Image Source: Shaliqua Alleyne
Five minutes. That's about as long as I could sit cross-legged next to my abuela on the tan suede couch in her living room, where she would binge-watch telenovela after telenovela when I was growing up. It was a weekly ritual, my family's visits to her and my abuelo's 600-square-foot Las Vegas apartment, but the rapid-fire Spanish scripts were hard to translate, no matter how many times my Cuban-born father tried to teach me. So instead I watched in bursts, and once that time was up, I was gone - darting out the door at the first sound of an ice cream truck.
The impression those shows had on me wasn't quite as fleeting. A few cinco-minuto stretches later and my sense of self was all but vindicated for the next two decades: I am Latinx and damn proud of it, just like the women I'd seen on TV.
The only problem, of course, was that I didn't look like them - and thus began part one of my identity crisis.
Image Source: POPSUGAR Photography / Kelsey Castañon
Navigating the Latinx Stereotype
A few cinco-minuto stretches later and my sense of self was all but vindicated for the next two decades: I am Latinx and damn proud of it, just like the women I'd seen on TV.
It isn't politically correct - or hell, even factually correct - to assume all Latinx women share a singular aesthetic. There is not one Skin tone, hair color, or otherwise physical trait that makes you more part of the culture than another, and yet I didn't know this when I was younger. All I knew was that my dad was born in Cuba and my mom was adopted and therefore didn't know her background, so I clung to my Cuban heritage like it was a wooden door from a scene in Titanic.
Still, having moved to a predominantly white neighborhood in Kansas at age 12, the only representation I saw in the media came in stereotypical, fetishized fashion: every woman had va-va-voom curves and hair out to there, with dark features as striking as the red lipstick they wore. My body, on the other hand, is shaped more like a hairspray bottle: straight up and down, the only "curve" being at the head. My hair is fine and lifeless, and I couldn't have navigated a tube of lipstick even if YouTube videos had existed back then (they didn't). My skin is light, like my mom and dad, but my dad and I also share olive skin tones, meaning we can get tan, quick.
And I did.
In fact, I did often. In high school, I spent more time at the tanning salon than I did in the library, willing my fair skin into darker submission - almost as if it were an obligation to offset my blatant whiteness, and maybe the Hollister jean skirt I was always wearing. I couldn't change my body, but changing my skin color was my first attempt at trying to figure out who I was (or, rather, who I wanted to be). Every Summer, I dyed my hair jet-black. By Winter, I'd look so starkly different from my sister and brother, people joked there was no way we were related.
Image Source: POPSUGAR Photography / Kelsey Castañon
Shedding the Latinx Stereotype
Eventually, I landed a job in beauty and learned that the worst possible thing you can do to your skin is subject it to damaging UV rays. So at 22, I swore off tanning for good. And yet, that didn't stop my insatiable need to live up to those fabled beauty standards of being a Hispanic woman.
My therapist has told me this is normal. Growing up in the States, in a multicultural household with no direct connection to the Cuban culture I so strongly identified with, made me feel like an impostor. Deep down, I knew there was no qualifier to looking Latinx, but self-doubt can be a powerful, if not crippling, thing. It's why I tanned back in high school. It's why, even with a job that grants me unlimited access to the best hairstylists in the industry, I only ever dyed mine black.
By Winter, I'd look so starkly different from my sister and brother, people joked there was no way we were related.
But it wasn't until late December of last year, when a 23andMe DNA Kit uncovered a shocking family secret - that my father is not, in fact, my biological father - that I truly discovered the depths of my self-doubt. Within minutes, I was stripped of the Cuban badge I'd worn so proudly all my life, leaving one big question in bright neon lighting in my head: am I even Hispanic? Without taking a test of my own, I couldn't know for sure.
Struggling for solace, knowing I was nowhere near solace's zip code, I wrote through my fears and insecurities. I decided, with a chest full of anxiety and my family's blessing, to publish my story. As soon as my truth was out there, I could finally exhale - and I was surprised to find the one thing that finally brought me back to myself: community.
Hundreds of messages poured in, with one common thread between them all: who you are is not defined by the insignificant things - your culture is about your upbringing, your familia. After months of soul-searching, it took gentle reminders from strangers on the internet for me to finally accept that it's not what I look like or the results of a genetics test that make me unequivocally . . . me. I am Latinx enough as I am.
Of course, there is a world of learning still ahead of me. I will never have curves or big, beautiful hair, and that's OK. The road to self-acceptance isn't going to be quick, but I've since realized that the best lessons come only when you give yourself a little longer than five minutes to sit back and take it all in.