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  • Writer's pictureRachel Ulatowski

What Hispanic Heritage Month Means When You’re Biracial

If anything perfectly encapsulates my muddled thoughts and feelings on Hispanic Heritage Month, it's the fact that I'm writing this with mere hours left in the month. One of the most challenging things about being biracial is never knowing if you have the right to speak on something or identify yourself as part of a community. Especially when, even though you're at least 50% Hispanic, you're undeniably a whitewashed one. I will say, though, that the whitewashing wasn't wholly voluntary.

Anytime anyone discovers my Hispanic heritage, I'm always asked whether my parents taught me Spanish, and it's always a challenge to keep from busting out laughing. My parents couldn't be bothered to take us children to the dentist or hospital, purchase us beds, or educate us before the age of 14. OF COURSE, they didn't teach us Spanish! It goes deeper than that, though. I never so much as heard of Hispanic Heritage Month until I was an adult. I always had the feeling that my grandmother and grandfather, who only spoke Spanish, had quite the tales to tell. To this day, their stories and entire lives are a mystery to me.

The extent of my family's discussions about race was them comparing how brown all their kids were. I was usually picked on for being among those considered the "little brown kids" of the family. Then, when I was 17, my mother passed away, and my father and sister decided to launch a crusade against her side of the family, which was the only tie I had left to my heritage. As a minor, I was stuck with the consequences of my family's actions. I was under my father's control still and had no way to contact my grandmother, who is also deaf and does not use technology or social media.

Eventually, once I reached adulthood, I decided to cut contact with my direct family and embarked on a lonely path. I slowly started moving away from their ideology, hatred, and bias. I started learning about the realities of race in America. However, it was a conversation I never felt adequate to participate in because, for so much of my life, I never faced racism. I wasn't the little brown kid anymore; I was a young woman who could easily pass as white and had the last name Ulatowski, which is about as white as you can get.

At the same time, I felt uncomfortable with my race always being assumed. Once at college, I decided to correct someone who assumed I was white and was met with laughter when I mentioned I was mixed.

"Oh, but isn't everyone technically mixed?" I was asked. "What are you, like, 1% Hispanic?"

A few years later, I became a writer and decided to use my platform to speak out about Hispanic representation in film and TV and against cultural appropriation. I was shocked by the vitriol I immediately faced as I was slammed as a "white savior" and forced to take down my articles about Hispanic issues.

Yet, a few months later, I was sitting in a work meeting where my co-worker opened up about being harassed and having her race speculated about online. Looking into the Zoom camera at all of us in the meeting, she mentioned that we could not understand what she was going through because we were white. Again, I understand that I look white, but I felt something sink within me. It felt inappropriate to speak out and mention at that moment that I was biracial. Yet, it also felt striking and depressing how easy it was for someone to assume my race, write me off, and dismiss the possibility that I ever had those experiences just because one can't immediately tell my race when they look at me.

Once more, those questions churned inside of me. What am I allowed to celebrate? When am I allowed to speak out? When do my experiences matter? What do I do when I feel like I'm not white enough and not Hispanic enough to relate to any community? Do I put white on my job application? Do I put Hispanic/Latino? Why is there so little acknowledgment of biracial individuals? Why can't someone give us directions on what we call ourselves and what we're allowed to do?

Even as I felt cut off from the rest of the world, I knew there was still one thread of connection. Several relatives from my mother's side of the family had found me on social media. I didn't know what they thought of me not talking to my grandmother for years or of all the horrific things my sister said to them, but if they thought anything, they didn't say it. They really didn't know me. My mother had isolated us so much I doubt they knew much more than what I looked like as a baby-faced child in my Sunday dresses when I ran into them at church. Yet, they found me as an adult on social media and offered to connect.

Meanwhile, they were pretty much one's dream connections on social media. Every post, update, achievement, and regret I posted about on social media — they were always there. Either cheering, offering advice, sympathizing, or just dropping a reaction. It wasn't much, but it was more than my direct family could do for me. Most of them are my grandma's sister's children, my 1st cousins once removed. With a mother who once pitched a fit about celebrating Christmas with her widower father-in-law, I was never taught that direct family mattered, especially not distant family. Yet, 1st cousins once removed made us something to each other, and I was surprised to learn it meant something to them.

After much self-doubt, fear, and re-writing a message 20 times, I finally asked one of my relatives for contact info for my grandma. I was embarrassed to do so. I didn't even know her name. I just knew her as Little Grandma. Not only was I just 17 when my family cut her off, but my mother had always been obsessed with her father while ignoring her mother. Yet, it's my grandma I always remember interacting with us. She was the one who threw us Valentine's Day parties and forced my mom to let us put our shoes out on the porch so she could fill them with gifts for Three Kings Day. She was the one who wanted to teach me how to cook. Who, when my family cut her off, was only concerned with how she'd deliver the gifts she'd already bought her grandkids for birthdays and Christmases to come. All that time, she provided a love for her grandkids far more significant than they'd ever experienced with their own parents; I'd never even know her name.

I was able to get her address and start writing to her. I'm still hoping we'll work out language and distance barriers, and maybe someday I'll hear her whole story. Perhaps eventually, I'll learn what Hispanic Heritage Month means to her. First, though, I needed to know what it meant for me. Although I didn't realize it at the time, it came to me about a year ago. A PR company contacted me asking if I wanted to interview Andy Garcia about his passion project, The Lost City (2005), for Hispanic Heritage Month 2022. The interview fell through, but not before I watched The Lost City.

The film has much to unpack about the perspective it chooses to follow and the impact of the Cuban Communist Revolution. However, there was only one factor that I couldn't stop thinking about. It was about love. The way the Fellove family loved each other. The way they would kiss and embrace upon each meeting. The way a mother and family gave everything they had to give their "pride and joy," their son, a chance at a better life than they had. A few days after watching it, I sat at a bar with my boyfriend as I tried to explain why the familial connection had impacted me. It was hard to put into words, but I finally stated that it touched me because "I didn't know it was possible for a mother and father to love their child that much."

Since then, I've started to learn the most significant thing my parents barred me from by ignoring my heritage. My mother didn't just leave behind her language, history, and traditions. She left behind her family. She left behind the closeness that pervades Hispanic families and the concept of being family-oriented rather than self-oriented. Of course, I didn't know a love like the love Fico felt existed because I'd never really been part of a family. It always felt like living in a group of strangers where affection was foreign. Even saying the labels "mom" and "dad" out loud felt wrong.

My mother did know that, however. She knew family and community. She knew the love my grandparents gave her. She wronged us children in many ways, but the most tremendous disservice was not valuing family the way her family valued her.

I finally realized that being Hispanic wasn't measured by a test of how well I knew Spanish or Hispanic history. It was about my family. It doesn't matter if I look white or wasn't raised feeling Hispanic—I'm still connected to their story. I'm connected to the relative who helped me get in touch with my grandma, to the one who wishes me "peace and love" on every social media post I make, to the ones who tell me they are proud of me when my immediate family won't, to my grandma who has lost so much in her life but continues fighting anyways. I realized recently that a lot of people in my family had a similar experience to me. They didn't have parents who loved them or cared for them. Yet, they always had a tío or tía or primo or abuela who gave them love, who threw them birthday parties and celebrated their milestones regardless of how closely or distantly they were related.

I used to want to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month for myself so I could feel like I belonged. Now, I want to celebrate it because I want to celebrate my family. I want to celebrate the people who never had to worry about earning the right to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month because they are so clearly part of why it exists. I want to celebrate the people who didn't leave their families behind, who built themselves up into a community of people who are stronger and kinder than anything I ever knew.

Will I ever feel Hispanic enough to identify as such and to speak out the next time I'm called a white savior, or have my race assumed? I don't know. I do know, though, that my family inspires me. Without them, I would feel inadequate as a whitewashed biracial woman. With them, I feel like I have been welcomed as part of their family, and that's something worth celebrating.

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