Most of my life I’ve never fit in, culturally or socially. I always felt like I was on the wrong side of the fence no matter where I was. Sometimes my hair was too dark; sometimes my skin was too light. Sometimes I asked for tortillas; sometimes I asked for kielbasa. As a child, being white and Mexican, neither side of my family really knew what to say or do with me at times. I wasn’t fully anything to them, I think. I realized this when I was only 5. When I lived in Los Angeles, I wasn’t brown enough for my Mexican family. I wasn’t Catholic, my mom was white, and I had a white name. Three strikes, and I was out.
When we moved to the Pittsburgh area to be near my mom’s family, I distinctly remember one incident that told me at a young age that both parts of me were meant to be silenced, and I needed to be whatever others needed me to be for their comfort. I was in Walmart shopping with a family member, and we were looking at clothes. I remember saying I needed chonies, which in hip Spanish terms at the time meant underwear. My relative looked at me and asked what those were. When I responded and handed over the package, I received a weird look back and a reply: “You mean underwear? What was that word you said? That’s not what we call those. If you want these, you need to learn their proper name.”
Elementary school wasn’t easy either. I was never a huge fan of mashed potatoes or pizza, but I loved tacos and chips and salsa. Why wasn’t that ever served for school lunch? In second grade, we celebrated heritage days and were each asked to bring in dishes that reflected our cultural background. There were a lot of Italian dishes, a few Greek dishes and one dish of salsa with a bag of tortilla chips. I am sure you can guess who brought those. (Side note: No one ate the chips or salsa but me.)
Fast forward to college. I went to a small private liberal arts school, which I loved. It was the the best four years of my life for many reasons. I was given the freedom to explore my identity and what it meant to be biracial. My mother always supported me, in whatever way I chose to identify myself, but there were some things she just couldn’t teach me on what it was like to be mixed. In college, I read, I listened and I interacted with others who were facing similar inner struggles as I was. I learned what it was like to appreciate not only my heritage and culture, but also that of others. This is where my love for diversity and inclusion work began. I had to step into a lot of uncomfortable spaces to grow, often being the “only one” in a lot of groups and classes. I never complained; I knew that the perspective I was receiving because I lived in this sense of duality was equipping me to see things from a multitude of levels that would challenge my own understandings.
Most of my life I’ve never fit in, culturally or socially. I always felt like I was on the wrong side of the fence no matter where I was.
I was grateful for every opportunity that came my way, and it led me to spend nine years in higher education as a diversity officer. I wanted to be that person who wasn’t there for me in college. I wanted there to be a space where people could safely explore what and who they were. I loved being able to be a part of the students’ lives as they grew in their self-awareness. It felt as if I watched dozens of butterflies being born each year and only I was privy to the spectacle.
As an adult in my 30s, I have found that my identity as a mixed-race person is probably called into question more than any other parts of my intersectionality. In the winter, I’m not brown enough; in the summer, I’m asked why I don’t speak Spanish fluently. I have heard all of the racist jokes and stereotypes. I’ve been sexualized, discounted and immobilized because of other people’s assumptions and ideas of what they think I am or should be.
As the world progresses, and we see more people of mixed race, more mixed-race relationships and fluidity and intersectionality of race, I know that this conversation today about the heartache and pain I have felt will someday no longer be an issue.
But now, as an expectant mother to a child who will be multiracial, I know what my greatest job in life will be — to make sure that every single day he knows he is loved and celebrated for the skin he is in. He will not have to choose one race or one identity. He will be free to celebrate himself in every way, shape and form; he will be given space to decide how he feels and interacts with his own intersectionality.
Power comes from the ability to decide what creates joy in our lives. Joy for me is to be able to appreciate both sides of my heritage for their profound accomplishments and feats and how those interwoven stories, just like the thread of a quilt, create a beautiful, comforting masterpiece for all to see.
Sienna: My greatest hope and aspiration for you is that you continue to share your story with others who are mixed, biracial or multiracial who often feel that they are not enough of one thing or another to satisfy their family or society. We are enough. We are plenty. And we are powerful. I wish you success as you navigate your journey through life, love and the power of yourself.
With deepest love,
Victoria Snyder, M.Ed, MSLPA
Victoria Snyder is the executive vice president of Ya Momz House, Inc.