I have known my ethnicity since I was old enough to ask — half Puerto Rican through my father and half Irish through my mother. “You could be your own West Side Story,” someone once told me.
I don’t remember any Irish getting trampled in that 1960 musical, but that’s what happens when someone finds out I’m half Puerto Rican. People who ask about my culture only want to hear about the Latina side. Even though it’s hard to define a white ethnicity, this attitude disregards that both sides of my family have toils and triumphs of which I am equally proud.
When acquaintances ask me where I’m from, they don’t want to hear about Yardley, Pa. (population 2,948 and 94 percent white, according to the 2000 Census). They want to know more about Puerto Rico. So do I. Having few people who shared my culture around me as a child, I sought out chances to learn about my culture — both sides of it.
Luckily by the time my high school classmates figured out that I was a minority to the outside world, they knew me for something more than my race. I could still grow up as “Marisa, the really smart, quiet girl who sings in the school choir.”
But that changed to “Marisa the minority” at Northwestern. In the course of figuring out this label, I forgot I was ever white.
A friend told me I should favor the Puerto Rican side of my heritage because I would find it “much more exciting.” People often asked me about my favorite Latino foods — normally Mexican — as if I were an expert. (No one cared I ate more corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick’s Day than rice and beans as a child.)
Worst of all, some informed me that minorities have unfair advantages in college admissions. I guess my full Advanced Placement curriculum and a SAT scores above 1400 normally weren’t enough.
I bought into this attitude at first, acting like being part of a racial minority lowered my IQ by 10 points. I thought the traditional academic struggles I went through as a freshman meant that I never should have been let in.
My Latina heritage has led some to demean or to question me, but no one ever recognizes my white heritage or that there is even a white culture to hold on to.
But there are some outlets for white students to explore ethnic pride. One California high school student is starting her own white pride club to celebrate her ethnicity. And several groups exist at NU, including the Polish American Students Alliance and the Russian Students Association.
Members of minority groups might be tied to each other through the prejudices they have overcome as much as they are pride. But the white experience can be just as diverse.
Unfortunately as I was trying to figure out my ancestry, I forgot that who I am doesn’t just extend from the roots of my family tree.