Mary Miranda, 18
Mary Miranda is a Mexican-Jamaican first generation student in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Miranda is most passionate about racial and environmental justice and wants everyone to have the opportunity to choose who they want to be in the universe. When writing her racial autobiography, she discovered it was the first time she analyzed her own racial identity and place in the world.
Miranda is headed to college in the fall of 2018 and hopes to major in environmental policy and management with a focus on increasing awareness of the disparities of the environment when intersected with race. She strives for positive change in the hope of conserving the many species inhabiting this world, including humans.
by Mary Miranda
“You’re not like other black girls,” my mother would say as she caressed my cinnamon brown cheeks. Good, because being a “black girl” in the Phillips neighborhood wasn’t the most glamorous label in my mother’s eyes. Being a “black girl” meant I had skin the color of dirt. Being a “black girl” meant I had uncontrollable nappy hair. Being a “black girl” meant I had exaggerated lips. Being a “black girl” meant I was unintelligible. Being a “black girl” meant I was the most disrespected woman. Being a “black girl” meant I was unloved. So good, my mother disassociating me from being Black made me feel unique and appreciated. I desired to run away from the thought of being a “black girl” for as long as possible if that meant that I’d be an agent of my own body. But if I wasn’t a “black girl,” then who was I?
I’m Mexican-Jamaican American. My mother has short light brown hair with eyes the color of honey, my father has skin the color of the earth with dreads going down to his hips. My mother is Mexican and my father is Jamaican. My siblings were born in Mexico, their father stayed in Mexico when my mother got a divorce from him. A few years after my mother immigrated to the United States, my mother and father met. When my mother told him she was pregnant, he claimed that I wasn’t his daughter and left her to raise me on her own.
I grew up eating Tamales and Mole my mom would make because those were my favorite meals. I listened to Mexican pop music like Reik or Rebelde when I’d come from school and sang my lungs out in our small living room as my mom watched her daily Telenovelas in her bedroom. I spoke English and Spanish when I was in school, but mainly Spanish at home, “We only speak Spanish here, I don’t want you to forget your roots,” my mother would say. I listened to her, as a 10 year old my Mexican heritage was the only part of me I was most familiar with. I felt it through Mexican League soccer match marathons. I felt it through the Mexican Independence day. I felt it through Quinceañera birthday parties. I felt it through my own family. Because of the familiarity I’d been raised with, I didn’t think there was much else to learn.
One day, my mother and I walked towards the Supermarket near our home. I stuck out like a sore thumb as I trotted next to my mom’s pale complexion. We arrived to the Supermarket, the walls of the stores were bright yellow with hints of chipping coming off the walls exposing a black color underneath it. My eyes fell on the aisle with the vibrant colors of my favorite piquant snacks, Pulparindo and Vero lollipops. I felt myself getting pulled in like a magnet, but ended up getting tugged away by my mother’s familiar touch. We were in need of some chipotle, a smoke-dried red pepper traditionally used in her special dinner salsas. The pungent smell of the peppery spices filled up my nose as we approached the aisle, later making me sneeze.
When we were finished up, we walked towards the counter to go pay off our food. In that moment, two black men walked through the door. My mother’s body turned rigid, she held my hand tightly darting her eyes between the men as they walked past us. I was confused on her reaction and suddenly became afraid of them too. When we payed our food off, I saw the woman eyeing the men attentively as we walked away, phone tightly gripped in her hand.
As we exited the store, I proceeded to ask my mother if the men were “bad people,” “Oh mija, I’m sure they weren’t bad people. Black people just tend to be aggressive and obnoxious when you talk to them, I wouldn’t want you to end up that way.” I gazed over at her, struggling to formulate the right words, it was as if my lips were glued shut. As an eight year old I couldn’t wrap my head around it, it was shocking to believe that someone’s skin color could intersect with their actions. I felt my thoughts change as I absorbed her sharp words like a sponge. Then, we slowly walked home with an echoed silence.
Fast forward; I am now eleven, “I am not black, why does everyone keep calling me that? Don’t they see my skin compared to Shamaya's? My skin isn’t even close to being that dark I am not black, I am not black, I am not black. Stop calling me that, please,” I retorted to Emanuel as he ran past me on the school playground shouting, “Hey, black girl!” Emanuel was a plump, brown boy in my fifth grade class at Emerson Spanish Immersion Elementary. He wore the Ecuadorian soccer team Jersey’s, dreaming of being a professional Soccer player when he grew up. He teased me about my skin tone, saying that I wasn’t light enough like my other hispanic friends. Most of my friends tended to be much lighter than me, they’re hair was much straighter than mine, running like a waterfall down their backs. I stood in the shadows of my friends as they received the praise about their luscious hair, and beautiful skin tones. They never tried to make me feel indifferent about my skin color, but they didn't have to. I stopped running for a while and sat down on the bench near the kickball field, I gazed down my body, thoroughly eyeing my complexion for the first time, discerning the color of chocolate on my arms and the rest of my body. I sat for a while, wide eyed at his elusive comment that contained a truth I was reluctant of accepting. No matter how hard I tried to fit in with my Mexican-American community, it was never enough. But, I grew up with tamales and mole, I grew up listening to Reik and Rebelde, I grew up watching Soap Operas with my mother, I grew up speaking my mother’s tongue. I am not black, I reassured myself.
Fast forward; I am now Sixteen. I’ve been at South High School for a little over a year. I grew up with many different cultures, beliefs, and skin tones surrounding me through my schools and my neighborhood so South wasn’t any different than what I’d been used to. However, even when surrounded by such a diverse demographic I still felt trapped in the middle. During late September of 2016 my AVID teacher told me about a program called Social Justice FELLOWS (SJF). The goal of SJF was to promote self-discovery for the black youth who wanted to seek their own truth about their history and the great accomplishments that went unrecognized. She told me that maybe It’d benefit me to do a program that involved racial equity and justice.
I thought long and hard about it, joining SJF was a step into a part of my being I hadn’t explored or even thought of before. In joining SJF I knew I’d be finally be admitting to myself that I was a “black girl.” I walked home that day, figuring out a way to formulate a response. My palms were sweating, even when I kept rubbing them against my blue jeans. As I slowly approached my home, I could feel myself slightly shaking with every footstep I took on each stair. As I opened the door, the smell of jalapeños and Black Beans filled up my nose. I could feel the familiarity wrap around my whole body like a spell, fighting against the idea of my blackness. I approached the kitchen where my mother was cooking and I saw her stirring the beans with one of the traditional handmade spoons she’d gotten from the supermarket made out of clay. I looked down at my feet, feeling myself start to shut down again like that day at the Supermarket. When I gazed back up my eyes opened wide when I had an epiphany, my mother didn’t fear that those black men would hurt me, she feared that I would become them. Then I grew the courage to tell her, she was shocked, that I was finally paying attention to my blackness. “But mija, all of those girls are going to be black, and you’re not really black you’re in the middle,” The middle, that’s what my mother called it. I wasn’t here nor there. I was too light for the black kids and too black for the brown kids. For the first time, I was trying to embrace the blackness I’d always tried so hard to erase. So I just smiled back at her, fear no longer emanating from my body.
A few weeks after I’d told my mom about SJF, it was still unclear as to how seriously she was taking the news. She rarely spoke of it which made me think she’d shrugged it off, as if I’d asked if I could go to a friends house to do some homework. However, during late December, an unexpected letter was emailed to me. Parents had to attend a mandatory meeting hosted by Ms. Block. She’d speak about the aim of SJF and how it’d shape our lives for the better. I told my mom about it as soon as I was done reading it. I wasn’t hesitant about the program anymore. It was crucial for her to know about my purpose of joining this program in hoes that it would break down the barriers she’d created. My mom was suspicious about the intentions of the program, fearing that they would try to deem her as “Ignorant,” which wasn’t the most glamorous label in my mother’s eyes. Nonetheless, we were on our way to the information session a week after at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities. We got situated in the classroom, waiting for the remaining parents. My mother eyed everyone around her, the tension in her body increasing as parents of color filled up the room. For the first time, my mom got a glimpse of how it felt to be different. As the session went on, people talked about a variety of ethnic and racial variations that intersected. There was one that caught my mom’s attention, Afro-Latinos. An Afro-Latino refers to Latin American people of significant African ancestry (Afro-Latin Americans, Wikipedia). To my surprise, she raised her hand and started asking so many questions at once it was hard to keep track. I sensed the guilt and regret in my mom’s eyes. She sadly gazed back at me whenever Ms. Block mentioned the familiar attributes of an Afro-Latino. She finally realized, stripping me of my blackness didn’t protect me, but made me drown in my own denial.
Social Justice Fellows began during late Spring. It was our first meeting today, my mother offered to drop me off at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities campus, where the meetings would be held. I stepped out of the car, feeling myself smile with every step I took towards the community that would forever change my life. As I got close to the room, the spices flowing into my nostrils were like nothing I'd ever smelled before, they drew me into the room and I couldn’t help but let them guide me in. We were having our first “racial bonding” meeting that day, in which we discussed the way we felt about our racial identity and how the world shaped our view about it. As I walked into the room, I was immediately introduced by our instructor. Ms. Bell was an English teacher from North High School, she looked as tall as the empire state building along with her bulk hourglass figure. She wore a Raziya headwrap with the vibrant colors of green, orange, and blue, highlighting the abstract designs within it. I’d never seen someone express their culture through their attire so unapologetically. I always tried to hide my blackness by: straightening my hair, having mostly white friends. Anything that could make me less black I utilized with every ounce of my body. However, Ms. Bell made it clear that she wasn’t afraid of her blackness, but rather prideful of it. Ms. Bell opened up my soul to the one thing it longed for, acceptance. Acceptance through the travel bus rides filled with the powerfully poetic words of black youth. Acceptance through vivacious Hip-Hop music resounding in our hotel rooms. Acceptance through the first Dashiki I bought in Harlem, New York City. Acceptance through the infamous stage of the Apollo Theater. (STOP)Acceptance through the historical tragedies of our people. Acceptance through tears of anger we felt towards the world. Acceptance through the triumphant accomplishments of our people. Acceptance through communal growth.
The middle is where I vacated most of my childhood. It was a blank space in which I stood between people that shared my identity but couldn’t relate to it. It was very difficult for me to associate with my ethnicities when I was constantly rejected by both. However, I’ve accepted that I am not two separate entities, I’m not Mexican or Jamaican. I am both worlds and much more. I am like other black girls. I am like other Mexican girls. I am brown. I am intelligent. I am powerful. I am prideful. I am my black ancestors. I am my Mexican ancestors. I am loved. And I am just learning what that means.