The first time I learned I was brown was in 2001. My very first day of boarding school in Connecticut was the day 9/11 happened. I was 16 years old and repeating my sophomore year of high school. I was adamant about wanting to go to the states for high school.
I wanted to experience life in the states, leave the island, and have new experiences. So I started looking for boarding schools and submitting applications. A next door neighbor, also named Maria, and another buddy who lived a few houses down the street also ended up researching schools and applying with me to several of them.
I didn't even realize it then- but in truth we were actually competing against each other to get into some of these schools. Maria and my buddy Jorge ended up going to one school together- he one grade above her. I was only accepted at one out of the 10 schools I applied to. Maria also applied there and she did not get in. I was accepted under the condition I repeat my entire sophomore year. Honestly, I was so excited to have the chance to attend I didn't even hesitate- I said ok, fine, sure- why not? I'll just start college one year older.
Never had I really asked myself why I would be asked to repeat sophomore year- I just thought to myself this school must be really "hard". Turns out it wasn't and I now ask myself if the reason why I was asked to repeat my sophomore year had to do with my ethnic background. I now believe it did.
After two years of boarding school I was pretty fed up with campus life, feeling isolated at times, and well- I got bored. I wanted more freedom and more adventure. So I applied to do my Senior year of high school via a program my boarding school was affiliated with- School Year Abroad. Somehow, I applied, I got in, and soon enough I was on a plane on my way to live for 10 months in France with a host family.
The school in France was a very small school- I'd say a total of 52 students participating in the program. It was an American School, immersed in the heart of Rennes, France. Out of these 52 students 6 of us were not white. There was one Asian, two Black, one Indian, and two Latinas ( I was one of them). I hadn't given it much thought until after I was already in college, but I do believe one of the reasons why I got into the program had to do with my ethnic background.
And so it continued- I went to college. I got jobs. I went on dates. I also didn't get jobs, didn't get invites, and didn't get second dates. And I now do believe several of these instances did or didn't happen due to my race. I'll never forget when I was in boarding school, head over heels for a guy- we had great conversations, and clearly physical attraction. I remember talking to another guy friend that lived in his dorm trying to make sense of why this boy wouldn't "date" me. "It's because you're not white" he said.
I remember feeling powerless over my race. "Oh."
I called my mom on the phone and said "Mom, there's people here who think differently of me because I'm Puerto Rican. I just- I just don't know what to do. I didn't know this was still a thing in America."
My mom said nothing.
Years passed and I traveled to more parts of the world, learned more languages, had more experiences. Being Puerto Rican, several people even in the states don't acknowledge us as US Citizens, don't understand we are part of the USA, and think they compliment me when they say "You're Puerto Rican? Like born and raised?! But you don't have an accent at all," as if it's something I'm expected to have. To sound a certain way when I speak English so they don't forget they're in fact conversing with a hispanic.
I've been pulled over by a cop in Alabama (💩 ). SCARY, but he ended up being a gentleman, and actually quite nice.
I've been arrested in California (💩 💩 💩 ). I was trying to protect myself from a 6'8 white man (my boyfriend at the time) demonstrating violent behavior. He had broken door handles, punched walls, and kicked mirrors. Yet I (standing at 5'1) as a Latina (which he knew to mention to get himself out of it) was taken into custody by two white male officers.
It's interesting because the cops were telling me my ex was trying to be supportive of me and he didn't want this happening to me. I'll tell you what my ex didn't want- he didn't want to go to jail so he said I was a crazy PuertoRican to get out of trouble. Do I think I got arrested due to my ethnic background? Absolutely.
Inside jail, after I got strip searched a female cop started interrogating me. She looked Latina. She told me I seemed aloof as to what was happening. I honestly had no words. Anything I said or did could be used against me. So I kept my mouth shut.
Some hours later a black female officer came by my holding cell and said "Listen, you do not look like you belong in here. You gotta post bail and get out of here."
"And go where?" I asked her. "You think I want to go home right now? I'm petrified of going back home where he is. You're wrong. I'd rather stay here for a few more hours to let things cool off."
She didn't say anything. But her eyes said everything.
And that- people- is the USA we seem to be living in.