by Anti-Racist Parent columnist Maegan “la Mala” Ortiz
My parents, who came to New York City from Puerto Rico as teenagers, were not anti-racists. How else to explain how I, their first born, was named after the priest seducing white girl from the Thorn Birds and Elizabeth Taylor, leading to a lifetime of explaining that no, I Maegan (spelled with the a before the e so that my non-English speaking family wouldn’t call me “Mee-gan” which sounded too much like “hormiga” the Spanish word for ant) Elizabeth was not part Irish , just plain ole’ Nuyorican.
I grew up in white parts of the city where I was praised by my parents and family for being “clarita” (light) and having light eyes. My great aunt would pull out history books from Puerto Rico and point out my last name as belonging to Spanish conquistadors so that I would not confuse myself with other Ricans who had Indigenous or African blood. Of course this didn’t explain why other members of the family were varying shades of clearly not white nor why some of them had “pelo malo” (bad hair) and mine was as straight as could be. Neighbors and private school administrators, however, made sure to praise me for being “such a nice Porto Reecan” with a pat on the head. In elementary school I concocted a story about how, yeah my parents came from Puerto Rico, but we were European plantation owners. But when my parents split, moving me to a border ‘hood, going to the Lemon Ice King of Corona with my stepsister meant sometimes running back home with boys calling us “spics”. So much for passing.
It wasn’t until a girlfriend of mine in my very white Upper East Side all girl Catholic high school gave me a book about Puerto Rican history that I became Boricua. That was a few months before Anthony Baez was killed by (ex) police officer Francis Livoti in the Bronx. This was a huge wake up call and was the beginning of a fast track political education in racial politics via former Young Lords, Black Panthers, and Black Liberation Army members.
In college in New England I was confronted with white roommates who had never seen a real life Puerto Rican before and who asked about my gang affiliation and if I had a penchant for knives (swear to effing god). With an already radical introduction to activism under my belt from NYC , my ant-racist activism in active Klan country ended up with me getting kicked out of my dorm because my roommates said they were afraid of me. I, feeling defeated, ran away to Chile to study abroad, thinking I would find comfort in a Latin American nation with its own history of U.S. intervention. Instead I spent most of my time there defending my identity as a Latina, because in the eyes of many, I was gringa because I was born in the US or from a US territory (take your pick).
I returned from Chile, pregnant, single and severly underemployed. Soon I gave birth to la MapucheRican (now almost 10, half Indigenous Chilean/half Rican). When the dark eyed baby was first met by some of my neighbors and relatives, they “comforted” me by saying. “Don’t worry, she’ll probably get lighter as she gets older”. Somehow that still hasn’t happened. When I entered her into the NYC public school system, she was immediatly labeled, tested, and tracked as an English as a Second Language student because as an entering first grader she couldn’t read English (I don’t think her white classmates could either but that’s a whole other post. Nearly 10 years after my first child, still unmarried but partnered, when I gave birth to the ChileRican (now seven months), I was advised to massage her nose so that it would be thinner. Somehow I keep forgetting to do that but I don’t forget to speak to her nearly exclusively in Spanish.
A lot has changed in my life since becoming a mami. Radical activism didn’t always prove so child friendly so I was forced to focus my efforts closer to home by working with the immigrant and non-English dominant community in my daughter’s school. I also developed my blog and identity as la Mamita Mala, a bad mami , who wasn’t afraid to talk about how I sought stripperdom as a way to spend more time with my first born and how racist the attachment parenting community can be.
My daughters know how straight forward I am. I don’t dance around the issues of racism, privilege, homophobia, transphobia, fatphobia, etc etc. When I was growing up Puerto Rican all these things were deliberately hidden, because it was assumed that I would melt away and assimilate into that melting pot myth (or at least pass for god’s sake). My daughters, pretty much from the moment they exited my birth canal, were marked and I never hide that fact from them. Just like I don’t hide the many many ways they can own their identity and use it in their toy/toolbox.
Maegan “la Mala” Ortiz is a Queens, NYC born and bred radical Nuyorican mami writer, poeta, activista, blogger, and academic coach (trying) to work at home with her two chicas, La MapucheRican (10) and the Poroto ChileRican (7 months) and her very patient partner just known as “el Chileno”. She is an editor at VivirLatino and (poorly) maintains her personal blog Mamita Mala. She wants to write a book or two and is graciously accepting offers for babysitting.