'Ethnically Ambiguous' has been the hot catch-phrase in commercial and print castings for the past several years. Fancy words, but all they mean is off-white skin color, preferably with a slight almond shape to the eyes. It stems from a profit-driven ad world more desperate to avoid offending anyone than interested in including everyone. A similar trend has gotten a stranglehold on Hollywood (except only among 'supporting players' -- not the stars driving the film.)
I was thinking about this term today. Thinking about how I kind of fit into this category, although I don't show it through my skin or physical features.
I was raised in a Puerto Rican household in various parts of the mainland U.S. (we left Puerto Rico when I was five). I speak two languages fluently, but am left with no specific culture I can comfortably call my own. In a room of white Americans, I am seen as different -- despite my American upbringing -- merely because I speak Spanish. ('Exotic' is a term many people use when first meeting me, which really pisses me off: the only thing exotic about me is my rubber stamp collection.)
In a room full of born-and-bred Puerto Ricans, on the other hand -- and this includes most of my family -- I am an outsider because I didn't grow up on the island. I know the places they talk about, I get the cultural references (mostly), but I don't have a three-dimensional vision, just a fuzzy photograph swimming around my head. Beyond my grandmother's stories of San Juan in the '40s -- and feeling teary-eyed whenever I hear En Mi Viejo San Juan - I just don't know what it's like.
In New York City, of course, I am surrounded by Puerto Ricans who grew up in the U.S. But I've never fit in there either. I didn't grow up in the city and I don't share the energetic 'Latino pride' that fuels so many Puerto Ricans who did. (My family missed that boat by being holed up in the backwaters of Albany during my formative years.)
So I am left looking for a cultural home -- one beyond the cottages of 19th century American history, where I feel I fit right in. (I have a French friend raised in Utah who describes the same feeling: not accepted in Salt Lake or Paris, he's finishing a Ph.D. in Classics at Harvard and feeling very cozy amongst the Ancient Greeks.)
I know this might seem petty. You have food, a roof over your head, a good job... and now you want a cultural home?! But in a world where we often receive unconditional acceptance only from our own clan, it can be detrimental not to belong to one. (Cue the inner city gang problems.) And we're now entering a period in our country where non-white births have officially exceeded white births. In that huge Census mix, many of those 'minority' babies -- now the majority -- may grow up feeling exactly like I do.
So how long will it take for America's 'cultural home' to finally include the minorities that are no longer minorities? (Because I'll tell you something: even the Rockefellers started this way, German immigrants who changed their name to sound more 'American.')
Or maybe the question is not 'how long will it take?' -- but what will it take?
Viviana Leo is an actor, writer, and producer. Her feature film, White Alligator, a comedy about her experiences as a white-skinned Hispanic actor in New York City, is now playing festivals.
A version of this article was originally published on Latino Rebels.