My Trauma Taught Me How Complicated Race Is For Latinx Families

Mariela Rosario
Mariela Rosario

The author pictured with her family.

I was 7 years old the first time someone called me the N-word. I didn't understand what it meant, but I knew it was not OK. A quick trip to the principal's office and subsequent calls to our parents underscored the seriousness of the offense. After some hushed but urgent conversations, my parents took me out to the car and hugged me, and then we went to get ice cream. I was confused, but that experience was just the beginning.

As a Puerto Rican, I was used to having both immediate and distant relatives who looked different from one another. It felt like almost every skin tone and hair type was represented within my family. But I was pretty much the darkest. I knew it because from a pretty early age, my abuela nicknamed me "prieta," which can be used both as a term of endearment and as a derogatory word (in parts of Latin America) to insult or demean a Black or dark-skinned person. She always admonished me to stay out of the sun so my skin wouldn't get any darker. It always made me laugh because even if I never stepped into the sunshine for the rest of my life, I'd still have skin the color of milk chocolate. I would never be fair like my abuela or have her hazel eyes.

Race, though still steeped in anti-Blackness, is treated differently in many of our home countries than here in the US. In Latin America, our colonial history of race is based on the Spanish "casta" system. The casta system had no fewer than 22 categorizations for race, and they weren't just based on skin color — they were also based on education, social mobility, and socioeconomic status.

For example, in the casta system, the term "mestizo" referred to anyone with mixed Indigenous and Spanish blood. It's more black and white here in America, making it harder to talk to our families, especially elders who may not understand or share our experiences. This history of racial identity in our home countries leads many to think that they can't be racist or anti-Black, which is a complicated paradigm to break.

"The conversations we're having now about race will likely feel very foreign to our abuelas and sometimes even our parents," licensed therapist and coach Josie Rosario says. "At the same time, we have to accept and know in our bodies that it is not our responsibility to teach and explain these dynamics to our mothers or abuelas. There's a difference in approaching this conversation with rigidity or wanting to teach someone vs. just sharing your experience and understanding theirs."

Conversations with our families won't wholly change worldviews that have shaped and given context to their lives. "We want to come from a place of compassion and curiosity when we are talking to our family about these issues," Adriana Medrano, PhD, licensed psychologist and adjunct professor at Pepperdine University, says. "If someone says something and we feel the need to call them out or call them in, start with a question instead of an accusation. Saying 'Why did you say that?' or 'What did you mean?' is a great place to start."

I'm still unpacking the trauma that I experienced going to primarily white schools for much of my life. From the oversexualization of my body at a young age to the ingrained respectability politics that plague me to this day, growing up an Afro-Latina in a mostly white town was hard.

"It's crucial to start with self," Rosario says. "It's important that you, individually, have an understanding of your experience and that you're able to process and have the ability to put your experience in words. We need space to make sense of our own experiences."

This advice hit me in my core because it wasn't until I started therapy in my mid-30s that I even really tried to unpack the things that happened to me. By talking through my trauma, my healing has begun.

My parents tried to start a conversation with me the day I was called the N-word, but the truth was that I was too young to process it fully. I didn't understand where a kid my age would've learned that language or what it meant about his parents and the community we were living in. So instead of doing a deep dive into racism, my parents made sure to talk to me about the African heritage most Puerto Ricans shared, what it meant to our culture, and how important and beautiful it was in shaping who we all are today. They made sure to share every bit of representation they came across and uplifted those who looked like me. Most importantly, they reaffirmed my beauty and my intelligence regularly. When I was old enough, my mother sat me down for a conversation about how much harder I would have to work to get the same kind of opportunities many of my peers would be afforded — not only because I was dark-skinned, but because I was a woman. I understood what she was talking about in my bones, and I never forgot it.

All we're ever really searching for is a sense of togetherness and understanding. That is the true healing this generation is striving for. "We want to belong, we're human beings, and where do we first understand the concept of belonging?" Dr. Rosario asks. "Our families."

Originally published on March 8, 2022