My name is Kimberly Helminski Keller, and I am a Latina.
My Polish surname hides the reality that the other half of my DNA is Puerto Rican, a genetic mix of Spanish, African and Taino Indian. As a child, I described my multi-ethnic heritage as “Puertolack,” a hybrid of Puerto Rican and Polack.
We lived in Buffalo, N.Y. in a neighborhood where most families were Polish, Italian or a combination of both. My father’s family had been there for generations. They were among the original Poles who came to the U.S. in hopes of making a good living working on the railroad. My father met my mother while he stationed at an Army base in New Jersey. Her family came to the mainland in 1929 to escape Puerto Rico’s poverty. She was a definite contrast to the girls back home with her tan skin, dark brown eyes and dark, curly hair.
I was too young to understand what was happening, but all the signs told my young mind that there was something wrong with me and the people I loved most.
Life in Buffalo was confusing to me. When I was with my dad, no one looked twice at me. I was just another little brown-eyed girl. However, the looks changed when my mother and brother were around. My mother was an absolute Latina beauty, and my brother inherited her tan skin and curls. They got stares from strangers. Some of our neighbors looked down their noses at them. I was too young to understand what was happening, but all the signs told my young mind that there was something wrong with me and the people I loved most.
I found solace and identity with my mother’s family, especially after my parents’ divorce. They loved us unconditionally. You couldn’t enter a room without my grandmother or aunts plastering your face with kisses. My cousins would tease me about being the whitest kid in the family and told me chocolate milk would make my skin turn brown. I drank a lot of it because I desperately wanted to be like them. My only sadness came from when we were around other Puerto Ricans in the community. People stared at me when I was outside. I knew enough Spanish to understand the muffled conversations about “the white girl.” They laughed when I called my grandmother, “Abuela.”
My life today as a multi-ethnic adult has its blessings and its challenges. I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to be a part of two very different cultures. Thanks to my mixed genes, my skin doesn’t show age as it does on my Caucasian friends. My hair is somewhat manageable during the summer heat; whereas, my mom, aunts and cousins rely on various straighteners to tone down frizz. I also have the ability to see life from both a white and Latina perspective.
Still, society wants to put me in an easily definable box based on the color of my skin. People get angry when I make my own box. I identify myself as Latina because my greatest influences in life came from that part of my heritage.
Unfortunately, the heritage doesn’t always embrace me back. I can speak Spanish, cook traditional foods and talk about shared cultural experiences, but other Latinos often acknowledge me with a patronizing grin.
I’ve met a few other people who share white and Latino genealogies. Most live their lives in the culture that best matches their physical features.
It’s easier to blend in than to stand out.
I straddle the fence. I want to be part of both cultures, but I know that in reality, society says I am a culture unto myself.