“…to a large degree, the real battle with such oppression, for all of us, begins under the skin.”
– Cherríe Moraga

I cannot pinpoint the exact moment that I began to feel cut off from my brown skin and my Latinidad. Maybe it was in middle school. By then my knowledge of Spanish had begun to fade into the recesses of my memory. I could understand my grandmother when she spoke to me; I could relish every smooth soft sound of every word she spoke. Yet when I tried to make those same sounds come out of my mouth I felt awkward, the syllables tumbling out of my mouth like clunky pieces of metal. I was caught between the desire of wanting to do well in school (read: learn English) and retain the language I grew up speaking. The desire to assimilate unfortunately won out.

Or maybe it was high school. At age 15, I was a shy brown femme-ish gay teenager in a predominantly white, all-boys Catholic high school. In addition to being called f*ggot, fairy, homo, I just as often called spic, wetback, beaner and told to “go back to Mexico”. Contrary to the white imagination, Puerto Rico (where I’m actually from) and Mexico are two very different countries and cultures. But I digress. Even as I was labeled as a Latino (and subsequently punished just for existing in a mostly white school), at that time I didn’t really connect with that experience anymore. Perhaps because I felt more and more alienated from my family and their struggle to come to terms with my gayness. I felt isolated because I didn’t know anyone else who was gay and brown like me, didn’t see people like me on TV or read about them in books. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I bought into the white supremacist narrative that communities of color are intrinsically more homophobic, and there could never be a real place for me in my culture.

During high school I was exploring spiritualities and faith traditions that felt more affirming. As I’ve written about before, I was interested in and eventually began to practice Hinduism, which I was introduced to in part by the Hare Krishna (ISKCON) community. The Bhagavad Gita and other Hindu texts spoke to my soul in ways I hadn’t experienced before, and I resonated so deeply with the deeply devotional and contemplative aspects of that tradition, e.g., offering everything to God, accepting all circumstances as divinely ordained, understanding karma as the law of the universe.

But there was also a philosophy present in this tradition that emphasized a deep divide between body and spirit. The body was nothing but flesh, doomed to rot away at death, and should be treated like a car- afforded regular maintenance, but not affection. The soul was the only thing worth focusing on. I was actively taught not to identify with my brown skin, nor to identify anyone else by their skin. We spoke of people being “Black bodied” or “white bodied” souls, not as Black or white persons. To have done so would have been considered greatly offensive and would fly in the face of our teachings. For a while I deeply believed this. I was not Latino deep down, in the grand eternal scheme of things. I paid no attention to ‘worldly concerns’, racial tensions being one of them.

Yet, every time I looked in the mirror, I saw a brown face looking back at me.

In my junior year of college I decided to take a women’s studies course where we exclusively read the autobiographies and essays of women of color like Audre Lorde, Gloria Anzaldúa, Assata Shakur, Mary Crow Dog and Janet Mock. By that point I had become a little more engaged with LGBT activism and was beginning to see that I needed to think more about race. I had already begun to reconcile my work with the LGBT community with my faith with the understanding that yes, we’re souls, but in this life we’re embodied in particular ways that are discriminated against by society and if we truly believe that all beings are equal on a spiritual platform, then we should change society to reflect that. This class prompted me to expand that and consider race, gender, and socio-economic status.

I remember the intense rage I felt during this time when I posted on social media about the police killing of Eric Garner in Staten Island a few years ago, and the response of people in my religious community being, “Well, he should have obeyed the law,” “He was a criminal and reaped his karma”, and of course, “Why are you posting all this stuff about race? It is so divisive and clearly making you angry. Just chant Hare Krishna and be happy.” In retrospect, and not surprisingly, many of the folks who were the most confrontational about my postings about Eric Gardner or Black Lives Matter were white converts. All I could say in response was that I was chanting, and I was still angry. I was tired of being faced with the same pithy spiritual responses over and over. What do you do with this body-negating philosophy when faced with a society that still sees nothing but the color of your skin and demonizes you for it?

This past year has seen me really learning to love my brownness and my Latinidad again. Part of it has been my change in faith and my embrace of a Christianity that places emphasis on the incarnation and Jesus’ embodied life, thus making me consider my own body. Yet it’s also the fact that the more I thought about my brown skin, the deeper I wanted to go. When I finally gave myself permission to say yes, I am brown, I wanted to hold myself tight, run my fingers over the scars, and remind myself that this is how God made me.

I’m taking in more  books, music, podcasts, shows- created by and for people like me. I’m intentionally seeking out relationships not just with other Latinxs but with more people of color. I’m re-learning and practicing Spanish. Granted, I don’t think being able to speak Spanish should be a barometer of anyone’s Latinidad, but learning Spanish for me is more about being able to understand and connect with my culture in its context and to be able to learn my family’s histories from my elders.

One of my cousins told me that I’ve “come alive” recently. I can’t help but agree with her. Loving myself will be a life long process, but I can honestly say that right now, in this moment, I feel integrated, whole, complete.

Here’s a new favorite song that I listen to at least once a day, primarily because it’s a good song, but also because the message is like a little prayer that I feel compelled to repeat every day.

My skin glows in the dark shines in the light
It’s the color that holds me tight

My brown me is the shade that’s just for me
I’m never not missing anything but me

Cause I love you
And I can’t miss anything but you