by Susana Rosende
In my 4th grade year, my family moved from our Elmhurst, Queens apartment to the South Jersey
suburbs of Philadelphia. The landscapes of brick and concrete gave way to cookie-cutter homes, maple trees,
and green lawns. Gone was also the rainbow of humanity. Only one language was spoken in our new
neighborhood--English. However, the one constant force in our lives was Catholicism, in both the familiar
ritual of Sunday Mass and in our new school, Corpus Christi Catholic School.
Just as in our old school, we were encouraged to give to the Missions. Each teacher had the familiar
box on the desk, where our spare pennies were collected for the poor and hungry. We weren't just
encouraged to give during Christmas, but all through the year.
In sixth grade, my homeroom teacher, Sister Mary Ulrich, was having an extra collection for the poor
in a far off land. She asked us to be especially selfless while she described the people for whom our spare change
would provide food and medicine. As she preached that it was important to give to all of God's people, she
added that the special collection was intended for people who did not resemble the blue-eyed, blond persons
who made up the majority of our school. As she scanned the class, she called out names and asked children
to stand: Andrea, a raven-haired, olive-skinned Italian-American; Constance, a bi-racial girl, and me,
my dark eyes and long, brown hair revealing my Cuban roots. "Boys and girls, " Sister Ulrich explained, her blue
eyes peering through her thick glasses, "the people we are helping look just like these very members of your class."
As we modeled a deprived, third-world-nation population, I felt my face go hot. Andrea flashed her eyes and
muttered under her breath, "I'm white!" while Constance stood in her familiar stoop-shouldered stance, meekly
pushing her glasses up the bridge of her nose. I looked straight at my teacher, silently praying for her to ask
us to sit. After what seemed an awkwardly long time, my teacher seemed satisfied that we'd provided concrete
examples of the peoples deserving of our generosity. She let us take our seats.
My gentle, adolescent spirit agonized at being singled out as different, and more so, what my middle-class
mind saw as being aligned with the uneducated, needy, and somehow inferior. From then on, I was especially
sensitive to my parents' heavy accents, and the fact we spoke Spanish at home. I didn't want to be different.
I yearned to be like my friends.
Furthermore, it was a shock to discover that I wasn't a member of the "white race" after all. Although in Cuba, my family, as were all who descended from the European Spanish, was considered white or caucasian, in the United States, we were given a new classification: Hispanic. It was a classification that seemed as alien as being called a Martian.
Years later, while attending public high school, I discovered a way to blend in with most of my classmates.
It was the 1970s and teenage girls across the country were mimicking the bouncy hair style of the pinup girl
for teenage boys; none other than the star of "Charlie's Angels."
The show's most popular female detective, played by actress Farrah Fawcett, flashed a set of perfect, white teeth and tossed an enviable mane of blonde curls.
Along with my friends, I had my hair feathered, curled, and lightened. Not only did boys suddenly find me pretty, with my newly-blonde, bouncy hair, I looked as middle-class American as my friends.
My transformation was more than just skin deep, however. Cubans are a passionate, emotional, and animated people. I learned to limit my hand movements when speaking, to lower the volume of my voice, and to become as reserved and "cold" as my friends -- personality traits considered to be character flaws to Cubans -- and I felt my friends accepted me as one of them.
Therefore, I was stunned to hear my best friend proudly introduce me to a new classmate as her "Cuban friend."
"You don't LOOK Spanish," the new girl exclaimed. "She was actually born there," my friend went on, as I felt
my face grow warm. "Were your parents in the military?" the new girl asked while my friend continued to answer
for me, adding that I colored my hair. "Cool," the new girl smiled at me.
A "Sun-In" blonde at fifteen
It was then that I realized that people could accept me, regardless of the color of my hair or where
I was born. It was also then that coloring my hair became a fashion statement rather than a way to
hide who I was.
Nineteen in 1980