A chameleon can adapt, but no matter how they change themselves in order to survive, they remain a chameleon.
It was the middle of my workday when I received a call from Hispanic Executive magazine.
“We would like to do a feature story on you,” the caller said. “We have done our research and believe you are the type of person that our readers would like to know more about.”
“You do know I’m not Latina,” I said. Sadness accompanied my admission. I wanted to be Latina. I wanted to be featured in the magazine. Now it was the caller’s turn to hesitate.
“Let me get back to you,” he said. The conversation ended there.
When he called the next day it was to say they had reviewed my credentials and believed that my work in the Hispanic community was important and worthy of recognition. My story ran in Hispanic Executive. The caption below my photo described me as an Honorary Latina. I should have felt proud. Instead, I was bothered and wondered how I could delete it before sharing on Facebook.
Professionally, I use a hyphenated last name. I go by Rochelle Newman-Carrasco. Most people think this is for feminist reasons.
“It’s actually quite the opposite,” I tell them. “You may not know this, but the word hyphen comes from the Greek. It means to sleep with.”
Think about it. Isn’t that all a hyphen tells you? Who a person’s sleeping with? In my case, Newman, a New York Jewish girl sleeps with Carrasco, a Black Latino Panamanian. I hyphenate my name because professionally it helps to let the world know that. It makes me Latina by association.
The first time my father saw me referred to as Newman-Carrasco, it was on a newly printed business card. He wanted to know why he had not been invited to the wedding.
“Because there wasn’t one,” I assured him.
I took on the name, with my partner’s permission, for the sole purpose of brand positioning. People need a reason to believe that I qualify as a U.S. Hispanic Advertising and Marketing specialist. A simple hyphen does the trick.
A surname requiring one to roll their “rr’s” adds credibility to my somewhat implausible bilingual bicultural back-story. I grew up on New York’s Lower East Side in the early 1960s, when it morphed from Fiddler on the Roof to West Side Story. Puerto Ricans and Nuyoricans brought a new energy to the neighborhood. I wanted to be a Loisaida.
While my parents and grandparents were busy using Yiddish as “the secret language” when they didn’t want “de kinder” to understand, I learned Spanish. Bilingualism opened up my world. In high school, Advanced Placement Spanish led to college credits. Coming out of college, I fell in love with a Colombian sculptor, followed by a Panamanian actor. Cultural immersion was fun.
I didn’t intend to work in Hispanic advertising. I didn’t even know what that was. In 1980, when my career began, not many people did. There were only eight million Latinos in the United States. There are 54 million today. I stumbled into advertising because of a classified ad in the New York Times. I was an actress and a playwright who needed a part-time job. The ad read: Girl Friday wanted. Spanish helpful but not necessary. It turned out to be necessary.
Girl Friday was a title that meant glorified assistant, someone who could do a little bit of everything. Which is what I did. I worked for a Cuban entrepreneur starting one of the first U.S. Hispanic advertising agencies. I was bookkeeping, copywriting, and because I was an actress, it wasn’t long before I was presenting at new business pitches. Soon the agency had clients like Procter & Gamble, with brands like Downy and Jif peanut butter. Then, we merged with Grey Advertising, an iconic Mad Man-era agency, one of the largest in the country.
According to the media, 1980 was “the Decade of the Hispanic,” and it didn’t end there. Corporate America saw dollar signs. They were hungry to tap into the buying power of this young, growing community. Translations of English language advertising weren’t enough. Success depended upon cultural fluency, which a mostly white, male Corporate America did not have. CEOs needed a trusted advisor to navigate unfamiliar territory and I became that bridge.
“She looks like us, but she understands them,” a client once explained to a colleague.
What started as a part-time job evolved into a 30-year career. Socially and professionally, the majority of my time was spent with bilingual, bicultural Latinos. As my Spanish got stronger and my cultural understanding got deeper, I started to identify as part of that community. I began using the royal “we” when I spoke to clients about demographics and psychographics—the things that made Latino consumer’s tick.
“We are family oriented,” I explained. “We are younger. We are U.S. born and foreign born.” Using “they” didn’t feel right anymore. It created a distance and a separation. It conflicted with where I belonged. I viewed myself as an insider, if not culturally, then in a community sense, an adopted sense. The word “we” wasn’t perfect, but just like my hyphenated name, I believed my cultural passions and commitment entitled me to “we” status.
Recently, I found myself rethinking that entitlement. The Rachel Dolezal story hit close to home. She was the NAACP President who insisted she was black. In spite of an abundance of evidence to the contrary, including a nationally televised interview with her clearly Caucasian parents, Dolezal stood her ground. She justified her claims by pointing to relationships, a deeply felt cultural connection, and community involvement—many of the same things I think about when my “Latino-ness” is called into question. While I have never called myself Latina, those who view the cultural moniker as a birthright have referred to me as such. Who am I to argue with a Latina? Is not correcting an error in cultural identification a lie? Or an omission? Or are those one in the same?
I tell myself that any cultural indiscretions I may have committed pale in comparison to Dolezal’s. I describe my actions as an expression of passion while judging hers as an attempt at passing. I take comfort in the distinction between race and culture. It gets complicated and for every answer I think I have, another question arises. I break things down, hoping to simplify my thoughts. Being Latino is not about race. Being black is. Both are cultural. Given the right circumstances, you can adopt a culture. Your race is your race.
I draw comparisons with my own Jewish identity. The NAACP’s history is connected to the Lower East Side. Early NAACP founders and presidents were Jewish. The organization’s first meeting was held at the Henry Street Settlement on Grand Street. Jews were allies to the black community. Unlike Dolezal, they did not purport to be anything but that. Allies.
Can a non-Jew say they are Jewish because they marry into the religion? Not if they don’t convert. And that’s a process. It has criteria. Can they lay claim to being Jewish from a cultural perspective? It’s a free country, so if one can align their gender with their authentic selves, why not their cultural identity? And yet, the latter seems less legitimate. But why? Motive comes to mind. The transgender journey appears to require great sacrifice, great physical and mental pain, not to mention great expense over an extended period of time. Whereas taking on a cultural identity, simply because it suits you, seems to be more of a matter of contextual comfort and convenience. As I search for concrete answers, I realize that I am also searching for ways to let myself off the hook, to alleviate guilt, although I’m not sure what I am guilty of.
A person identifies with a group other than their own, they are accepted by that group, so they choose to become one with that group. That works for their specific context, their social circles, those who know them and have accepted them as such, but they have not earned the right to be someone they are not in a broader context. Anyone can earn the right to be an ally, but when a person violates trust and resorts to lying in an effort to create alliances with strangers, a line has been crossed. Culture is not fixed, but it is also not a matter of convenience. A chameleon can adapt, but no matter how they change themselves in order to survive, they remain a chameleon. Not a dragon. Not a gecko. Not a leaf or tree bark.
I can’t speak to Rachel Dolezal’s motivations for having checked the black box and, in doing so, claiming a racial and cultural identity that wasn’t intrinsically her own. Her sanity has been called into question. Dolezal calls her delusions “creative non-fiction.” They’re just little white lies.
If black and brown lives are to matter, which they must and they do, then white lies have to matter too. White lies are more dangerous than we care to admit. We shift race-based conversations, we aspire to be post-racial, we call our millennials “color blind.” Until we can make America’s racial backstory just go away, we adjust the truth to make the uncomfortable, comfortable. In doing so, we miss the point. Allies need to be uncomfortable. Allies need to stand up, not blend in. Uncomfortable is where change lies. It points to what matters—to what really needs our attention.
My hyphen says I am linked to the Hispanic community. “Honorary” says I belong. Neither says that I am. Neither gives me the right to use the word “we.” I no longer do. With that, a part of me is lost. It’s a trade-off that often comes with the truth.
Rochelle Newman is an award winning playwright and US Hispanic marketing specialist. Her essays and blogs on multicultural marketing have appeared in Ad Age, AdWeek and other trade publications. Her work has also been included in literary publications such as Nailed, Lunch Ticket, and others. She is currently completing her MFA in Creative Non Fiction at Antioch University, Los Angeles.