What are you?

"What are you?” Is a question I get asked a LOT! Not a week or two goes by that I don’t get that question asked. I always hesitate to answer because it’s a little complicated.

Growing up I was the kid in class that never quite fit in. Maybe it was that I was a spastic, skinny and awkward little kid. I definitely looked different. Even though at the time I lived in probably one of the most racially diverse areas of Seattle, there still wasn’t anyone around that looked quite like me. I wasn’t Asian, black, white or even mixed. I had olive skin, dark hair and a big nose. Yeah, I got made fun of a lot, almost as much as I got asked, “What are you”? That was a tough question to answer because even I didn’t really know. You see my family is from El Salvador, but those that are familiar with the migrations that took place in the late 1800 and early 1900s know that a lot people migrated from Europe to Central and Latin America. There was also a lot of ex-slaves from the Caribbean that migrated west.

Within my own family we have a wide range of skin tones, hair types and eye color. My grandmother is very dark and it’s not from having spent a lot of time in the sun and her eyes are a bright blue topaz. She says her father was from Argentina, but really no one knows for sure because they didn’t keep records back then of family trees in that part of the world. What we do know from history books is that the Garifuna, descendants of Carib, Arawak and West African people moved west and most likely intermarried into the populations established in Central America. My grandmother grew up in a time when women had their path in life predestined at birth to become mothers. Therefore, her mother didn’t believe in education being a priority. What was the point she believed, if she was just going to marry off her daughter to another family to take care of babies. My grandmother never went beyond second grade. She married young and had a child. She left her abusive husband and was left on her own to fend for herself and her daughter. She moved to a new town, became a cook and met my grandfather.

My grandfather was a handsome man of Spanish origin. He had full lips, dark curly hair, blue eyes and fair skin. None of us know for sure what part of Spain his family was from as contact to the old world was lost when they migrated to El Salvador. But his distinguishing feature was the Spanish nose. Together they had two beautiful girls that looked just like everyone else around town. I once visited a town in El Salvador where almost everyone there had these beautiful green blue eyes and light mocha skin. No one there questioned “what” they were or where they from. It was accepted, as in most of Latin America that people are a hodgepodge of ethnicities all converged together in the new world.

My father’s origins are even more mysterious. We have no idea where his family tree originates from. What we suspect is that he has some of the native Indian blood in him based on his appearance and stature. His mother married several times, and living in a country where there was a lot of confluence of ethnicities, she met a Turkish man. My father’s brother was so distinctive in his appearance, that everyone called him “El Turko”. Whether or not my father and uncle share the same father, or where my father’s father came from no one really knows and more importantly in Latin America no one really cares.

Often times after a performance people will ask me where I’m from. I am from Seattle, Wa. I am an American. I am red, white and blue to the bone. When my parents migrated to the U.S. in the late 60s, there was no Latino enclave in Seattle. They grew up with a romanticized view of the United States, a super power only rivaled by the Soviet Union. They wanted so badly to be American and they assimilated as much as they could not only to avoid discrimination (which they faced nonetheless) but to be part of the American dream. They even gave me a name that is as associated to a great American icon.

Growing up I never felt pretty to say the least. I was the girl with the dark hair and big nose. No doll, Disney princess, singer or movie star looked like me. If I resembled anyone at all it would be, if you are at all familiar with the Simpsons, a female version of Milhouse. It was hard being made fun of, being different and not fitting in. Like many people who have challenging childhoods I developed a sense of humor. I wasn’t by any means the “popular” kid, but I did have a lot of friends. I developed a good sense of humor and wit and kids liked my goofy nature. I focused on being a good student and achieving academic success. I went to the UW on scholarship and completed my MBA while working a full time job. I had an adventurous spirit and I took advantage of my small size and determination to become a climber. I scaled as many of the Northwest peaks as I could fit in between work. It wasn’t until an unfortunate accident with a car on my bike that I stopped climbing.

I lost a lot of my identity at that point. It was painful, carrying a pack with gear was no longer something I could do. So I took up dance as a means of low impact rehabilitation. The belly dance community was the first time I felt like I actually fit in. I had no idea, but I looked the part. I had dark exotic features that I never really appreciated. My dance teachers taught me to embrace my looks and it really wasn’t until I was an adult in my 30s that I finally came to accept the way I looked. It was the first time anyone aside from my dad, husband and few hobos ever said I was beautiful. In general, the belly dance community is very accepting to varying body types, looks and sizes and is one of the many reason why I have embraced it so openly. I’m happy to say that I am now finally at peace with my appearance and I no longer avoid looking in the mirror for fear of only finding all the flaws I was born with. I accept who I am and I’m happy with what I’ve been given, big nose and all!

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