Julissa Roldan '22
Holyoke High School, Holyoke, Massachusetts

Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, and my Massachusetts city had also been torn apart. In a city where nearly half of the population is Puerto Rican, the destination of people fleeing the island had immediately come into question, “Why are they coming here? Our schools already don’t have enough books for our students, never mind Puerto Rican refugees.”

These are words out of my French and Irish uncle’s mouth. As he looked in my brown eyes and proclaimed his son’s lack of an AP English book was more important than the life and well-being of a child that looks like me.

It is enlightening to begin to take notice of the ignorance that surrounds your identity. It is eye-opening to hear words of hate and intolerance spew from the mouths of people you love, people who claim to love you. I have heard people express how they really feel when they forget about my dark complexion and let a joke slip, to follow up with, “Well not you, you're not really Puerto Rican."

To be seven years old and shrouded in a feeling of discomfort for who you are; making an effort to sound and act “white” among my white family and friends. Thanksgiving with my blue-eyed and freckled cousins was an event that displaced me. My Abuela’s house was where my Puerto Rican cousins flourished. They spoke fluent Spanish and shook their heads when I asked what they were saying. I “didn’t care” about my culture to them.

It is in this limbo that I find myself more aware of the dubious eyes on me when I’m asked if I am Muslim or Italian (as if Muslim is an ethnicity). When they compliment my “different” name, their eyes widen when they learn that I am from the “whiter” side of the city, but nod in understanding when I clarify that my Mother is white. I notice that these glances are consonant with the fact that the grocery store I work at in the neighboring town made thousands of dollars in their donation cups for Hurricane Harvey victims, but not one mention of Puerto Rico’s disastrous conditions. It is from these glances that I realize both these adversities are not of equal importance to the store where I was one of four Hispanic employees.

I am Puerto Rican and Irish and French and Polish and all these backgrounds have allowed me to see unique perspectives, but they are not a single definition of me. I am a daughter, a student, a friend, a sister. I am everything I love and every book I've read and all the people I've helped and all the places I've traveled. I am all of my passions and the closed minds I intend on opening and the thirst for life I intend on quenching.

I have grown up with a feeling of exclusion from both sides of my heritage, yet in the process of fighting for a sense of belonging I have embraced myself for more than the color of my skin or the accent of my father. My identity is so much more than an uncomfortable glance from a person who can't place my nose with a nation. I am more than a prejudice comment.

What I have truly come to understand by living at the intersection of two very different situations is how ignorance develops so easily from not being able to empathize. My white uncle will never know what it is like to be a minority. He will never feel the stares I have felt, he will never be called a spic, he will never be disadvantaged for his light complexion. It is only when people place themselves as close as possible to the reality of others do they begin to rid themselves of the subconscious prejudices our society places upon us.