features would later develop me into the woman I am now.

I was very fortunate to have such an influential mother and father. My parents provided me with an upbringing that strongly reflects both my culture and myself, including a great appreciation towards Latin music, food and its lifestyle in general. Holiday events, along with other celebrations spent with my relatives, also incorporate our traditions and beliefs. However, despite my cultivated childhood, I always found myself on the defensive end whenever I interacted with others outside my family.

Being raised in a heavily populated Hispanic city, I struggled with identity issues. My ethnicity was always in question by others, more so because I did not resemble other Puerto Rican girls. I was frequently mistaken for being Portuguese, Spanish and Italian, but never Puerto Rican. As the subject of most racial jokes starting from elementary school and going all through high school, I found myself very discouraged with the way I was being perceived and unhappy with my overall appearance. I became a more self-conscious individual as a result, constantly judging myself physically.

Later on, going into freshmen year at Syracuse University, I was immersed in an entirely new setting and situation. Upon meeting me for the first time, other students were automatically assuming me to be Puerto Rican. I was very surprised at this, initially expecting to receive the same questions and confused stares I had been given my entire life prior. It was as if I, too, accepted the notion that there was a specific way to look in order to be a true Puerto Rican and that being acknowledged as one was almost impractical.

Now, for the past couple of years, I have grown to appreciate what I now consider a unique look for Hispanic women. After years of wanting curly brown hair and a darker skin tone, I embrace my light skin and straight black locks. I no longer get offended if someone mistakes my ethnicity for something else.

Regardless of whether or not I may look Puerto Rican, I am very proud to be who I am and very happy to be able to share and express my culture with others around me. I strongly believe that no one can judge and determine another’s ethnicity based on his or her appearance alone. Ethnicity involves a way of life, knowing no such thing as boundaries or specific requirements.