The Coconut Conundrum

Spanish flowed from my aunt and uncle’s lips like honey on a summer afternoon. As Latin music blared from the stereo, my family would gather together, their hips and feet gliding in perfect rhythm. The scent of pernil lingered in the air as boisterous laughter filled every nook and cranny of the house. A smile tickled my face as I witnessed the connection that occurred during these moments of my childhood. I yearned to belong to this alleged birthright of mine. It seemed so easy for everyone else.

I never learned to speak Spanish, despite my Puerto Rican parents being fluent in the language. I grew up in central Texas in a white, conservative culture, and outside of my Hispanic family, the only faces I encountered were of Anglo descent.

I knew growing up that I looked different. A little girl once grabbed my arms and loudly exclaimed “You need to take a bath. Your skin is dirty.” I knew we were of a lower economic bracket than those around me. A friend once pointed at a guest house and said “Ha! That house is as tiny as yours. You live in servant quarters.”

I also happened to be the anomaly in my Puerto Rican family. I was the quiet, introverted girl who always had her nose in a book, devouring the next great adventure. When I didn’t blend seamlessly with my surrounding culture, I was met with jokes like, “You’re a coconut!” I would sheepishly join the laughter, hoping no one would see how isolated that remark made me feel. It was one of the countless comments I’ve received throughout my life from strangers, friends, and family:

“How do you not know how to speak Spanish? Aren’t you Hispanic?”

“You are the whitest Hispanic person I’ve ever known.”

“Let’s be honest, you are pretty much white.”

By the time I was in college, I wanted nothing to do with my Latin roots. I figured that if my heritage didn’t want me, then I didn’t want it. My parents encouraged me to learn Spanish, so I purposefully took French classes. People expected me to like Tejano music, so I immersed myself in Disturbed. I even developed a faux Southern accent around my friends to mentally deflect from the brownness of my skin. I staunchly refused to believe that I needed a place at a certain table. Unintentionally, my self-created island of cultural independence left me feeling more isolated.

With the birth of my first son, my defenses began to crumble in a heap of smoking rubble. During his first year of life, I was paranoid that people would think I was his nanny rather than his mother. I had intense anxiety that if I got pulled over by a police officer they would take him away thinking that a Hispanic woman had kidnapped this creamy white infant. It may crack a smile on your face with the outlandishness of those fears, but it was a genuine concern that I named to no one except my husband.   

Today, when I walk into a room of white faces, I feel the brownness of my skin prickle and pinch me. My eyes quickly take in each face to see if anyone looks like me. When I sit amongst a group of women experiencing epiphanies about how they’ve taken their privilege for granted, I feel small and out of place. When someone makes fun of my lack of Hispanic-ness, it reduces me internally to a shamed minority.

If I’m not white and I’m not truly Hispanic, then where is my place?

I’ve struggled to know if I have a place at the table, and for that matter, which table I belong at. I grew up with a sense that I was too brown to fit into the white culture I lived in, yet I was too white to fit into the Latin culture I was born into. My deepest truth in all of this is that I yearn for connection.

I dream of the day where the color of my skin doesn’t elicit remarks or assumptions. I long for the confidence to belong with people who look different from myself, and I also ache to reconnect with my Puerto Rican heritage.

As my son grows older, I’m navigating what it looks like for both of us to find a place at the table. Hearing him learn to count in Spanish for the first time left me feeling scared that he too would abandon me in the cultural displacement I feel daily. I wanted to discourage from learning Spanish, but with time, I have realized that I long to embrace this journey with him. I feel authentically curious about creating my own place at the table as I inhale this new season of connection.

Mal Arnold is a passionate Latina wife and mother who is a chaser of dreams and believes in living life with abandon. She writes to pour some of herself out for any who care to experience her heart, but is also an avid reader, lover of old movies and going on journeys with family as well. She has seen heartache and trauma in her past and is learning to let her Maker heal her broken places.