A Discovery of a Lost Self
A Child’s Gaze
I stared in awe as the mysterious coffin passed by. I was sitting on the hard wooden pew of an ornate church with gargantuan vaulted ceilings, colored windows, and an awe-inspiring intricate altar. I’d been in a church before, but it was not like this one. I leaned over to my mom and whispered in her ear, “What is that ledge in front of us for?” After all, I found it to be quite a curiosity. She told me that it was so that people could kneel and pray. Satisfied, I turned back to the procession that was passing down the center aisle. There was a man dressed in majestic robes walking alongside the coffin. My mom had told me that he was a Catholic priest. He was swinging a ball that was billowing with smoke. I had never seen the object before and I found it to be strangely haunting. Everyone else seemed to know what it was, but it was a mystery to me. Maybe someday I would discover its meaning. Meanwhile, he was melodiously chanting in a language I did not understand. I wondered what he was saying. He was now standing next to the coffin in the front. I wondered what my great-grandmother, who lay within it, was like.
I was nine years old and though I had seen myself in pictures with her, I did not recall meeting her. All I knew was that my mom and grandma said that she had died, so we came to California for the funeral. Great-grandmother had migrated from Puerto Rico to America when my grandmother was only a child. Through many tragic circumstances, my grandmother became estranged from her mother and was forced to give up her native language and culture. As a result, my grandmother was both unable and unwilling to teach her heritage to her own children. This loss of heritage became evident to me as the funeral progressed.
I was thoroughly confused. I felt as if I should feel sad, but I was not. She was a stranger to me. But, she was my family. Since she was family, I felt as if I should belong at her funeral. However, my mom, my sister, and I were the only white people in the entire building. I knew that I was sitting among distant relatives. Yet, I did not look like them, I did not speak their language, I did not smell like them, and I did not understand why they did things like they did. This is one of the first times in my recollection that I realized that there was a “me” and a “them”. Yet at the same time, I was also “them”.
A Gaze from Above
Looking down from heaven, I see my family gathered to mourn for me. I am honored that the church is so full of people who care. The coffin that holds the body I have left behind is being carried down the aisle. It captivates the attention of my friends, children, ex-boyfriends, siblings, cousins, nieces, nephews, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. I am amazed by how many people have my blood within them. They all look like me with dark hair, brown eyes, and olive skin—except for three: my granddaughter, Debbie, and her two daughters, Rachel and Hannah. Their pale skin stands out among the congregation that has gathered for my funeral.
Debbie and Hannah slightly resemble me, considering they have brown hair and brown eyes. However, I find it hard to believe that Rachel, with her blonde hair and green eyes, is related to me at all. In addition, none of them speak my language or know anything about where I have come from. In one sense, I am saddened. They will never know their origins. However, in another sense, I am very glad. I left Puerto Rico for a reason. I wanted to make a new life here in America. Yet, the path has been hard.
My children and I have been mocked and punished for the language we speak. We have been discriminated against for the color of our skin. People have considered us stupid, worthless, and ugly because we are outsiders. So I am relieved that Debbie, Hannah, and Rachel will never have to experience that humiliation. Though they are outsiders here at my funeral, they are not outsiders in this country. They have a privilege that they may never have to comprehend.
An Enlightened Gaze
The incident of my great-grandmother’s funeral was significant because, for the first time in my life, I had become the “other”. I was raised in a white, middle-class home. My hair is blonde, my eyes are green, and I blended in with all of the other little girls in my class. However, there were two Mexican girls in my class. They did not fit in with everyone else and I too viewed them as different than myself. They were from another world that I did not understand. However, when I attended the funeral, I discovered another part of me that I had never known. I was Hispanic as well. I was the “other” that I had seen every day at school. In addition, though I was Hispanic, no one would ever suspect because of the way that I looked. As I sat in the midst of a congregation of Hispanics at the funeral, I was also an “other” within my own family. I had gained the uncanny awareness of a self that I had never known—a self that was caught between a borderland of white and brown.
Another reason my great-grandmother’s funeral is significant to me is because I learned about her experience and all that she and her children had endured. So as I entered college and began to learn about race, ethnicity, and transnationalism, I was able to identify those concepts in the lives of my family members. In addition, I took seriously discussions on immigration and discrimination because I knew that my family had experienced those very things. In addition, I have become saddened that I do not know anything about my heritage. There is great richness in Puerto Rican culture, yet I know none of it. My family has become white. Though I am privileged as a white person, I am saddened by the loss of what we used to be.
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