by Sarai Jaramillo
She boards the train arguing with herself, clutching black plastic bags that bump against her knees. Her voice balloons around her, filling the train with her presence. I observe her for an instant, my interest piqued. She is a classic “shopping bag lady,” the kind that Kurt Vonnegut wrote about: a large woman in larger clothing, the kind of woman whose misfortune can be easily pitied and just as easily ignored.
I turn my head towards the window and tune her out.
It’s a hot day in East L.A., but the Metro Gold Line is an icebox. I hug my cardigan closer to myself and watch the colors spread underneath the window, focusing on nothing in particular.
The woman’s voice is closer now, and I sense without conscious thought that she has sat across from me. Her voice is just as loud, just as argumentative as it was when she stepped onto the train, but I don’t hear it. I continue staring out the window, lost in my thoughts, until something rattles me out of my reverie.
Instinctively, I look around. Sure enough, she is sitting just where I sensed she’d be, and is staring straight at me. I’m startled, and abruptly I realize that she has been trying to argue with me for the past few minutes. What has she been saying? Why didn’t I notice earlier?
I look at her, bewildered, and she asks bluntly, “Are you black?”
No, I tell her, confused. I’m from Venezuela.
Her tone is as aggressive as mine is confused, her next questions demanding. “Are your parents black? Is anyone in your family black?”
No, I say to the first question. I don’t know, I say to the second.
She glares at me distrustfully. “You have nigger hair,” she tells me.
I wasn’t born into racial consciousness. In Latin America, a region packed with so many distinct cultures and heritages, your most important identity as a Latino is your nationality. It’s the one identity that defines you; the one word that allows for clarity in an otherwise fluid place.
I am privileged to be able to say that, of course. Racism runs rampant in Venezuela and Latin America just like it does anywhere else in the world. But I grew up in an overwhelmingly Mexican community in East L.A., where I had to justify my accent, my food, and my customs more than the color of my skin. In a such a homogenous group, my individuality was often overlooked in favor of building a sense of community—a community that was welcoming and friendly, but not my own. Asserting my cultural identity was paramount; issues of race were perpetually on the back burner. 
I did not lie to the woman on the Metro. I am not black. But I don’t know enough about my ancestry to claim that I don’t have black family members. My mom’s side of the family is descended from some Venezuela-born criollos, according to family legend.  There is more to the story, I’m sure, some hidden indigenous relative lost to the whims of memory, but with a last name like Zambrano, it’s impossible to not be related to a Spaniard, no matter how distantly. My mom’s family is, I suppose, white, but I’ve never thought of them in that context, nor have they ever identified as such, as far as I know. Retroactively labeling them with a skin they’ve never lived in feels like a forced reduction of their identity.
My dad’s family is another story. Where my mom’s features reflect the angles of her European ancestry, my dad’s are swarthier, rounded out. He is the lightest of his Colombian family, his skin color the same yellow-beige as my own, but the rest of his family is considerably darker, a full shade of brown. They, like most other Latin Americans, have a combination of white, native, and black ancestry.
I inherited my dad’s ambiguous features, and with it, the hair that’s sparked so much commentary.
I’m standing with my mom in the checkout line at the grocery store, loitering by her side as she makes small talk with the cashier. I am young, perhaps seven or eight years old. I am impatient to leave, but she’s enjoying her conversation too much to notice my fidgeting.
Still in the midst of conversation, my mom begins to reach her hand out towards me. I glare up at it, knowing what’s next and hating this routine. Her hand lands on my hair; she closes her fingers around my curls and squeezes. “Her hair is naturally like this,” she brags to the cashier.
“Mija,” she prods me, “Show the girl your nice curls.”
I jerk my head out of my mom’s grasp and bend forward, gathering my hair to my face. My mom plucks at the exposed baby curls at the nape of my neck, pulling them long then letting them spring back into shape.
This is my mom’s favorite pastime. Like any good circus act, there are variations to her routine. Sometimes, she’ll rake her fingers through my hair as far as it’ll let her, then lift her hand and relax her fingers, letting each curl slip and fall back into place. Sometimes, she’ll grab my hair from the ends and squeeze up, fluffing my hair up and out like a pillow. Sometimes, she’ll flip my hair to one side and follow the pattern of my remolinos with her finger. Sometimes, she registers my resulting annoyance, and asks me what’s my problem.
Sometimes, I tell her.
At eight years old, I don’t have the vocabulary to express my irritation. I have the same dead-end conversation with my mom again and again, expressing nothing and getting nowhere.
Mamá, no me gusta cuando la gente me toca el pelo.
Y, ¿porque no?
Porque no. 
My half-formed feelings of resentment remained frustratingly un-articulated. But where my childhood self couldn’t find the words, many others have.
Many researchers, scholars, and ethnographers have explored the kind of cultural and racial preoccupation that often surrounds women of color. It’s no surprise that hair is often conflated with feminine beauty, but it has to conform to a specific standard in order for it to actually be considered beautiful. This standard has Old World roots that cater to white, European bodies. People of color, and particularly black women, are conditioned to believe that everything that does not adhere to a European standard of beauty is glaringly abnormal. At best, non-white-conforming appearances are quirky; at worst, ugly. Black women are often excluded from the dominant dialogue of beauty, forcing them to inhabit a space that “others” them and undermines their humanity.
I can’t speak to a black woman’s experience. But the feeling of being excluded from beauty resonated with me. Though I wouldn’t have been able to properly understand it then, that is what it felt like to me—that I was somehow different. That I was groomed to be these strangers’ window to the “Other;” some kind of novelty to be admired only for its whimsy. I am more than social capital, I should’ve told my mom, but of course I didn’t. I didn’t have the words.
My mom, the orchestrator and primary beneficiary of this skewed relationship to my hair, never realized, I think, the implications of her exhibitionism. She was, and remains, simply proud of her daughter’s unique hair. But her pride becomes warped through me. After years of internalizing all of the fluffing and the petting, I begin to wear my hair like a mask.
I am thirteen years old, sitting on a bench outside of my middle school’s gym. My little girl annoyance at having my hair touched has disappeared; in fact, I have grown to secretly enjoy others’ attention. It provides self-esteem through validation I can’t yet generate on my own.
My hair is tied in a ponytail, but the sweat on my scalp peels my curls up and away from my head, creating a halo of frizz. I chat with my friend, waiting for our P.E. teacher to arrive, when the conversation inevitably turns to my hair.
“It’s so curly!” my friend says.
My response is automatic.
Do you want to touch it?
Throughout my adolescence, I invited countless people to touch my hair. Someone must have said no, but no matter how hard I try to recall it, I can’t conjure that memory. Instead, I’m reminded of all of the times people have touched my hair, of all of the comments it has inspired. Like an old film reel, the memories rattle in my head, projecting themselves onto the walls of my skull.
Don’t you brush your hair?
It’s just like my poodle’s!
How long does it take to straighten it?
It’s so big!
You’d be so pretty with straight hair.
Of all the comments I’ve received, the last one proved to be the most harmful. It was also, somewhat counterintuitively, my favorite. I preened every time someone told me that. They were saying that my hair was ugly, sure, but they saw something in me that was worth the label of “pretty.” That recognition alone more than justified the tiny sting of the insult. I misinterpreted those people’s ignorance as honesty—was implying that my hair was ugly an insult if it was true?—and I developed an increased awareness of my appearance that fueled a growing hatred of my hair. I resented my hair for unfairly keeping me ugly when, according to everyone else, I could so easily be beautiful. I begged my mom to let me straighten it but she flatly refused.
¡Pero es que tu pelo es hermoso! she would say, aghast. ¿Porque te lo quieres cambiar?
Porque ya me cansé, I wanted to scream. Porque ya no puede más con este pelo. 
She never really understood, and I never had the courage to explain.
The Metro has just passed the East L.A. Civic Center and I’m staring at the woman, wide-eyed and completely at a loss. People have told me a million different things about my hair, but no one has ever told me that. Shocked and unprepared, I continue staring, cheeks burning, too humiliated to look away. Now that she has my full attention, the woman launches into a tirade.
She says it is disgraceful that so many black girls like me deny their blackness so they can seem white. She says that I shouldn’t have to hide being black to fit in. She says that I am an insult to her, and to all black women like her who don’t have the luxury of forgetting their ancestors.
I can feel my eyes getting hot, and I look away. This is not an argument that requires my participation. This is a release of pain that this woman has clearly been carrying with her for longer than I can imagine. I am angry and embarrassed for being the target of this woman’s frustration, but the emotion fueling the tears welling in my eyes is confusion. Does the woman have a point?
I am not black, but my hair is usually associated with blackness. Is it misleading to wear my hair naturally? Am I unconsciously claiming black culture if I don’t conform to European standards of beauty? That’s ridiculous, of course. Black and white aren’t opposites. But it’s clear that my hair has been more important in guiding this woman’s perception of me than any other aspect of my appearance, including my skin color.
If I had straight hair, would the woman have said anything to me? If I had straight hair, would I have been mistaken for a race other than my own? If I had straight hair, would my appearance, my identity, be more readily acceptable?
I didn’t know what to say the woman, and now I don’t know what to say to myself. Any answers I could give to the questions knocking at my conscience would be speculative and baseless, unable to reveal any truth. I don’t know what to say. I don’t have the words.
The Metro slows to a stop on Soto Street, and she’s gone.
 “I don’t think I could be with a girl who wasn’t Mexican,” my first boyfriend confides in me.
I’m not Mexican, I remind him. I’m from Venezuela.
He shrugs. “Same thing.”
 From Merriam-Webster: A person of pure Spanish descent born in Spanish America.
 Mom, I don’t like it when people touch my hair.
Because I don’t.
 "But your hair is beautiful! Why would you want to change it?"
 Because I’m tired of it. Because I can’t deal with this hair anymore.
Sarai Jaramillo is a student of Comparative Literature at Brown University. She is an immigrant from Venezuela and has a keen interest in the intersection of language and culture in Latinx communities in the U.S. and abroad.