Police lights flashed in my rearview. Hadn’t I stopped at that stop sign? Not fully. I pulled over right away. At least I wasn’t late to anything. Soon the officer spoke into his microphone, “Bravo, Alpha, Lincoln . . .” In this way he spelled my name, letter by letter, to some listener.
Then he said a sentence describing me. It seemed to flash-freeze in the air: “White female.” What? I’m not white. I answered his next questions by rote, still hearing the phrase frozen in the ether. White female.
The officer was white himself — or so I assumed. His reddish hair showed around his ears below his helmet, and his skin was definitely light. Then again, I had to ask myself — what is white? I’ve read that light-skinned Italians, Jews, and even Finns have been considered non-white at different times in our country’s history, while Mexican folks were counted as white on the 1940 census, and Cubans have often been seen as white. Probably this officer identified as “white,” but I couldn’t be sure.
Still, I was surprised that the officer didn’t notice what I call my permanent tan. Maybe he “saw white” because I was driving in an affluent area? — though I’m sure he knew that people of all colors are affluent. Or maybe, like the US government, he didn’t see Hispanic as a race, but more of a cultural designation. Maybe the form he was filling out didn’t leave room for nuances like mixed-race or bi-racial, which is what I consider myself.
I drove off with a ticket and also a question. Why had I reacted to being called white? My mom is of British descent, according to the tubes we all spit into to find out about our DNA. She’s definitely light and born in Iowa. And I am lighter than my Guatemalan dad. I love my Mom, of course, and my whole maternal family. What’s wrong with being called white, then?
The answer came quickly. Erasure. A cultural treasure gets buried if someone sees me as only white. My self-image is Latina, even if my Spanish is sketchy and I don’t see my Dad’s Guatemalan side of the family as much as my mom’s. I don’t want half of myself deleted.
And it’s not only about me. I want people to see that our world is a color-filled place, a mixed place. I want them to see that the United States is a variegated skein. I don’t want anyone to miss the beautiful complexity, nor oversimplify anyone’s identity. Naturally, we can’t have unlimited numbers of boxes on forms or this officer’s report, but we can have awareness that we’re all more than meets the eye.
People have thought I was purely Latina, too. They’ve run up to me and started speaking Spanish without thinking, especially when I was in a Spanish-speaking neighborhood or in an ethnic grocery store. No one is trying to be rude, of course. The brain makes split-second assessments about people we see. We can’t help it. But we can question our first instinct. We can hold off the generalizations.
My family tells the story of a relative who was caught up in an immigration raid. Though he later became a citizen, he wasn’t yet. But he was light-skinned, so he just stood to the side. Had he opened his mouth, the ICE officers would have heard his Spanish accent. He stayed quiet, and they passed him by.
So both the immigration officers and my traffic officer made a split-second guess. Wholly wrong and half wrong, respectively. It might be true that in both cases it worked to our advantage. Which is also too bad — that whiteness grants such advantages. Of course, I don’t know if the police officer treated me any better than he would have if he’d considered me a person of color. He did his job. I hope he would have done the same, regardless.
But I also didn’t correct him. I was too surprised, and then it felt like there wasn’t time. And he might not have had a box called “brown” or even Hispanic. Besides, who wants to prolong a traffic stop? But I drove off wishing I had.
“Like the ball in the car you’re going to sell.” This is how I explain the pronunciation of my last name, Balcárcel, to bank tellers and airline representatives, my self-defense instructor and my students. My mother invented this phrase after hearing her married name mispronounced as Bar-carcel, Ban-carcel, and Balcar-kell almost daily. I think her trick works pretty well at demystifying the name. The phrase jingles on the tongue, and most people appreciate a hand. In fact, when I graduated from high school, I tried to help the announcer by writing out Ball-car-sell. I thought Mom’s stratagem would work as perfectly on paper as it did in person. I printed my name, accent and all, then wrote Ball-car-sell underneath in parenthesis. I imagined the syllables ringing through the auditorium in pure pronunciation tones. It backfired, and I was almost off-stage before my parents realized, “That’s our daughter up there shaking hands with the principal.” The announcer had mumbled something unintelligible; Dad snapped a photo just in time to hear Barker, the name of the next student.
We laughed about it later, but I admit to some disappointment. I didn’t gasp—no surprise that the predictable happened—but I did sigh. Practiced as I was at not letting mispronunciation bother me, it pinched a little. It reminded me that even the progressive educators who loved having a Latina in class, and even the announcer-speech teacher who prided himself on crisp consonants and a broadcast-worthy baritone couldn’t step into another language easily. And though I had attended school in this district from fifth grade on, no one had quite figured out Balcárcel.
Every first day of school had been a name nightmare for me. The teacher would start calling roll at the front of the room. When a long pause followed a name like Anderson, Scott, I knew the teacher’s brain was stalling out on mine. Added to her distress at seeing Balcárcel, my nickname Bequi appeared next to it. Bequi is pronounced “Becky,” as people with some knowledge of Spanish might guess, but the combination—Bequi Balcárcel—stumped every teacher I had.
As a girl, I coped by disassociating myself from my name. I couldn’t afford to take every mispronunciation personally, so I pushed my name out of myself into its own realm. There it could be stepped on, twisted, or ignored without me feeling stepped on, twisted, or ignored. I didn’t want to impose on people by coaching them on my name. It took too much time and yielded flawed results. The wrong syllable stressed, the hard c pronounced soft, the soft c pronounced hard. I waved away the sounds and took this approach: people could fumble with my name like a doorknob, and I’d let them in just to hear the rattling stop.
I don’t blame folks for stumbling over three syllables and an accent mark. I agree: Balcárcel looks intimidating. The accent, especially, seems to snuff out most people’s will to even hazard a guess. But if someone does try, I now applaud the effort no matter what comes out. The knob- rattling bothers me less than it used to. My local grocery store wants its employees to greet every customer by name. Every week I say, “Close enough” with a smile. My own children don’t have the pronunciation mastered, so I’m not expecting the grocery staff to catch on anytime soon. Maybe I’m mellower because I’m letting my name creep closer. I’ve brought it in from the back shed and given it a place in the living room. Instead of distancing myself from my name, I see it as a fun facet of who I really am. It’s no longer painful to hear Bancursel. The complexity of my name reflects the complexity of my identity, and no one can know me or my name fully on a first encounter.
Despite the difficulties, or maybe because of them and the attention they stirred, I kept my name when I married. My Guatemalan father always joked that I’d marry an American named Smith and lose my heritage. In fact, I married a man named Stith. I could have changed my name and stopped chanting “like the ball in the car you’re going to sell,” but I couldn’t face going from three syllables to one; just listen to that monosyllabic thud after the three-syllable “Rebecca.” Besides, I liked my name. And maybe Dad has a point. My name might be the most Latin thing about me.
Growing up monolingual in Iowa did not instill much fiesta flavor. My Spanish was spotty, and though I knew some lullabies and phrases like “I am ten years old,” I couldn’t hold a conversation with my grandparents. When they visited one year, flying all the way from Central America, I sang for them and smiled a lot, but I couldn’t tell them about my teddy bear collection or read them a story I’d written. For a week, the adults volleyed words over my head. It felt like verbal keep-away. Later, equipped with four years of high school Spanish, I visited Guatemala. My grandmother was no longer with us, but I was able to tell my abuelo about college plans and my hope of learning guitar. For two weeks I played Latina, but I’m still more salt than cilantro.
As much as I love my Balcárcel family, the music, the food, and the all-night dancing, I’m a visitor, not a native. My bi-lingual cousins live in the States — kids whose parents both immigrated. Priests conduct their weddings in Spanish, and they make homemade tamales. They include me, but I stand on the other side of a border. Instead of tamales, I make a green bean casserole that appears in church cook books across the Midwest. Their homes feel foreign. My name is a valid passport, but the country isn’t home.
I used to be comfortable staying on my side of that border. With an Anglo mother, I grew up able to pass for white. Further, people rewarded my whiteness. My perfect English, my punctuality, and my way of telling a story directly rather than taking a long, winding ramp, marked me as Americanized. Perfectly assimilated. In school and on the job, this works beautifully. I blend into the dominant culture like a top-level spy. Except I’m a double-agent. I truly seem white in most ways. When my parents first tried to teach me Spanish, I wouldn’t speak it. Embarrassed by the too-colorful dresses and the trumpety mariachi music, I ran from my heritage. When I wanted to rediscover it, I found it difficult. Balcárcel is a slim link to a world that I, for the most part, lost.
A few years ago, I learned something else about my name. The byline that goes with this essay shows my first name as Rebecca, but it was supposed to be “Rebeca.” My parents wanted the Spanish spelling. My father laughs at English’s use of doubled letters. “Two c’s?” he asks. “Why not three?” My middle name, too, is misspelled on my birth certificate. Lee should read “Li.” Again, the English version won out. According to family legend, this is an family friend’s unintentional doing. Somehow the paperwork went through her hands rather than my parents’. So I’m Rebecca Lee instead of Rebeca Li.
Sometimes people ask why I don’t correct my legal name. A Latino poet recently wanted to know how to spell Rebecca before autographing his book for me. When I explained the mistake, he looked over his glasses and said, “What are you going to do about that?” He’s a big man, with a commanding presence; I told him to inscribe the book to “Rebeca.” However, at home the name looked odd, like a pair of shoes that seem to fit in the store, but turn out to be the wrong size. I am so used to the misspelled version that it feels more appropriate. Maybe “Rebecca” is more appropriate. The poet wanted me to embrace my heritage by changing my name, but my full name, as is, reflects my heritage pretty well. My English name first, my Latin name last.
My perfect name would be Rebecca Li Balcárcel, combining the two languages. Actually, this is what I thought my name was until I received my social security card at age sixteen. “Lee” looked awkward then and still does. It also pricks my heart because Li comes from my father’s nickname, Lico, pronounced Lee-coe. With this tie to my father accidentally cut, I feel even more unmoored. I wince when I sign legal documents that require my full name. I found myself telling the Li-Lee story to the mortgage broker. She simply handed me the pen. The names should sound the same in the ear, but they don’t to me. I imagine that I can hear the correct spelling when I say my full name, and that the written version is wrong. It’s only one letter, a single line of ink and a dot, but it makes me my father’s daughter. I might speak Spanish only in present tense, and I might never learn the love songs my grandfather wrote, but Li is my rightful middle name. Still, to change it would cost more money than I can justify, so I’m letting that layer of Anglo lie on my name for now, a dusting of bleached flour on a browned pastry.
These days I go by a few other names, such as Mom and Professor. These spare me hearing the mispronunciation of Balcárcel. In fact, I tend to be on a first-name basis with the world, asking folks to call me Rebecca as soon as I meet them. I don’t want to get rid of my last name, though. As long as people can imagine a ball in the car they want to sell, I’ll keep letting folks give it a try. Maybe I agree with Shakespeare; a rose would smell as sweet even if called a rosse. I can live with an extra c in my first name and the floundering over my last name. Even the Lee. I’ve learned to embrace the mess, the beautiful bang that resulted from my parents’ collision. I’m picking up the pieces I like and making collage that suits me. When people ask my name, it leads to conversations about Guatemala, my mom’s Peace Corps service, the Northern regions of Spain, and my father’s immigrant story. Then I hear about their ancestors or their love of soccer. My name gives us a kick- off, and an exciting get-to-know-you game begins.
Acknowledgements Many thanks to Segue and editor Eric Melbye, who published this essay in Issue 8, Fall 2009.
As an English prof, I’m usually the one showing students the ropes of active voice and helping them fix format mix-ups. I’m an Oxford comma fan, and don’t get me started on people’s misuse of the word literally. (Ok, I’ve about thrown in the towel on that one!) My point is that I normally like the rules, use the rules, savor the rules — but not this time.
When I sat down to type my novel, The Other Half of Happy, Spanish words showed up right away as part of the world of the story. My training told me to italicize each of them. The MLA Handbook on my shelf specifically says to “italicize foreign words used in an English text.” And MLA is not alone in this. But that didn’t feel right.
These words didn’t seem, well, foreign. The dad in the book is a native Spanish speaker, and the mom is fluent, too. For my main character, their twelve-year-old daughter, Spanish words are part of everyday life. They don’t need emphasis.
Even MLA admits that some foreign words have been “naturalized into English,” and therefore need no italics. These include “raison d’être” and “e.g.” Other words are fully anglicized — “taco,” “flamenco,” “vista.” These don’t need italics either.
But my book doesn’t use just “burrito” and its cousins. Here’s an early instance of a Spanish word in my novel:
His shoulders drop. “Pues.” This is his word for agreeing. And his word for not agreeing. “Pues” means “well” and “there it is” and “if you say so.”
“Pues” is not an anglicized word. In fact, its meaning is so slippery that the narrator needs three phrases to explain it. Then why not italicize?
Rebecca wearing a huipil from Guatemala
For one thing, the book has a lot of italics. It contains many passages of introspection, also normally italicized. The main character, Quijana, talks to herself quite a bit. At one point she says, Get a grip, Qui! In another place, she introspects using a Spanish word. She knows her father wants her to wear a huipil (see photo) on the first day of school, but Quijana opts for jeans. She says inwardly,
Yes, you’re seeing correctly, Dad; I’m not wearing the huipil.
In a sentence like this, the Spanish word would have to be un-italicized to stand out. But then it would look like the rest of the text. The convention breaks down and doesn’t help readers.
And of course, the whole point of italics is to help readers. Italics signals that the foreign word is not a typo or a word they are expected to know. But how many American readers can’t figure out that a Spanish word is probably Spanish? How many are tripped up by a word or even a sentence in Spanish? Mind you, I’m not expecting my readers to know what the Spanish means, only that it is Spanish. Maybe it’s because I live in Texas, land of hueros and mestizos and Spanish-speaking gringos, but I think they can handle it.
So we’re back to my real reason for not italicizing the words from Español in my novel: I don’t want to. To me, these words are not from the outside, but from the inside of my character’s world. Flagging the Spanish words as different in some way doesn’t feel real for Quijana. Readers may challenge me here, pointing out that the words are outside of their worlds, but I’m betting that they can meet me in Quijana’s Texas without much confusion. For characters who code-switch, italics is even more problematic, as illustrated so well by Daniel José Older in his two-minute video. I wouldn’t push my choice on others — each author will have his or her own take on this, and not all languages are as familiar to American readers as Spanish is. I do support the right of authors to decide, without a rule book’s help, whether italics works for their books.
I want to give a shout out here to Chronicle Books and my wonderful editor there, Taylor Norman. She never once asked me about my choice not to italicize. She intuited the reason for that judgement call and turned her attention to bigger problems — like whether the grandmother should really die in chapter four. (Spoiler: She shouldn’t, and now doesn’t!)So, let’s celebrate all the ways language can be rendered on the page. Let’s use every tool we can to communicate, including italics. But let’s be the users of the tools, selecting the right moment for their use, and not let the tools use us.
“What are you?” my friend’s nephew was asked. He is Peruvian and African American.
I’ve been asked this, too. A lot. In fact, mixed kids report being asked this quite a bit. Their skin is brown, but their eyes are blue. Or their hair isn’t what people expect, given their bone structure. I sound white, but look vaguely indigenous. I have been assumed to be Chinese, Navaho, Mexican, and European. I’m actually Guatemalan-American, descended from basically Brits and Mayans.
Born in Iowa, my Guatemalan side stood out there. I was the only brown kid in my class, maybe in my school. The town was small enough that my Guatemalan dad was a bit of a celebrity. I never heard a cruel word about my parents’ marriage, nor my permanent tan. When I got to Texas, I was seen differently. Latinxes thought I spoke Spanish, which I didn’t. But more than once, a light kid insulted immigrants from south of Texas, not realizing that I was the child of one. I was first asked “What are you?” at church, another time in a job interview, and many times since.
Admittedly, the question is dehumanizing. Along with “Where are you from?” since mostly, we mash-ups in the US would say “Here!” But, you know what, I don’t mind it the way I used to. I think most askers are trying to open a new folder in their brains and aren’t sure what to call it. Undoubtedly, other askers are trying to fit the mixed person into a box that carries assumptions and stereotypes, but the people I’ve run into are mainly curious. They’re often intrigued when they find out my background and think it’s cool. If we lived in Brazil, we could visit three states that actually designate a holiday, June 27, as the day to celebrate “mestizos,” or mixed folks.
It’s not as easy for every mixed person out there, though. Many speak of taunting coming from both sides — name-calling, ostracizing, and the implication that they aren’t “black enough” or “Korean enough” or whatever-enough to be part of the community. Barack Obama was criticized for marking Black on the 2010 census because he his half white and half black. His choice shows that he knows he is perceived as black, and therefore, is living the experience of a black man, despite his mother’s being white.
Mixed people don’t always admit their mixed-ness, and for good reason. Before 1967, when the Supreme Court cleared the way for two people to marry regardless of race, it could be damaging to reveal a mixed bloodline. In overtly racist areas, the stigma of having a black ancestor could threaten livelihoods and even lives. Also, the US census only starting offering the choice to check multiple race boxes in 2000. Statistics show an increase in mixed kids in this century partly because it’s now possible to report it.
On the other hand, mixed marriages and mixed kids are more noticeable now than ever. The famous royals, Harry and Meghan, aren’t alone. We probably are experiencing an increase in the real number of multi-racial people in the USA. The UK shows rises as well.
The up-side is that we mixed kids tend to grow up appreciative of cultural variety and are fluent in more than one way of being. We live the truth that our parents’ human-ness is the same, regardless of race. Some of us are bi-lingual, and some grew up in two faith traditions. It’s natural to look at us as symbols of harmony among all peoples.
Symbols, maybe, but we aren’t the solution to ending racism forever. If only. For that, we need to work on many fronts for years to come, including emphasizing how artificial all divisions really are.
But let’s celebrate our multi-ness and the bravery of our parents. Let’s teach people to say, “What’s your background?” if they’re curious and not intending to insult. Let’s enjoy the creativity and flexibility of mind that mixed folks add to this world.
And when it comes to answering the question, “What are you?”, as my friend and I said that day about her nephew, in unison, “Tell them you’re a human being.”
I opened the novel, ready to step into a fictional world. And this time, the main character would be Latina, a mirror of my own brown self. Chapter one captured my interest. Chapters two and three sailed by. But by chapter four, something was pulling me out of the book’s world. The character wasn’t Latina after all. And yet her name was. Her family supposedly was. But nothing they did or said seemed, well, Latino.
A perceptive friend asked, “What would being ‘more Latino’ look like?” I didn’t have an answer. Hadn’t I railed against stereotypes such as the sobrero-wearing Mexican snoozing under a tree? Hadn’t I wished for Latino characters who ate more than beans and rice? This novel had none of that, so why didn’t it feel authentic?
As a writer myself, I can relate to this author’s conundrum. Dump in a bunch of stereotypes and the book feels insensitive, even insulting. Leave out cultural details, and you get a thin portrayal or worse–seemingly Anglo characters “spiced up” with Hispanic names. Authors of all ethnicities run up against the same problem. The more our world is multi-, the more we want to portray that reality on the page, but aren’t sure how to do it.
This problem isn’t new. Twenty years ago I sat around a conference table hearing men and women discuss whether one could realistically portray the other. Men pointed to Thomas Hardy’s spot-on female voices. Women pointed to Jane Austen’s blunt-tongued men. Clearly, careful observation could yield convincing characters of the opposite sex.
Careful observation often falls short, though, when it comes to writing authentic characters of color. For a convincing portrayal, one must draw from actual experience–which might hard to come by. And it’s not just ethnicity. Characters who live with illness, with disability, in a different religious context from the author, or with a different sexual orientation provide the same challenge. To complicate matters, we all have overlapping identities–female half-Latina who meditates, for example. (That’s me, or parts of me!) Our differences are daunting.
However, our sameness is stunning. As humans, we experience universals such as love and suffering. As much as we DO want “mirrors and windows” for readers–books that reflect readers’ identities and books that open up new worlds for readers–we also delight in books that underscore our connectedness.
One would think that the novel I tried to read was doing just that: emphasizing that a Latina character isn’t any different than an Anglo one. But they are different, aren’t they? Rather than celebrating differences, this book masked them. Using Latino names felt like a commercial decision rather than a cultural one.
So what SHOULD writers do to portray people of color sensitively? A panel, part of a conference called WORDFest, held on March 24, 2018 in Hurst, Texas tried to answer that question, and I was on it. These are the notes I brought to the table.
For one, writers of color can and will write their stories. Movements like #ownvoices show that the typical reader and even the publishing industry is ready for more authors of color and other identities. Check out We Need Diverse Books for more on this.
Still, we could all use some tips as we build the diverse worlds our characters inhabit. I caution myself, even as I write this, to remember that there’s no easy recipe.
Write against type. Experiment with characters who explode stereotypes and have complex back stories.
Make culture matter. Show the character living with the values and realities of his/her culture, and let the plot be complicated by these realities.
Do homework beyond TV shows. If your knowledge of any group comes from movies and TV alone, educate yourself by reading books about and by folks in the group you are researching, and build relationships with those folks organically. It’s okay to say, “I’m a writer,” and ask specific questions, but it’s no one’s job to explain everything to you.
Invite sensitivity readers to read your work.
BUT be careful not to assume that your friend of color/gay friend/etc. will read your entire novel.
Create round characters that don’t come across as tokens.
Discouraged? Don’t be! I told this heartening story at the panel event: I had been visiting Monticello in Virginia with a group of college teachers as part of a program created by the Community College Humanities Association. We’d spent weeks reading deeply about Thomas Jefferson, including a book about the women in his life, especially Sally Hemings. Sally Hemings was the enslaved woman with whom Jefferson had six children.
In our last session, held in the hotel’s breakfast room, I sat rereading a poem. I had written it the night before, and I knew it needed more revision. I would be reading it to my colleagues momentarily, and the thing I was most nervous about was that the poem was written in the voice of Sally Hemings. I had dared to imagine myself as an enslaved mixed-race woman who had borne her first child (Jefferson’s) while still a teenager.
How could I possibly “get it right”? And how could I presume to have any idea what her life was like? Intensive study was one thing, but taking on her voice was another. Fortunately, a man sat down next to me, a man whom I had not seen before. I spoke to him easily, though we hadn’t introduced ourselves. Soon I confided my poetry doubts to him. His response was to laugh merrily and shake his head. “You go right on and write her voice,” he said. “You’ve been a teenager, you’ve been a mom. She’s a human being; you’re a human being. Go right on and write. I give you my permission!”
He was a black man, and I figured that he could, indeed, give me a kind of permission, and I’d feel a little better. But when our session began and he was formally introduced, I nearly fell out of my chair. He was a descendant of Sally Hemings herself. His generosity and encouragement led me to write several more poems in Ms. Hemings’s voice. It’s my hope that I am doing her justice and honoring the trust that her descendant put in me.
I’m also writing in my own voice–a bi-cultural twelve-year-old stars in my first novel, The Other Half of Happy, due out in fall 2019 from Chronicle Books. The book also includes a gay character, a black character, and a character with autism. I based these on real people, but I still needed my agent to point out that I had used “chocolate” to describe skin tone, which can be offensive — chocolate is a slave trade product, for one thing! Doh! And yet . . .
By celebrating both our shared humanity and our beautiful variety, we can write sensitively-created characters outside our identities. In fact, to depict the real world, in all its multiplicity, we must.