My Experience as a White-Passing Cuban

This article was originally published in October 2017.

Last week as I was going through my morning routine, drinking iced coffee and scrolling through Twitter, I came across a photo posted by an Alabama high school student of her holding a sign that read “Put the Panic Back in Hispanic.”

I felt a rush of anger and sickness from those five words. Those words were aimed at my mother, cousins, and grandparents who immigrated here from Cuba. It dawned on me, that though I am as Hispanic as they come, I would never actually experience the severity of the hatred directed towards immigrants. This is because, to be honest, I look like a typical white woman – I have no accent, and my name (Celine Besman) is not telling of my heritage. 

For reference:

This led me down a rabbit hole of different thoughts. I benefit from all the advantages of being able to put down Hispanic on any and all documents, but I have never personally experienced any oppression or hate that my friends and family have. To be honest, I don’t know what to feel about this. Some would say that I should feel lucky, but I don’t. I am also not implying at all that I want to experience the oppression and discrimination that comes with being a minority in America, in order to somewhat prove that I am just as deserving as calling myself Cuban as someone who looks Cuban is.

Even though I have not experienced oppression or hatred because of my Cuban background, I have strangely experienced a version of it from the Latinx community.

I am Cuban. I was brought up by my Spanish-speaking abuelita while both of my parents worked full-time, speak Spanish fluently, had a traditional quince, spray violetas after every shower, drink café con leche every morning and wear my azabache necklace every day. 

Me circa 2010 celebrating my quincenera featuring a lot of hair, no eyebrows and a softball farmer’s tan (sunburn):

Because of my very fair skin, I oftentimes find myself excluded from the Latinx community – this being something as small as someone explaining something about Hispanic culture that, naturally, I am already familiar with. I am usually regarded as “not really” Cuban or asked to prove that I am. People that look and sound Latinx are never asked to prove themselves. Usually I am asked to speak Spanish in order to prove it, which is odd since I have met many people that are and look Hispanic but can't speak Spanish and their background is never questioned. Also, being able to speak Spanish should not be a validation of someone's ethnicity. Most of the time I get annoyed by this and tell the person anyone that took a Spanish 1 course could “speak Spanish to you.” By this point I usually dismiss myself from the situation, but sometimes when I am feeling spicy I argue with them.

It hurts to not always be accepted by the Latinx community, especially when others would look at my situation and celebrate it. I am a child of an immigrant about to become a first-generation college graduate.

As stated, this incident sparked a lot of thoughts. I feel like I will have these internal and external battles for years to come, especially as I move into the post-grad world, but for now, I will continue celebrating my beautiful Cuban background.