I want to tell you a story about innocence, skin color, privilege and invisible walls. It was a cold, rainy evening in England. My husband and I had flown in to spend the holidays with his adult children and two granddaughters, aged three and one. Vivian, the older of the two, a gorgeous redhead with bright hazelnut eyes and skin white like milk, was wearing her Princess Elsa outfit and a tiara with a Christmas hat attached to it. She had been in full character for hours, running in circles around the house, from the small living room to the solarium, through the kitchen, and back to the living room, where everybody lounged in two chairs. The younger girl was glued to the TV, enthralled by the pastel colors and noises coming from the Peppa Pig channel. In one corner of the sofa sat my husband’s son with his girlfriend. At the other end, sat his daughter, the mother of the two girls. Right in the middle, sat their sick schnauzer. In the only other available chair sat my husband. I chose to sit on the carpet at my husband’s feet. I have always liked to sit on the floor, that’s where I feel como en mi casa, plus with so many people sitting around the TV in a small, stuffy room, being a few feet below everyone gave me a desperately-needed feeling of spaciousness.
The first time I met Vivian, she was a few weeks old. I held her in my arms, placed my index right on the dimple on her chin, ran my fingers through the soft nest of red hair, and I cried. I didn’t expect to feel grandmotherly. I didn’t expect to be awash with love when I cradled her against my chest. She is not my blood. Her mother is not my daughter. She is an English girl, with a small Scottish fiber inherited from my husband. She comes from the life my husband and his English ex-wife built together before we met. And although my husband and I have been together for twenty years, distance and circumstances have been the biggest obstacles in my having a solid relationship with his children. But it all melted away as I cooed over this newborn baby girl who had turned me into an abuela. I will teach you Spanish, mi niña. I will cook you meals so scrumptious that you will want to spend every summer in Colombia with my familia. I will show you how to eat a mango properly: its skin broken at the end of the pit, lips pursed around the opening, juices running down your chin and arms. I’ll take you to where my mom’s ashes are buried, will let you stand in front of the ossuary and feel her magic. I’ll teach you how to move your hips to Latin music and you’ll learn that a cha-cha-cha is the best cure for sadness. Te lo prometo, I promise you.
An Arctic wind battered trees outside. It was the coldest winter England had seen in seven years. We fell into the old routine: Seven bodies crammed into a tiny room, adult heads bowing down to their cell-phones only lifting them up to keep an eye on the girls or gloss over the children’s tv channel. It had been dark since four o’clock. Vivian had removed her Christmas tiara and was singing a song from the movie Frozen. I videotaped her. She looked adorable. Suddenly, she remembered the tiara, picked it up from the carpet, and started a game that involved all of us. Who wants to wear my Christmas hat? We all raised our hands. Me, me, I said. She went around the circle. Ok, you can have it, she said to everyone, but when she came to me, she said something that I didn’t understand. My husband’s son giggled. Everybody else went unnervingly silent. Baby Vivian had said something funny and I had missed the joke. What did you say? She repeated. No. Hats. For. Brown. People. She enunciated the words perfectly, leaving no room for misunderstanding. My body turned into a raw synapse of brand new emotions. Who taught you that? I asked.Vivian shrugged. Who taught you that? I asked again, this time louder. My hands scrambled about the carpet as if looking for composure, for the right thing to say. They landed on my husband’s shoes. I don’t remember anyone’s expression. I didn’t look up. But I do remember feeling their eyes on me, burning like cigarettes. Vivian’s mom came to her rescue. She must have heard it on the playground. She must have seen people who looked like me in cartoons. Oh, yeah. Moana. Does grandma look like Princess Moana, darling? She asked Vivian, who had stopped what she was doing to study me closely from her 3’4” vantage point. She couldn’t decide whether the Polynesian princess and I looked alike. Mom asked again. Does Moana have beautiful black, curly hair like grandma?Vivian shrugged her shoulders, uninterested, and ran into her mom’s arms. No one said a word. Or maybe they did. I’m not sure. The world inside my head went soundless; I don’t know how long the silence lasted. Minutes, hours, years of identity dilution, decades of cultural assimilation. I got up, collected my items methodically, as if I were leaving town: my reading glasses, a book, my phone, a shawl. No puedo más. I exited the living room and started to climb the stairs towards the attic, where we slept. And for a few seconds, my brownness grew so solid and so extraneous, that it felt as though both of us were climbing the stairs. It felt as though mi piel morena, my brown skin, had put on weight and now bloated and uncomfortable, I had to drag it up to the attic. As I climbed the first step, I thought about the attic, that tiny place of slanted ceilings that looked more like a doll house, and I realized that it stood as a metaphor for my cultural isolation. I had just left a room full of white English people and walked into my new family standing: brown grandma.
The thing about having your heart broken by a three-year old’s comment is that there are no comebacks. How do you argue with a child dressed in a Princess Elsa’s outfit? How do you explain skin color issues in modern age to a little girl who has just casually, not discovered that people come in different skin colors, but that she was in a position of privilege from which she could deny brown people the pleasure of wearing a Christmas tiara? Ay! Had my granddaughter discovered that I don’t look like anyone in her family, had she placed her tiny hands on mine and asked why I am so dark or she so pale, I would have been delighted to explain the why and the how. The problem is that she didn’t discover that grandma was brown. She found that she could deny grandma something on account of her brown skin. That’s not a discovery, it’s an assertion of a newly-found place of privilege. That’s different.
We had visited the grandchildren earlier that year when the weather was kinder. My husband and I took Vivian to Longleat Safari Park, a land of adventure. Where lions roam. Tigers stalk. And monkeys swing. I took my role as grandmother very seriously. I taught her how to stare at the roller coaster, wait until the car was at its highest point, place her hands on her chest, and let out a theatrical squeal as the car came rolling down, her tiny mouth frozen in a permanent O, her redhead shaking in fake panic, like a scene from a telenovela. I took her to the toilet, let her flush it, and after washing her hands, I demonstrated how the high-speed hand dryer was actually meant to make our cheeks flutter. We took turns facing the dryer, allowing the force of the air to change the shape of our faces. And we laughed hard. Like locas. When she wanted “sweeties,” I took her to the candy stall and let her choose what she wanted, against my husband’s wishes. In the car, we came up with our own language, which was mainly comprised of exaggerated tongue twirls, silly grunts and funny faces. She laughed so hard, she snorted a few times, which only made her laugh even harder. It’s my job, I told my husband every time he disagreed with my permissiveness. Mimarla, to spoil her. To offer her this occasional world of no rules, candy and shenanigans. She is my granddaughter, I told my husband. I’m her abuelita. Haven’t you read the contract? We skipped across tiny wooden bridges holding hands and it never, ever crossed my mind that someone could be looking at us thinking I was anything but her grandmother.
The thing about having your heart broken by a three-year old who looks like an angel, is that it makes you wonder why only white children look like biblical angels. And that, for the first time in twenty years of marriage, you look at your husband and wonder who is this white man with impossibly blue eyes, who remains silent as his three-year old granddaughter breaks your heart. Who is this man who lets you walk out of the living room alone, your head awash with mixed feelings and tears, and nods in agreement later when his daughter comes to the attic to explain to you that actually she doesn’t think what just happened is a big deal. And you sit there screaming inside your head, of course it is a big fucking deal, because a cartoon character was the closest thing you found to compare me to, and I can’t say what I’m really thinking because you are my husband’s daughter. The thing about having your heart broken by a three-year old is that when her mother trivializes your feelings and your husband agrees with her, something, somewhere else breaks too. Something without name between you and your husband, something whose existence is news to you, comes crashing down. Stridently. You can’t help it. It simply breaks, like a little girl poking through a web that’s taken a spider a lifetime to build. You interpret his silence, his inaction, his inability to validate your feelings, as indifference, as disrespect, and you feel like shit, because, c’mon, how can a little girl’s innocent comment break so much havoc in a grown-up, educated woman’s heart? Who in the world is this man with whom you have shared most of your adult life, nodding wholeheartedly as his daughter proclaims that she won’t make this issue bigger than it really is. It’s not a big deal? How do you size somebody else’s deal? You say nothing because you don’t know how to reply to a statement like this, because you didn’t know there was an issue, let alone how big it was. Because his daughter’s proclamation implies an understanding of you she hasn’t earned, knowledge of your personal history that precedes your here and your now. And that’s a whole new level of cultural appropriation.
Alone, in the attic, I tried to understand why I felt the way I did. Maybe it was because I had never perceived myself as the brown grandmother, just the grandmother. Did this mean that I also was the brown wife, not simply a wife? The brown fitness instructor, the brown writer, the brown university professor, the brown friend? Where does it stop? More importantly, why did it bother me so much? I’m brown, after all. It occurred to me that being married to a white man had granted me access to spheres of the society I would not have been accepted into had I been married to a non-white man. My brain kindled into puras cenizas, pure ashes.
In Florida, we lived for thirteen years in an exclusive gated community where I was the darkest homeowner to have ever set foot in Mountain Lake Drive. Until the black family moved across the street from us. Husband and wife were lawyers, their two children said yes sir, no ma’am and please. They drove luxury SUVs with leather upholstery and their front yard was the envy of the community. We thought about having them over for a barbeque, but they were never around. They lasted four months. No one would talk to them. No one would play with the two boys, not even the pastor’s children. How long would have I lasted, had I been married to a dark-skinned man? Maybe my neighbors accepted me, grudgingly, because it was just me, and tolerating one Latina is a lot easier than accepting a family of Latinos.
In my years in Florida, I made good friends. All American. All white. And when I say good friends, I mean the kind of friends who come to your rescue with chainsaws and moonshine after a hurricane has knocked down trees around your house. The kind of friends that bring a bottle of mescal to a Halloween party and save the worm for you because you are that special to them. Friends that celebrate your birthday with a cake shaped like a penis, share their adolescent children’s joys and tragedies with you, get drunk in your house because they don’t feel judged in your presence, buy your books and read your blog, take you to gay and trans bars where the music is phenomenal, come to your readings to support you even though they are not active readers, and invite you to their children’s weddings, where you are the only non-white person. In sum, I lived inside their world, their white world. I have been immersed in a white culture since I left Colombia, 25 years ago. Of these, I have spent nine in two Middle Eastern countries where I have made good friends. All white. This inequality in my friendships has a lot to do with what I do for a living: I am a fitness instructor in a small community of expats, the majority of whom hail from white Great Britain. But it’s more than that. I think, at least partially, I’m loved by my British friends, because I’m good at navigating their world, at negotiating with whiteness in general. And because I write in their language, not mine, and communicate verbally with them in English, some of them might not define me by the color of my skin and have moved me into the only compartment of their experience they know: one of us. I’m one of them. Dios mio. Maybe that’s it. They have mistaken my intellectual ability to enter their white world for whiteness.
Let me reiterate this: Vivian did not find out that I was brown. She discovered a position of privilege from which she can deny brown people the right to wear a hat. It’s not the same.
Alone in the attic, I felt like I was going to be sick. I didn’t have much in my stomach, but it felt as though I had to vomit every meal I had ever ingested. And as tears and yellow liquid fell into the bowl, I realized that I was doing much more than simply vomiting. I was getting rid of an old identity, I was giving myself a shoulder shake and a what-were-you-thinking-when-you-thought-you-were-her-grandmother spiel? I was ridding my body of whatever whiteness I might have, inadvertently, assimilated into my brownness.
I was making a list of all the things I was expelling from my being, when I heard Vivian’s tiny steps coming up the stairs. I heard her father coaxing an apology as they inched their way to the attic. Not a forced apology, please, God, don’t let it be a forced apology. But it was. When they walked into the attic I was back on the floor by the bed, pretending to read something. What do you say to grandma? He coaxed Vivian. She looked sleepy, innocent, kissable, huggable. I wanted to yield to this urge to bring her over, give her a bear hug, and forget what had happened, but I was not strong enough to endure an impromptu good-night rejection based on my brownness. I sat there, as the father, repeatedly, tried to extract an apology from this oblivious 3-year old. Sowy, grandma, she said, eventually. Forcefully. Grudgingly, as if she knew that the apology was the password to grant her a free passage to bed. It’s okay, I said, insincerely. Her father went on. Vivian must have heard that comment at the playground. He didn’t know where it would’ve come from because the only brown people Vivian had ever seen, other than me, was an Indian woman crossing the street the other day. Cállate. Shut up. You are making it worse. He scratched his head slowly, as if the explanation he was looking for was somewhere on his scalp. Maybe his parents, he said. Yes, his folk are not fond of brown people, but then again, they hadn’t seen me that much. What? What did you just say? Then I remembered that “funny” story about the time Vivian’s mom applied suntan lotion and he refused to go out with her. You are not leaving this house looking this dark, he said to her, or so the funny story went. Vivian wanted to go to bed. She was getting cranky and had enough of this sowy thing. Her father looked tired. I was exhausted. We said good night. I went to the toilet and vomited some more.
Lately, my husband and I have been talking about retirement. I refuse to live in England, a place where buildings and people look like bad weather. My fiery nature can’t cope with its rain and cold, unlike Spain, which with its Costa del Sol, majestic mountains and pueblos blancos, looks exactly like what we need: a place not too close to England to be forced into weekend baby-sitting, grandparental duties, but close enough to enjoy our granddaughters a few times a year. This changed after Christmas. Spain has a dark history of racism. It was the first country to pass a set of discriminatory laws based on skin color. In fact, the word “race” came from Spain, and did not appear in the English language until the seventeenth century. The Spanish Inquisition was not a Monty Python sketch. Its initial discrimination against Jews planted the seed for “Christian Negrophobic racism,” and gave rise to the concept of “purity of blood” and thus to an early conception of biological race. After Christmas, this history took on a personal tone. Ludicrous, I know. I can’t help it. I’m now possessed by a biological imperative that I didn’t know I had in me. Then through the slave market, Spain introduced its concept of “purity of blood” to the Americas, where it was used to discriminate against Africans. By the time slaves were introduced in Virginia, the Spanish had over a century of experience with slavery. Naturally, the Spanish concept of racial discrimination used in America expanded to influence racial attitudes in the British colonies.
No, as much as I love the country, I don’t think I could spend the rest of my life in Spain. Spaniards have a long history of dislike for all things Colombian after a few immigration waves of hungry compatriots with shady business standards gave us all a bad reputation from Marbella to Bilbao. After the Christmas in the UK, Colombia has started to sing a song, a calling I had never heard before. I feel like a salmon, blindly swimming up the river where she was once spawned into life. I want to own a little place by a river in Colombia, a place where being brown, white, black, indigenous or all of the above is the norm. Or maybe not. Maybe I’m a romantic fool and Colombia will never be my home again. Maybe I’m desarraigada, uprooted and homeless. Home is something you move toward instead of going back. Maybe the Colombia of my retirement is an “imaginary homeland” as Salman Rushdie named it, where fruits are sweeter than they really are.
My mother’s name was Carmen Pinzón.
My father’s name was Bertulfo Páramo.
My name is Adriana Páramo Pinzón.
Vicente Pinzón, one of the three Spanish sailors who captained Columbus’ caravels into the new world, was the first Pinzón to set foot in Colombia. This was in the 16th century (1508). The Páramo family hail also from pre-colonial Spain. Both surnames, Páramo and Pinzón, have been in Colombia for over five hundred years, fifteen generations, give or take. I have more than one hundred thousand ancestors who can be traced back to specific regions in Spain. This deep Spanish ancestry doesn’t make me white. Just because the kittens are born in the oven doesn’t mean they are biscuits, the adage goes. These conquistadors made love to native Colombians and black African slaves brought into the country from places as far as Cameroon and Mozambique, and produced a slew of criollos, who despite miscegenation laws, continued to make love to other Spaniards, other mestizos, other mulatos, other zambos. Unbeknownst to them, all this rubbing of skins, all this mixing of colors and hair textures, all this loving, or all this raping—I don’t know—was part of a grand conspiracy to produce me. At some point in my history, my mother was a seafarer, an explorer, a dreamer, Columbus’s right hand during his first voyage into the new world; and my father, a member of the Spanish military class sporting, emblazoned on his armor, the family’s coat of arms with its four quarterings—the ultimate proof of nobility. At some point, the nobility mixed with the chiefdom, the culture with the folklore, the armor with the feathers, the petticoat with grass skirts, the leather boots with naked feet stomping to the sound of ancestral drums, and slowly, the first Pinzón and the first Páramo, those two Spanish men, stretched the color spectrum of their descendants so far, they couldn’t see themselves in it. Fifteen generations ago, I was the apex of a V, inverted and opened to the future. I have noble male ancestors who came to Colombia and took women as their wives, slaves, and concubines. My name is Adriana Páramo Pinzón. Between my father’s white Páramo and my mother’s Spanish Pinzón, there have been women with majestic afros, jaguar-hunting Pijao Indians, parteras with unpronounceable names, fair-skinned flamenco dancers, mestizo bullfighters, criollo priests, curanderas, and zambo nuns. They multiplied and multiplied until I came into fruition, like a long-awaited wonder. Un milagro.
The following day was a new day. The sun had come out shy and was breaking through the clouds unsure of itself when I was asked to watch the girls for a few minutes. The baby was docile and let me feed her, a rarity since she doesn’t allow anyone to touch her except her mom. Vivian sat next to her, playing absentmindedly with chopped strawberries. The morning light hit Vivian’s back, emphasizing the tenacious auburn of her hair. She looked like she was on fire. An angel on fire. She was singing a made-up song and I realized that I wasn’t upset at her. How could I be? She put a piece of strawberry to her little sister’s mouth. One for you and one for me, she said. It was a special moment and I took it all in. Two adult women in the making, one feeding the other. It’s a skill you need to learn early, I thought. One for you, one for me, and one for grandma. I pursed my lips in Vivian’s direction and she fed me the fruit. The night before became a distant past. She doesn’t know yet that words are powerful, they can destroy, sustain, or restore, depending on whose lips utter them. One for you, one for me, and one for grandma. It was a simple, meaningful game. One for you, my baby darling, she said to her sister, one for me, she added plopping a pink chunk into her mouth, and one for…I pursed my lips once more. She held the strawberry in the air, then withdrew her hand. No. Strawberries. For. Brown. People, Vivian said. And just like that, the moment was gone. But it was a new day, so, I placed my hand on hers and said, “Listen Vivian, I want to tell you something.” I was as stern as I was gentle, but she must have sensed trouble. She pulled her arm away from me. No, she said, and ran out of the kitchen screaming as if my touch had been a hot rod on her flesh.
This was the Christmas I discovered and named my otherness. This was the place where I departed from my husband’s descendants, when I acknowledged the invisible walls separating me from him, my students, my non-Latino friends, my white colleagues and bosses. It wasn’t enough to simply sense my otherness and attribute it to speaking English with an accent, or being a woman in a man’s world, as I had done when I worked in the oil industry and even now that I live in an Arab country. This was the place where I understood what no one else in the world had ever explained to me, the moment when I knew what no one else in the living room knew. Not talking about “it,” and not writing about “it,” did not make “it” go away. El que calla, otorga is Spanish for “Silence gives consent.” I have heard racist comments directed at other people. I have said nothing. I have assumed that self-determination extrapolates into people being responsible for fighting their own battles. I have been the tough-skinned recipient of microaggressions who refuses to use racially-charged words like microaggression. I have done nothing. Silence has given me an intellectual way out of the issue. My silence has made me complicit in the trespasses against me. Yet, performing the silence-breaking act is very taxing and complicated. Muy difícil. Navigating cross-cultural landscapes is not easy, and I realize now, it can’t be done effortlessly when the stakes—husband, in-laws, bosses, close friendships—are high.
Santa arrived in the solarium. Where would the new toys be placed in a house already cluttered with toys? There are boxes of them everywhere. Moving from room to room in this house is like partaking in an obstacle race. What new exciting thing could the girls possibly get this year, that they don’t already own? This is the house of things. A three-story toy house. The girls’ parents had Christmas carols playing in the background, we drank chilled mimosas served in champagne flutes, and we each received our presents. Vivian got the most. I was a gracious guest and played my role well. I took a picture of her standing in the middle of the room. She wore her Princess Elsa’s outfit, now complimented with a crown, silk gloves, and a scepter, a “Frozen” combo I ordered from Amazon. I had given Vivian a symbol of power—a crown and a specter—the epitome of imperial authority. Oh, the irony. She opened one present after the other. Her little excited hands grew tired of tearing wrapping paper; mom, uncle and uncle’s girlfriend had to be enlisted to help with the task. One present, one ooh, one smile. Snap, snap. Picture taken for posterity. Next. A bigger one, followed by a smaller one. Snap, snap. Two more pictures for the digital Christmas album. Next. She did this for a long time, until she was no longer interested in opening more presents. Mom coaxed her. Look at this one, darling. Should we open that one, Vivian? Do you want me to help you with the one over there? With this one here? Why don’t you open the one behind you? In front of you? The one you are standing on? And even in the middle of this tribute to excess, I could tell she was a good mother, daughter, wife, sister, and employee. She had treated me well throughout the years. She was a good human being.
Vivian was getting restless and refused to open more presents. Had she had the words to express her feelings, I’m sure they would have been somewhere along the lines of “Leave me alone. I don’t need more stuff. I’m happy with this paper clip and a lint ball I found somewhere on the kitchen floor.”
What I found this past Christmas was the key to a secret door. Now I can speak from that intimate space. I can curse, laugh, shout from this newly-found place that belongs to only me. I’m not going to say I’m brown and proud. That’s lame, has been said millions of times before and has changed very little. Being brown is not the result of a life-time effort. I didn’t achieve brownness after countless trials and tribulations. I was born brown. There is no merit in passively receiving strands of DNA at conception. I don’t want to partake in the cockfight of colors. My brown skin is not a rooster. I’m not proud of being brown, just like I’m not proud of having two eyes, one nose, four limbs. I’m grateful. It’s not the same. I’m proud of other less tangible but more crucial things. I’m proud of having left Colombia, because leaving one’s family and country in pursuit of happiness and peace is an act of resistance. I’m proud of being bilingual and of being able to concoct sentences that cross cultural frontiers on the paper. Writing in a language other than your own is overwhelming. You compose a sentence, a short paragraph, you rewrite it ten, twenty times; words become furniture you move around the house, trying to imagine what your guests will see, whether they will feel at home with you. I’m proud of having had the courage to stop drinking and smoking. I’m particularly proud of that moment of clarity, many years ago, when I chose to live, turned the key in the ignition and started the car before the incoming train hit me. And I’m particularly proud of saying this in a language other than my own, because I don’t have the courage to say it in Spanish. Not yet.
I am Latina. I’m brown like my parents. Their color is my inheritance, but I don’t have to inherit the whole lot from them. I refuse to inherit my mother’s sacrificial lamb attitude, always waiting for my father to come home, even if it was just to wash his clothes that reeked of alcohol and cheap perfume. I don’t want to inherit my mother’s fatalism, always expecting the worst as if “bad” was all she deserved. What I want to inherit is the steely willpower in my women ancestors. I want it all from these mujeres verracas, peleadoras, lanzadas, bravas, alborotadas. I want to inherit their passion, their laughter, their dirty jokes, their dreams. I want them to speak to me, right now, por favor, left, right or the center. What do I do?
I’ve been agonizing about all this since Christmas. I have a rasquiña, an itch I can’t quite scratch. Now that I have found an intimate place to write from, what exactly do I write about? What is my responsibility as a writer, as a Latina, as a U.S. citizen who lives on several borders? I’ve been searching for answers since Christmas, reverberating like a mercury orb. Writing is an act of resistance against indifference, against this-is-not-my-problem philosophy; writing is declaring war against forgetting. That’s why I wrote this.
And there she stood, a devastatingly beautiful three-year old, privileged white English girl, who may grow up into a devastatingly beautiful, privileged white English teenager surrounded by more privileged white adolescents, who might never venture out of the comfort of their own whiteness. Together, they may make it through life without ever having to face discrimination based on their skin color, and because of this, movements like Black Lives Matter will make them roll their eyes in disbelief. What do these people want? They will become productive members of a society: botanists, accountants, IT wizards, lawyers, and ballerinas who will metaphorically lay their lives to defend their country against anyone who doesn’t look or pray or think like them. They’ll despise “the other” as if they were squatting in their own backyards. Or maybe not. Maybe mom and Vivian will have many conversations about respect and inclusion before she becomes an adult. Maybe what happened this past Christmas sparked the need for a dialogue about “the other,” and Vivian will grow into a happy, well-adjusted teenager, with a deep sense of social justice who will fight and win good fights. And she’ll make mom and dad proud, and my husband and I will celebrate her accomplishments. Every single one of them. Between now and then, there will be many Christmases, but she won’t remember this one. The Christmas—when at the tender age of three—dressed in a Princess Elsa’s outfit, she broke her grandma’s heart.