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I’m four years old. I’ve yet to grow into the teeth that will one day take up a third of my face when I smile, just like my mom. I can understand that daddy grew up in Cuba, though I absolutely cannot listen to the story of him getting strip-searched in the airport on his way over to the U.S. without giggling.
When I look in the mirror, all I see in the reflection is a very small person. But that’s okay, because I know another small person: my abuela, a feisty Latina woman with box-dyed hair that matches the gold tequila she drinks and a silver plate on her upper right lateral incisor tooth. At 4’11”, she stands only a foot or so taller than me, but it is very clear that she makes the rules in this family. I can barely understand Spanish, let alone speak it to her, but at her house — where I strut around in her heels, wearing her favorite pink Estée Lauder lipstick, and Celia Cruz blasting in the background — I feel it: Being Cuban is a good time.
For the 23 years that followed, I would wear my Cuban heritage like a badge of honor. I mentioned it in countless beauty stories. I proudly enunciated my last name (Castañon, emphasis on the ñ) in job interviews. I did a happy dance when President Obama loosened the travel restrictions to the country, which meant I could finally visit my homeland. Technically, I knew I was only half-Cuban, but because my mom was adopted and doesn’t know her background, I accepted it as my whole identity.
Then, all of a sudden, it wasn’t.
Part I: Mistaken Identity
The news came on a random Thursday over the holidays last year. I was at my dad’s house back home in Kansas, sitting across from my parents, who were looking especially anxious, in the living room. They had something important to tell me — and I could tell it wouldn’t be about winning the lottery or getting a new dog.
My dad turned to me and, in that gentle, honeyed tone people use to soften the blow of bad news, said, “I was there the day you were born, and I will be there until my dying breath. But genetically speaking, we do not share the same DNA.” Bam! Right to the gut. The admission sounded well-rehearsed, like he’d been marinating in it for 27 years or something.
He wasn’t sharing for no reason. My older sister’s husband had gifted her a 23andMe kit — a fun means of exploring her background. She spit in a tube, sent it off for analysis, and weeks later, learned the truth: 52% Irish, 26% French and German , 15% European, with the remaining 7% scattered in other regions that weren’t the Caribbean or Central America. She kept those statistics — and all the pain, confusion, and fear that came with them — a secret for months, so that my parents could tell me and my younger brother in person. I don’t know how she did it.
My father, a man I love and my one and only link to Cuba, isn’t really my biological father after all. My mom began explaining through sniffles their struggles with infertility. “We tried everything,” she said. “I had reproductive surgery; your dad had surgery. But nothing worked.” Eventually, after learning that it was my dad who couldn’t have children, they decided to go to a sperm donor. The first sample they implanted in my mother, to create my sister, came from a fertility doctor’s practice in Las Vegas. But the next two times around, for me and my brother, he wasn’t available. They went to a different sperm bank in Los Angeles, and used the same donor for the both of us.
That night, I went to my bedroom, locked the door behind me, powered off my cell phone, and desperately sobbed into my pillow. In the grand scheme of things — like finding out one of them had developed a rare form of cancer or was headed to prison for embezzling millions or any other irrational fears I have around my parents — this didn’t seem to meet any End Of The World qualifications. But it did confirm one thing: I am not Cuban — and that means I don’t know what I am. So I let myself cry my eyes out for three straight hours before finally, almost mercifully, drifting off to sleep.
Part II: Identity Crisis
The months that followed were a bit of a haze. You know when you spend the whole day at the beach, and then when you get home, you feel like you can still hear the ocean in your ears? That’s what it was like. On the outside, I was completely impervious: “This happened, but it doesn’t really change anything!” was my go-to line. In reality, it was a little more complicated. I wanted to be angry, if not only because my parents kept yet another secret — an even bigger one than my father coming out as gay 10 years ago — from me, but I mostly felt scared. Scared of who I would be without my Cuban badge; scared that it would never feel like enough now.
I thought about a Refinery29 Intersection of Identity Study, which found that 56% of women of color consider their ethnicity a key component of their identity. Forty-seven percent said their ethnicity makes them feel proud. I started to wonder, What does it mean if I’m no longer part of that number? Instead of dealing with it, I relentlessly avoided the truth. “I’m not ready to talk about it” became part of my weekly dialogue. Cuban restaurants triggered me in that can’t-look-at-you way I imagine some people feel about pickles or mayonnaise. And I stopped going on Facebook unless I was prepared to scan every last inch of family photos, searching for answers.
Shortly into 2018, I asked my mom to contact the sperm bank in L.A. for my file (“for medical purposes,” I offered, but yeah right). There were nine pages of information in total on my biological father, from his favorite sport (soccer) to his best subject in school (math), but the intel I really wanted was scribbled right at the top: Mexican, Spanish, and Italian. I found odd comfort in the fact that I was still Hispanic, but felt a deep pang of guilt that, at least biologically, my sister was not.
Simultaneously, I was also awaiting the results from my very own 23andMe test. After the news over the holidays, my dad offered to buy the $139 kits for me and my brother. The same day I got the box in the mail, my saliva sample was back on its way to the test lab.
Part III: Born (Again) Identity
Back in New York City, I began therapy, and learned that it’s entirely possible to mourn the loss of your identity. After the shock came the denial, during which I retreated to a familiar behavior I learned directly from my father: avoidance, pretending everything is okay so that the world will (you hope) only see you how you want to be seen. That’s the thing about identity — for so long, I thought it was something you are born into; that your identity chooses you. I didn’t realize how much you choose it. Identity manifests itself in ways you aren’t even aware of, and at the end of the day, how you let it define you is a choice.
Three weeks ago, a lump formed in my throat as I opened my inbox to find an email from 23andMe. The subject line: “Your 23andMe Analysis was unsuccessful – Action Required.” As luck would have it, the laboratory attempted to analyze my saliva sample but the “concentration of DNA was insufficient to produce genotyping results.” Not to fear, the prompt assured me, all I needed to do is request a replacement kit.
The box has been sitting in a dusty corner of my closet ever since. Maybe one day I’ll send it in; maybe I won’t. I’ve realized — after going through some dark, messy, and lonely places — that I don’t need the confirmation of 23 chromosomes on a piece of paper to tell me who I am. I can still see my dad and abuela when I look in the mirror, even if biology tells me I shouldn’t. To steal a line from one wise man’s speech: My Cuban heritage has been there from the day I was born, and it will be there until my dying breath.
Welcome to MyIdentity. The road to owning your identity is rarely easy. In this yearlong program, we will celebrate that journey and explore how the choices we make on the outside reflect what we’re feeling on the inside — and the important role fashion and beauty play in helping people find and express who they are.
This story was originally published April 24, 2018.
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