Diego - Navigating Identity

This story is part of my Soy/Somos series (I am/We are), conversations with Hispanics/Latinos/Latinx in the United States. If you’d like to receive future Soy/Somos, please contact me on my Website or write to me at marlena@breathinginspanish.com. Here is how Soy/Somos got started: We Are Many.

Diego is a storyboard artist and illustrator from Puerto Rico who lives in New York. He discussed his work and the devastating issues still troubling Puerto Rico in Part 1. If you missed Diego, Storyboard Artist from Puerto Rico, click on the title in orange. Our conversation continues here, identity and multiculturalism squarely on the table.

 Photo by Brunel Johnson, Unsplash

Photo by Brunel Johnson, Unsplash

I identify with people like John Leguizamo. I remember once I was standing outside waiting to get into Ghetto Clowns on Broadway, and this woman walked up to me and asked if I had extra tickets. “You could be his younger brother,” she said. Besides the things he writes that are mostly about his family, look at the films and TV shows he’s in. He’s either a clown or holding a gun. These are the images people have of people who look like me. 

 Let me backtrack. I think my ethnicity and nationality are not things I carried on my sleeve when I arrived. But people’s reactions to me brought it to the conversation. This was more common when my accent was more noticeable. You know, looking the way I do—liminal—I am in between spaces. I’m very light skinned and have benefited from that privilege. I’m not seen as threatening, but there’s enough ethnicity in my bone structure that it invites curiosity. I get a lot of “Brazilian, right?” 

Because of my career as an illustrator I move in a lot of white spaces and have been dealing with micro aggressions. But then I also work part time as an art teacher at a drop-in center for LGBT youth that serves mostly Black and Hispanic youth. Many are homeless. It’s clear to me that to the majority of them I am basically white. I have to negotiate this thing.

Can you give me an example of micro aggression in one group?

You don’t look Puerto Rican--your English is so good, that type of thing. An expectation is being projected. I’m made to feel like I have to change the way I behave for people to feel more comfortable.

I remember one time working in an office next to someone, and I work very fast. This was photo retouching stuff for advertising. I finished the project and was waiting on the art director who was outside smoking. He came back and found me reading and said something like, “Why aren’t you working? We are not at the beach in your homeland.”  

Are you still maneuvering this?  

I think people have become a little more sensitive because of the national conversation, or at least a little afraid of coming across as ignorant. 

And then you come across--your hair, the way you are dressed--as an artist. You are not in a tie, not that anyone wears anything like that today. What about in the environment with the LGBT group?

 We were in a meeting once, discussing erasure, something like that, the erasing of historical achievements of LGBT people of color (POC) and I was including myself in that. I am light skinned and aware of the privilege that comes with that but don’t think of myself as white. And somebody “corrected” me in the middle of the meeting, “You are being insensitive that you would use the word ‘we.’” That was a turning point for me.

How do I assert my identity as an LGBT Puerto Rican, however light skinned, without raising people’s hackles. This is very confusing. When working with a black singer and dear friend he accused me of whitewashing myself, of trying to pass. “You are a man of color, you are a man of color!” 

It’s like I am not enough of one thing or another for people, so they start asserting their right to police my self presentation.

I think this is less of a problem with Hispanic youth. Someone who has grown up in a Hispanic household is used to this. You know the gene pool. Everyone called my grandfather el negro, though we don’t know his origins exactly. I’m used to my family being a variegated bunch.

Not to say by any means that there isn’t racism and colorism in PR or in the Hispanic community. That’s a different conversation. But I don’t have a black and white hardline way of thinking about my ethnicity.

Isn’t there an advantage to being fluid? Seeing all sides and perspectives?

There are advantages and disadvantages. There is a huge advantage to having a sense of belonging. I find I have to negotiate a little bit more. Gray areas invite clarification, and I have to defend the ethnicity that I came with. 

This conversation with Diego was startling to me. I was surprised at first that Diego didn’t respond to my question about advantages of being culturally fluid. Instead, he expressed a profound need to belong.

 I’ve long believed that being both Hispanic and American has given me a dynamic advantage in life. I feel this deeply. I can move fluidly between both groups (and other immigrant groups with some ease). My perspective and knowledge base is fairly wide. After this conversation with Diego, I see something I had not fully understood before. As a white person--even when I felt alien in my early years in the United States with little knowledge of American ways--I was seen by others as a non-threatening, white woman. I dance well, and this piece of Spanish culture added a touch of glamour. My accent in English was “charming.” I was still struggling internally and didn’t know how I fit into the American world. I was often at a loss of what to say or do--but I was not turned away as “different.” 

 My color eased me into the majority pool.