Updated: Feb 27
In her own words –
“What are you?
Throughout my entire life as a multi-cultural and multi-ethnic person, I have repeatedly been asked this question. I might be studying, shopping, or in route to school or work, and people I had never met before would walk up to me and ask: “What are you?”
When I was a little girl, this question puzzled me. And I would ask myself: Does “what” I am ultimately define “who” I am?
As I grew older I figured I should find a genuine response to this question, and in my fierce quest to find one, I came to realize that people who asked me this question were asking for the purpose of compartmentalizing and conceptualizing their own mental schema. They had the correct interrogative, but not necessarily the applicable perspicacity or insight. They were inquisitive about my ethnicity or what I do. Yet, “what” I am to them, in this respect, cannot be defined any other way than by them incorrectly projecting their own personal perspective onto me, and that is not “who” I am. It would be limiting to allow their perspectives to define “what” I am.
I had become aware as a young girl that I cannot be defined by how society identifies me by race, as the ambiguity of my color and ethnicity was highly contrasted within my childhood environments.
I grew up in a rough neighborhood which consisted of all black people. Conversely, I attended a prestigious college prep high school, with few to no other children of color. I was well accomplished within these groups, achieving a nomination for Minnesota’s Dave Winfield Award for outstanding Academic and Athletic abilities for students of color, yet I did not fit within these stereotypes.
We moved to an affluent neighborhood before my father moved my family once again to live in Uruguay to learn my grandparent’s native language of Spanish. Interestingly, not one person in Latin America asked me “What are you?” as they were simply inquisitive about my life story. U.S. society seems to regulate that I cannot be reared in a tough neighborhood and be highly educated, and that I cannot be Spanish, Black, White, and Indigenous all at the same time. So which race, group or experience defines who or what I am?
My quest to understand identity led me to read scores of books and attend seminars on this topic. One of the most impactful books I had read is Eckhart Tolle’s: “The Power of Now” teaching me that we are all simply a being with stories. Another person’s attempt to define me can never be accomplished without them actually being me. I also studied the amazing Nichiren Diashonin’s Buddhism and became inspired to affect a positive bearing on our world with compassion and understanding. This would require me to execute courage with compassion, in part, by not limiting myself to constraints of societal labels. Both of these doctrines taught me that we are neither our ethnicities, nor what we do for a living.
“Who” we are is not how others define you. And “What” we are changes country to country, and even moment to moment. We are ever evolving stories and each of us is enriched by the insight, understanding and compassion they provide. How we impact the world with those stories is “What” we are. Inspired to enlighten others, the next time someone on the street asks me “What are you?” I might just have to caution them that – it’s a long story.”
*** Please follow along on instagram as well and learn more about Juanita. This year for my birthday, I am embarking on a weekly photo essay project highlighting 52 Phenomenal Women. This is week 44 of 52. Participants in this project will be supporting the efforts of Dress for Success Worldwide – Central. We are all stronger together and it is my sincere hope that we will be inspired by each other’s stories. Now is the time to celebrate as well as encourage one another. Tell your story!**