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  • Writer's pictureJeanine Bruen

The Friendly Ghost

Updated: Nov 4, 2023

“From childhood’s hour I have not been

As others were — I have not seen

As others saw.”

-Edgar Allan Poe

I stood anxiously on a Midtown subway platform, tracking a single bead of sweat slowly creeping its way down my back. Sticky with perspiration, hungry (when am I not), and ticking like a time bomb on the edge of a panic attack, I’d been waiting for a half-hour for an R train uptown that seemed to never want to come. If this damn train comes one minute later than scheduled I can kiss this hair appointment goodbye, I thought. This is how my life seems to go lately, despite my best efforts. Either an hour early or just a tragic millisecond too late.

“Perdon,” a small, older woman wearing a backpack twice her size entered my peripheral vision. I turned to face her the way a New York woman learns to: happy to help, but guarded by the usual wall of self-protection we build to survive. “Hablas Espanol?” A sweet lady, she wasn’t asking as much as nodding her head with the assumption that, based on my appearance, clearly the answer was yes. The nervous fidgeting of her hands and tense body language implied that she was also perhaps on the verge of a panic attack. The whole city of New York needs a Xanax.

“No,” I responded with the familiar tinge of sadness that always accompanies this response I’m very accustomed to giving. “I don’t, I’m sorry.” The sweet woman looked puzzled. “No?” she asked again for confirmation. I shook my head as if to say, “I know, I know. I should speak Spanish. I’m sorry.” Even if we did speak the same language, this was probably for the best. Don’t ask me for directions unless you want to end up tragically lost. When it comes to navigation, I have about as much common sense as those kids who were snacking on Tide pods. Before I could offer my help in some other way, she nodded a quick goodbye, clearly in a hurry to get where she was going, and headed over to another friendly-enough looking commuter to try again.

This is a common occurrence for me. A fellow Latino spots me (I swear we can detect each other by scent). They assume that, surely, I’m a native Spanish speaker too, only to contort their faces into that same bewildered expression when I tell them I have not the slightest idea what they just said. Now, it’s not that I don’t know Spanish at all. Some of my extended family speak it. I can actually sing pretty well in Spanish and had to do so a lot for work when I used to cantor Catholic masses every week entirely in a foreign language. High school Spanish classes were helpful too. But I’m not practiced enough to keep my cool in the ebb and flow of a nuanced conversation. Part of it is that I’m nervous to try and sound stupid. Mostly, it’s because it’s simply not my family’s first language anymore; our Spanish got lost down the line years ago.

My family’s history is rich and complex and covers almost the entire globe. There’s still a lot I don’t know about it and if I laid the whole thing out for you, we’d be here all day. But, to give you the SparkNotes version: I’m white on my Dad’s side, our history there tracing back predominantly to Ireland and Scotland. My mother’s side is where our Afro-Latino heritage comes from. My great-grandparents were from Ecuador and Puerto Rico, my grandfather born in San Turce. When my Nana’s parents immigrated to the States and made their home in Washington Heights, she spoke Spanish, like them, until she was five. However, a few years later, she was placed in an orphanage run by Irish-Catholic nuns. Those white nuns from Staten Island, safe to say, didn’t speak her native tongue. So she learned theirs. As children of immigrants do, she did what she had to to survive. By the time she was six, with no one to communicate with in her native tongue, she’d lost her Spanish entirely.

There’s this strange, specific ache I’ve always felt being unable to fluently speak the language of my people, like sticking the key into the door of my house and realizing someone has changed the locks. I didn’t grow up in Puerto Rico or Ecuador. I was born in New York. Both my parents were born in here. Yet, when I hear people speaking Spanish around me, even if I can’t fully grasp all of what they’re saying intellectually, I feel it deep in my bones. I hear Celia Cruz, or Marc Anthony sings Tu Amor Me Hace Bien and I understand it on a cellular level; it registers in pieces, in fragments, but regardless…It’s as if my heart is fluent but my vocal cords are paralyzed, desperately trying to articulate what my soul is joyfully shouting. My soul knows these sounds because part of it is somewhere a plane ride away, in another version of my life, dancing and making pasteles with the cousins I’ve never met who live in PR. The abrupt loss of language down a family line, to me, is a kind of death. There’s a resulting longing and a subtle loneliness that hangs around like a friendly ghost.

Since I was a little kid, despite being well loved, I’ve always grappled with this tinge of loneliness. In retrospect, it was definitely heightened by being one of the only multiracial kids in my very white elementary school. Ask my mother what I was like at this time and she’ll recount, with a giggle, a chapter of my childhood when I had approximately 30 imaginary friends. 3 of them were named Tom (not to be confused with Tom # 1’s brother, Tommy). When my sisters were born, those “friends” suddenly disappeared. I finally had people to relate to and play with. Yay! New humans my age! But despite this, and despite my family being as close as can be, I’ve never quite been able to fully shake this sense of loneliness that, somewhere along the way, burrowed itself in my DNA. I’m adaptable and good with people. I could have a profound 45 minute conversation with a rock (I get that from my mother). I have plenty of close friends. Yet, I feel misunderstood a lot, like I don’t quite belong- to any one group, culture or place. I sometimes feel it most around my very large family. As a kid, I couldn’t identify these feelings. Now, as an adult, I realize being multiracial comes with its own set of challenges that at times left me feeling like I didn’t have many others around me to share the same complex experience with-like an amoeba, amorphous, floating around trying to find somewhere to take shape. I’m not able to fully define myself as any one thing, and yet I’m everything all at once.

Being multiracial is a different experience for everyone. I’m not speaking for any group of people in entirety. But for me, it’s sometimes like standing with both feet on opposite sides of a border line. In two places at once, yet not technically anywhere. There’s that common experience you’ll hear people describe where it’s like, you’re “not white enough to be white” (and, sadly, rejected, as I’ve experienced with some of my white family members), and not quite Latino enough. Being a multiracial actor has exacerbated these feelings in many ways. I was told years ago by industry peers it would be an asset; actors are chameleons, right? They’re supposed to be, but in a business very intent on designing neat and tidy categories and limitations for layered and complex human beings, you can quickly become lost at sea and confused about where you fit in the world. A producer behind the table at an audition asked me once, “what’s your mother’s last name?”. She had been studying me intently with that familiar perplexed look on her face, as if trying to figure out what planet I was from. “Santana,” I said proudly. “Ooooh, you should change your stage name to that.” My insides crumpled up. I know what she meant: change your name so that it will be easier for you to be identified as Latino. Make yourself more digestible, more neatly categorizable. I love the name Santana. But it’s simply not my name. Why would I suddenly change it for someone I don’t know? I had another audition not too long after during which a director, when he thought I was out of earshot, said, “we need someone more Latina.” Now, with years under my belt, I understand how casting works. Sometimes directors simply have a specific idea of who they want in mind, and you’re not that. It’s not personal and it is what it is. But still, my heart sinks into my stomach at the memory of this. It breaks for my Nana, removed from the arms of her father and her heritage at five years old. More Latina? There’s a lot to unpack there, more than I have space to write about here…There are cultural nuances to account for, yes, but I can’t be more of what I am in my DNA. Latinos are incredibly diverse. We come from everywhere and we are everything, and there’s no one correct definition of what that is. I feel very strongly that no one has the right to impose their uninformed perception of who you are onto you. It’s old news that this industry, for all of its talk of reflecting humanity, too often lacks critical thinking and depth of understanding. That’s their problem. It’s not mine. Still, it leaves me untethered. Anyway…

The older I get, the more grateful I am to be me-all of it. I’m comfortably at home in my skin. What a gift to be able to see the world through so many different cultural lenses. But no matter how comfortable you are with yourself, loving your complexities is challenging in a world that would prefer you to be simple. And I refuse to be simple. I want to be as deliciously layered and unique as we all should feel free to be.

A year ago, I was working a regional acting job in a fully Latino cast, telling the story of a Cuban family. I was so excited to work on a piece that felt so special and close to home, but I thought I might end up feeling the way I sometimes do: far away from the other actors because I was unable to speak Spanish with them. I feared I wouldn’t catch the nuances, the inside jokes. I’d be the little weird cousin off in the corner. A fake.

But that didn’t happen.

These people wrapped their arms around me. Literally. They fully embraced me, even though I felt like maybe I didn’t belong there. But I did belong there. Of course I did. They’re my people.

Latinos are love. In our very cellular makeup, we embody everything that is beautiful about humanity: warmth, joy, color, music, food, laughter, and light. I’m so proud to be a mosaic of all these things, made of multitudes. I’m any given number of things at any moment, with roots in so many parts of the world, yes, but those roots all trace back to the same tree. Standing solitary and alone, and yet connected to everything. Strong, solid, and loved-undeniably part of the earth and everything that ever was.

“Can you be from a place you have never been?

You can find the island stamped all over me, but what would the island find if I was there?”

-Elizabeth Acevedo


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