My life began when I lived in Puerto Rico. I was born in New York, but I was so young when we moved to PR that any prior memories no longer linger in my mind. I had a lot of firsts there; I had my first day of school, lost my first tooth, and owned my first dog. I thought life everywhere would be as slow and peaceful as it was in PR. I was not prepared for what the States had in store for me.

My father was the proudest Puerto Rican anyone had ever met. Even living in New York, he took me to every Puerto Rican Day parade. He would also often pull me off of the couch, despite my refusal, while Marc Anthony blared through his beloved speakers. He would twirl me around to the music and the rhythm that he felt in his soul until a smile broke out on my face and I gave in. My father would also cook every classic Puerto Rican dish for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Arroz con gandules y tostones, chuletas y arroz con habichuelas y chorizo (sometimes my dad would let us have the sliced chorizo cold if we were good, I liked it better that way) and the famous pernil he made every year for Christmas. He would slow cook it in the oven from 5am until it was close to dinner time, then he would turn the oven off and let it sit. I wish I had paid more attention to how he made food because he was truly so passionate about it; and to this day, I have never met anyone nor gone to any restaurant that cooks Hispanic food as well as my father did. I shouldn’t have taken for granted the food he poured his soul into after working his back-breaking job in the beating sun. I wish I savored it more. 












When my father died, so did my relationship with my culture. My mother stopped speaking Spanish at home. Pasta became the staple dishit was quick and easy to make. She hated cooking and would let it be known several times a week. I started high school a few months after he passed and was placed in honors classes where the majority of my peers were wealthy and white. Consequently, my friends were all pretty much white. I knew that I was Puerto Rican and Cuban, but they made it so that I didn’t really want to be. 

I became embarrassed of who I was. I would rather take sketchy cabs home than get a ride from a friend because once a friend’s father said he felt scared to drop me off at the low income housing building I had been living in since I was 12. Comments like that began changing how I viewed myself. A guy I had a crush on told me he only likes white girls. He was behind my mother and I in line at the supermarket one day and witnessed my mother’s debit card get declined. Every time I got a haircut, I was told how THICK my hair was and how no one in their life had ever dealt with hair as THICK as mine. I started straightening it every week. My friends were all obsessed with tanning but I could never understand why. I was obsessed with being as light as they were. I wanted to look like the girls on TV I grew up watching and I wanted to be the girl that guy wanted. I even looked into getting a nose job because I wanted one of those cute pixie noses that sort of curve upwards at the end. I didn’t feel comfortable existing in my own skin.

I didn’t want to be the little girl that white teenagers yelled SPIC! at as they drove by in their Jeep and muscle tees on. I didn’t want to be the girl that guys fetishized. I’ve never been with a Spanish girl before. I so badly wanted to be someone else that I didn’t even stop my friends when they tried to whitewash me themselves. Once while at my “best friend’s” house for dinner, her parents asked where I’m from. Just from here, I said. No, where are you from ethnically? her father asked. I gave them the answer they were longing for. But she’s like, basically white, my “best friend” responded. I laughed along. I shouldn’t have. 

The thing is, I never realized how much I had internalized those microaggressions until I got to college. I was in a program of minorities but could no longer speak my native tongue. I had struggled just as they had and faced similar oppression but I saw something missing between myself and them. I realize now what it was. They had their culture to call a home. While they experienced similar slurs and forms of oppression, they could still go home and eat their food, speak their language and dance their dances. They loved their culture so they fought back when people said those things. I was taught not to love mine, so I played mum. 


My friends in the program saw how disconnected I was. They could smell the whitewashing I had experienced and made sure I was aware of it; they repeatedly called me white girl or gringa. They didn’t understand how hurt it made me feel and how invalidating it was. Calling me a white girl erased my upbringing. It erased my father whose skin was darker than half of theirs. It erased the culture he brought me up with. It erased the person I was in Puerto Rico. But it also made me realize that I was contributing to this erasure myself. I wanted to be exactly what they were calling me at one point and that had left stains on me that I had yet to clean. If I wanted them to stop, if I wanted to feel at home in my skin again, I needed to reclaim my cultural identity. 


By Jaelynn Grace Ortiz

Jaelynn is a rising sophomore at NYU majoring in Journalism and Social and Cultural Analysis with a focus in Latino studies and is minoring in Creative Writing. The list of her hobbies is almost as drawn out as her majors are. She writes poetry, essays and stories, she dances, mentors high schoolers in the Bronx and often plans environmental events in NYU Residence Halls. She has a poem published in the introspective study Inside My World by the Live Poets Society. Despite vehemently condemning social media, she ironically has instagram which you could follow her on. 

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