For my entire life, I’ve been referred to by my family as a “jewban,” a portmanteau of the terms “Jewish” and “Cuban.” Although this term is evidently comical and not an identity recognized by society at large, as a kid, I wore my Jewban ancestry on my sleeve as a symbol of pride. That changed when I went to high school. Unlike my middle school, where I never felt as if I had to claim an identity, at Packer, if one isn’t white, having a clear label is a necessity.
When people see me, they usually think I’m white. This doesn’t offend or bother me, so usually I politely correct them. What does bother me is that after I explain that I am half Cuban, I am suddenly subject to an interrogation: “Okay, but is your dad really Cuban? I mean, is he part Cuban, or full Cuban? Is your mom Cuban? Okay, but–” I’ll stop listing the questions here for the sake of time.
The first time when I felt I had to choose between the diverging parts of myself at Packer was early in freshman year. It is emblematic of Packer’s culture that when I had this experience, I was in the chapel, which is often referred to as ‘The Heart of Packer.’ A row of several students stood on the chapel stage, side by side. “We invite any person of color to come and join us,” one of them said. I felt my heart sink. The few months I had been at Packer leading up to this, I had been confronted with the question of my race by individuals, but now I had to state my heritage in front of the entire school. I watched as members of my class got up from their seats and headed to the stage. I was worried that my classmates would think I was lying about my ethnicity in an attempt to gain attention or as a way to seem more diverse than I am, a popular activity at Packer. Being new and fearing the judgment of my peers, I stayed seated. I still feel guilty about that.
A year later, I was faced with the same question during a similar activity: was I white or a person of color? People began to make their way up to the front of the chapel while I sat and contemplated my options. Over the summer, I had developed a sense of confidence in myself and a tolerance for others’ judgment. With my newfound trust in myself and the guilt of not joining the other students of color the year prior, I stood up from my seat and marched up to the chapel stage. I looked out at the audience, white people, and then to the people next to me, people of color. We separated ourselves as if the commonality of skin color triumphed over the one thing we all had in common: we were all people.
Although I felt a tinge of sadness due to the division from my peers, I ignored it, still proud of myself for having enough confidence in my identity to publicly declare it. Pleased with myself, I triumphantly skipped down Packer’s halls into the library where I planned to finish my history homework. I sat down next to my classmate and opened my laptop. As I did so, he looked up at me. “So, did you go up?” He asked. I eyed him with confusion. He clarified: “Did you join the people of color in chapel?” I was slightly taken aback; usually, this person was introverted and socially awkward, so I was surprised he was asking me such a personal question. Despite my slight shock, I have always considered myself an open book. “Last year I didn’t. This year I did.” He stared at me in silence for a few seconds. “Oh,” he remarked quickly, returning his gaze to his computer and continuing to type. I was amazed by how much judgment could be conveyed with a single syllable.
After that, I was done being Cuban for a while. I decided that if I was asked about my ancestry, I would tell others I was Jewish and leave it at that. Although I don’t practice Judaism, my mother is fully Jewish, so I am technically, according to the Torah, a Jew. Despite this, others were still skeptical of my claim, and thus felt entitled to interrogate me about my identity once again; “Okay, but do you practice Judaism actively? Do you even know what Rosh Hashanah is? Have you been bar mitzvahed? Okay, but–” I’ll stop listing the questions here for the sake of time.
What should I be when I’m not Cuban enough but I’m also not Jewish enough? What will satiate the needs of those who struggle to shove me into a box? If I don’t identify as a Cuban or a Jew I am told I am denying my culture, but when I do choose to make my identity known, I am told I am attempting to falsely diversify myself. Yes, I undeniably benefit from white privilege and pass as white, but that doesn’t dictate who or what I am. What I am is sick of others joking, discussing, and arguing about my race, culture, and ethnicity behind my back and to my face. It’s not yours to talk about, and it’s not yours to decide; it’s mine. What I am is tired of justifying myself to try to please others. Who I am is Porter Reyes, and what I am does not concern you.