By Jasmine Jade Toledo (USA/ Puerto Rico)
Published in issue 32 of The Ofi Press
It all started when I was in middle school. I guess everybody in Seth Low junior high was trying to find where they fit in. It seemed like from the first day of school the lunch room was segregated. A room with two huge fans and foldable tables. The deans sitting right in the middle watching our every move. Each table seating a clique as if we were all against each other, separating ourselves by popularity and nationality. The Mexicans, Asians, popular girls, the jocks, the African-Americans, the nerds and then, the Puerto Ricans. I didn’t understand why we had to segregate like this. When I looked at myself I realized, I didn’t fit in any of these categories. Looking in the mirror I saw my thin pin-straight hair and pale skin so I definitely couldn’t sit with the African-Americans, wasn’t smart enough for the asians or nerds, barely had any friends so I couldn't sit with the popular girls. So I thought, maybe I should sit with the Puerto Ricans or any of the Hispanic people. Soon to find out that there was a stereotype that came along with being apart of this clique, and I did not fit it.
I always had this notion that Hispanics and Puerto Ricans welcome everyone with opened arms, apparently it didn’t work that way. The more I stayed with them the more they pushed me away and made me feel like I wasn’t worthy of saying I was Puerto Rican. I envied these girls with big, curly black hair and thick glossy lips. The way they sounded when they spoke Spanish, it was like a song I could never sing, another language rolling off their tongue that I couldn't understand. And all that spicy food they ate definitely went along with their spicy attitude. I never felt so out of place, as if I every time I said I was Puerto Rican it started sounding like a lie. Because I can’t cook, speak spanish, have a spicy personality or curly thick hair. Although I have Puerto Rican blood, the only thing I had that makes me feel Puerto Rican is my body. Shaped like an S, each curve telling a story. The story of when I decided not to be Puerto Rican.
I went through my life feeling like this. I took this “Seth Low’s lunch room feeling” with me everywhere I went. It seems like no matter where you are people are segregated by nationality, whether you’re at work or school, it doesn’t matter. If you look around you see those cliques and you migrate to the one that you fit unconsciously. So I took that feeling and I turned it into ambition to fit that stereotype.
Walking into New Utrecht high school, I was a brand new person. It was like I bought a new me. Brand name sneakers, tight clothes emphasizing my curves, long tips on my nails painted a shocking color, caked on makeup and lip gloss and the most important part, putting a pound of gel in my hair so it stays thick and curly. I even emphasized my L’s and R’s when I talked so maybe they wouldn’t notice I can’t speak spanish. I walked in that building of new faces with a strong “Puerto Rican” attitude. Everything masking who I really was, the quiet girl who liked to read and write became something she isn’t to fit a stereotype. I was a chameleon that couldn't blend in.
Aside from all the superficial qualities I was taking up, I realized something. Although I couldn’t speak Spanish, I love Spanish music. Each song having rhythmic qualities no other type of music could possibly have. It takes me to another place, all of a sudden forgetting the words, the fact I can’t even understand them and becoming Puerto Rican. Listening to this type of music is like my get away. I forget about the stereotype and the “Sethlow’s lunch room feeling” and my Puerto Rican blood takes over. Almost as if it doesn't feel like a lie anymore to say I’m Puerto Rican.
But, after all my hard work and pretending all I kept hearing was “Wow, you're Puerto Rican, you’re so light skin” or “How are you Puerto Rican and you can’t speak Spanish.” My favorite was “I didn’t know you were Puerto Rican, you have white girl’s hair.”
That’s what it felt like when I had to say my nationality, the one thing I’m the most proud of. Although we were raised in a predominantly white neighborhood, my grandparent’s taught me to be proud of what I was. Yet, complete strangers have the power to make me feel like a wannabe.
This was the point in my life that I officially decided not to be Puerto Rican. I gave up, I washed off all the makeup and gel. I went back to my t-shirts and converse. I didn’t even want to listen to that music anymore; I didn’t want to be taken to that world anymore. I didn’t want to learn to speak Spanish because my own people made me feel out of place. The one thing I got out of all of this is the sassy attitude I always wanted. Mainly because I was angry, angry because I didn’t fit in where I was supposed to.
Growing up I strayed away from learning about my heritage; I didn’t care to find out about my Puerto Rican culture. I think I did that because I felt left out by my peers for not looking and acting the way a stereotypical Puerto Rican from New York should act like. I was so angry at myself because no matter how much I tried I just couldn’t possibly fit in.
One Sunday morning, I sat on my floor in my New York Yankee T-shirt, jeans and converse, with pictures of my family scattered all around me. Generations of Toledo’s, Melendez’s, Machado’s, Costello’s and Lopes, all the last names of the people in my family. Some pictures were from Puerto Rico in the 70’s, some were from right here in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. Some family members had the dark skin and dark thick curly hair I always wanted and some had the light skin and pin straight hair just like me. Some can speak the language of love I hope to learn fluently one day, and some just can’t shake the Brooklyn accent that I speak of. From the typical Puerto Rican’s, down to me. The girl with the Pin straight hair, light skin and soft personality.
From junior high school all through high school I felt as if I was an outcast when compared to the people of my culture. It was as if I had to try hard to fit in with them; be something I’m not to feel like I’m worthy of saying I’m Puerto Rican. Looking at those pictures that morning I realized something. Something that can’t be bought like gel to make your hair thick, or makeup to make you look darker. I realized, that it doesn’t matter what you look like or if you can speak Spanish, make the best rice and beans or dance the best salsa. What matters is your roots, ancestors and family.
As of right now I can’t say that I feel completely accepted by my Hispanic peers but I know that my heart pumps Puerto Rican blood. I no longer have the need to feel like I have to fit in, but I feel the need to learn. Learn about the place my family came from, the foods they eat and how to speak Spanish. I want to learn all about my beautiful Island and the music my great great grandparents danced to. I realized that maybe carrying around the “Seth Low’s lunch room feeling” was probably just a way of saying I’m too lazy to learn about my roots. I have a huge family tree. Yes the leaves may fall on the streets of Brooklyn but the roots and heart is originating on one Island, Puerto Rico.
And this is the start of my culture journey …
Jasmine Jade Toledo is a Puerto Rican writer from Brooklyn New York, she's been published in multiple literary magazines and currently going to school to be a veterinarian. Animal's and writing has always been her passion. She love's to help people and volunteer all over NYC. Jasmine has a love of learning and will continue writing to not only educate but entertain the world with her words of wisdom.