My Brown Face Contains Multitudes

Angelo Franco


When I came to the United States, I stopped being white.


I was 12 years old, didn’t speak a lick of English, and had never even been on a plane before. I knew what we were doing, too: we weren’t just moving, we were migrating.


Before our drive to the airport, my grandma gave me a limpia de huevo. She took a huge brown egg and rubbed it all over my face, my arms, my legs, my joints. She honed her forest lichen eyes on mine, like new spring growth blasting the brown rings of ancient trees of my own irises with life, muttering something under her breath. It was a blessing to rid me of the mal de ojo before my migration north, to cleanse me of any jinxes and curses that may befall me in America. She rubbed the egg against the palms of my hands twice, thrice, before finally cracking it open and letting the rotten yolk fall to the floor, a putrid orange slime. My grandma cradled my face in her hands and said to me, “Ahora vas a ser hispano.”


I had no idea what that word meant. And I was a pretty smart cookie of a kid: straight A’s, always with a book in hand, shut up when my mom gave me the look, the works. But I had never heard the word “Hispanic” before.


It made its second appearance when I was enrolling for seventh grade in a public school in West New York, New Jersey, where we had come to live (I was supposed to be going into the eighth grade but the school insisted I go down a grade because I didn’t speak English, and whatever I’m over it I’m not bitter about it at all anymore).


Under the “race” section of the enrollment form, I had placed a checkmark next to “White or Caucasian.” I had no clue what “caucasian” was either but I knew I was supposed to be white so that seemed like the right answer anyway. Proofreading it, my father shook his head at me, grabbed the pen from my hand and crossed my checkmark out. He scribbled a neat check next to “Hispanic or Latino” and suddenly I was this whole other thing. I had this brand new identity thrusted upon me, an identity I didn’t know existed, with rules that were unknown to me, that would dictate every aspect of my life from that moment on.


When I handed my Ecuadorian passport to the customs agent at Newark Airport when we had first arrived, she saw a kid of color. When I sat on the backseat of the cab that drove us from the airport to my aunt’s house in West New York, the taxi driver saw a fellow person of color. When I handed my enrollment form to the school secretary, she saw another brown kid coming to fill her classrooms.


It was a strange age for me to be coming to a place like America, and a weird time too. All the news cycles were about 9/11, immigration, and Bush’s inevitable wars. And I wasn’t a Hispanic-American born in the U.S., I was very much a first-generation immigrant kid. Right at the edge of being in my teen years, so still very young but not quite a small child. This middle ground has always been a narrow road to travel on, like my own endless road to an American Damascus where my reasons, beliefs, and identities are constantly shifting and challenged. Where I am both an immigrant and a child of immigrants. Where I am both Hispanic-American and Latino. Where I am both white anywhere south of the border, and brown from sea to shining sea.


Everyone is talking about immigration again right now. Not that we ever really stopped; we’ve all been talking about immigration for a long time, or at least since I didn’t know what “caucasian” was and this theme, this concept of immigration became part of my daily vocabulary even was I was still trying to learn English. And I have seen this shift of how the conversation around immigration has changed and also how it has not changed at all. To me, a so-called “White Hispanic,” the way America sees whiteness is so very uniquely American that there is just no other way to describe it.    



When I came to the U.S., I was still young enough to play La Migra with my schoolmates during recess. The game was like a mix of cops-and-robbers with some tag involved. Except in the game, the cops were replaced with INS agents doing a raid, and standing in for robbers were undocumented immigrants running from deportation. This was before ICE even existed, so it was up to the Immigration and Naturalization Services cops to round up the mojados (because in their eyes, the way we saw it, we were all undocumented Mexicans devoid of any national identity, just like we are all collectively Hispanics).  


Usually, the eighth graders would play the INS cops, and the younger students would be the immigrants that ran away trying not to get caught. But sometimes we changed up the rules and the real, honest-to-God undocumented kids would disperse, being chased by the white kids and those of us who had our papers. We would start the game by shouting “La Migra!,” give the pursued a 15-second head-start, and then go after them. Those who were caught had the option to become informants and go after their once-comrades themselves, or be condemned to la caja (a corner of the basketball court where the ball cage was) for the rest of the game. Apparently, kids these days are still playing La Migra, much to everyone’s feigned shock.


And of course we knew what this was about. We were immigrant kids, not stupid; our game was way too specific for us to not know what we were playing at. We knew what the Border Patrol was and we knew which local supermarket was a magnet for INS raids. In the school cafeteria in between bites of square pizza and slurps of Yoohoo, we competed over whose uncle had the wildest crossing-the-border story, or who had to wait the longest for their visa, or whose older sister had paid the most to coyotes to bring her husband and kids ‘pa Nueva Yol, with sums getting more and more exorbitant the longer we played.


This was in the early 2000s. When electing a black president would have been laughed off as hopeful science-fiction. Evan back then the cry was against all these immigrants coming to take away jobs from well-intended white families who had once been Irish and Italian and Polish but were now just American.


Back then, post 9/11 policies were put in place in the name of national security and they disproportionally targeted Muslim immigrants or those who appeared to be Muslims. These are the policies that paved the way to the immigration “reform” we have now: the creation of entire federal agencies to enforce immigration; the meteoric rise of funding for immigration enforcement agencies like ICE and CBP; the National Fugitive Operations Program, used to remove any absconders from the U.S., regardless if they posed any credible threat or not; the actual execution of the 287(g) program, which granted state and local officers the authority to enforce certain immigration laws; the Secure Communities program, used to identify removable immigrants when they are booked into local jails for criminal offenses, and through which non-citizens can be deported even if they have not been actually charged with or committed a crime. What was once supposed to be initiatives to deter and address national security concerns became effective tools to track, detain, and remove non-citizens that don’t pose any sort of threat.


Before then, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act applied, among other things, new restrictions to the asylum process, allowed for deportation of undocumented immigrants who commit even a misdemeanor, and made it a whole lot harder for undocumented immigrants to obtain legal status.


Before then, the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 eliminated national origin quotas but set worldwide limits on the number of persons that could migrate to the U.S. This act is likely one of the biggest causes of the “hispanization” of North America because it established a system of family-based and employment-based preference for issuing visas. It was the driving force behind the enormous influx of immigrants from Mexico and Central America during the 70s and 80s, a period that is considered the crux of Latin American immigration. Prior to this, national-origin quotas were set aside so that they overwhelmingly favored immigrants from northern and western Europe, which is perhaps what helped cement the anglonization of the United States, its quasi-idea of what whiteness is and what is of worth and how the building blocks of the American dream are the Anglo-Protestant values of the founding settlers that were promulgated by European immigrants, and where contributions from the Southern Hemisphere have no place.


Before then, Japanese immigrants were put in internment camps.


Before then, anti-Asian sentiments barred Asian immigrants from entering the United States legally.



Before then, Texas Rangers, local law enforcement, and civilian vigilantes were massacring Mexican-Americans in the Borderlands. It was a reign of terror that killed thousands of people of Mexican descent and that went largely ignored, a decade-long period of time known to locals as “La Matanza.”


Before then, early American immigration policy prohibited the entry of Chinese laborers into the country for 10 years and barred them from becoming citizens.


Now, we are calling Mexicans rapists and drug dealers. Now, we are calling majority black nations shithole countries. Now we are chanting to send an actual citizen back to where she came from, presumably because her skin is too dark and she wears a hijab so she could therefore not be a real American. Or rather, she could not be an American that fits the mold of Americanness.


We really should not be shocked that the current administration is running for reelection on a platform that is straight-up racist and embraces white nationalism. After all, the underbelly of immigration enforcement has always been colored by racism and America's obsession with its version of whiteness, and that's what got them to the White House in the first place. So the writings on the wall have always been there. Though perhaps we should lament that these racist sentiments have become publicly mainstream and are therefore viewpoints to be debated like two sides of a coin, rather than something that should be condemned and eradicated, at least under the guise of “strength in diversity.” As if the “other side of the coin” is nothing short of survival, of dehumanization, of human worth. That does not need debating.


But immigration reform has never really been anti-immigrant; it’s been against color, it’s been against slanted eyes, it’s been against non-Christian faiths, it’s been against languages.


I have one of those faces. The kind that people just can’t place. With eyes that are not too big, but not too small. With skin that is not too dark, but not too light. With lips that are not too thin, but not too full. With big hair that is full and saturated, not straight but not quite curly. All in all, a face hued in ambiguity. But still one that makes people second-guess themselves, wondering whether I would understand their language, their hand gestures, their smiles, their struggles. 


Like the time I was buying some halal from a food cart in Chelsea (lamb over rice, yes to onions, a splash of hot sauce and extra white sauce, btw) and this Egyptian cook looked through the window and threw some sounds my way, all assonance and bass, and I had to say, “Sorry, I don’t speak Arabic.” 

Or when I was pricing some organic avocados in a store in the Upper West Side, and this woman pushing a stroller with a white baby in it came at me with a question, some lilting song full of highs and lows escaping her lips, like homespun cotton being woven into the air, and I had to say, “Sorry, I don’t speak Tagalog.”



Or when this man on the uptown 2 train leaned my way and pointed at my watch, his voice crisp and brassy with vibrance in every syllable, a smile lining his face when he looked up back at me, and I had to say, “Sorry, I don’t speak Hindi.”


Or every single time that someone had raised their eyes at me, bottom lip getting crushed between their teeth in anguished coyness, and they smiled a lopsided smile that was halfway between an apology and hopeful camaraderie, and they asked me in hard fricatives and dropped vowels, “Sorry, do you speak Spanish?”


I love these moments because I love how so many people can see themselves in me even though I am not non-white. My Spanish is still fluent, but I am made fun of by my siblings when I forget how to say things in my native tongue. In the Ecuadorian census, I was not listed as mulatto, Afro-Latino, or native; I was listed as white. It is easier for me to translate from Spanish into English rather than the other way around. My roots are planted, but they don’t go deep enough - my birth certificate says I am Ecuadorian and so I am Latino through-and-through, but my environment and my shortfalls outside America question my heritage, “But is he, though? Is he brown enough? He looks and sounds white to me.”


But I am also not white, not within the concept in which the United States sees whiteness. When I came to the U.S., I was young enough to become fluent in English, but just a tad too old that the thrill of the Latin accent lodged in my speech. Rice and beans will always taste better to me than any sort of deep-fried anything. And I love my bougie cheese and charcuterie boards paired with some Napa something-or-other nonsense; but oh my God, give me some empanadas, some alfajores with honest-to-God dulce de leche, and some queso salado and watch me feast. Because my skin is burnt caramel and my eyes are fertile earth, in my America I am a brown person.


So there I have lived, always halfway to a standard.


In the U.S., this standard is a ruse. It doesn’t exist. I will always be the “right” type of immigrant. The one that waited his turn in line in an 11 year lull while our papers came through for our green cards. Whose parents stayed put while their older children grew out of the age of eligibility for American residency, and had to leave them behind and took only their youngest boy with them on their plight north. The immigrant who registered with the Selective Service so he can get financial aid for college, who took out student loans to get an American education, who sold clothes in a mall store, who opened credit cards and took on some debt. The type of immigrant who exemplifies upward mobility because he waited his turn and made all the sacrifices we’re supposed to make. But still an immigrant. Still an illustration. The example used to build up detention centers and to justify them, to point to and say, “See, his parents broke their family apart and now his siblings live 3,000 miles away but this is the right way to do it, the only way to do it.” As if breaking a family apart should be the only way to do something right. 


When a president returns to the White House having run on a racist platform, or when the first female president sits behind her desk in the Oval Office. When we send American citizens back to their countries of origin because they don’t share our Christian values, or when a Jewish president is signing executive orders. When we put kids in cages—not in a basketball court as child’s play but in an iron prison— for committing a misdemeanor with the same type of punishability as owning fireworks under the law, or when a Mexican-American is seeking Congress's permission to declare war. Still, I will always be just that - a brown immigrant. Not until we dismantle America's unique definition of whiteness will we be able to truly say that we can work on immigration reform, instead of implementing policies that will always be based on racist ideologies and that place American whiteness on a pedestal.



This is not to say that people of color, regardless of their origins, should continue to be seen as lesser or less worthy. Rather, I would hope this puts whiteness on the same level as all other ethnicities, so that immigration enforcement is truly based on just laws and policies. Though perhaps that is hoping for too much and people of color will end up getting the runt of the litter anyway. What do I know, I’m just a brown immigrant after all.     


Author Bio:


Angelo Franco is Highbrow Magazine’s chief features writer.


For Highbrow Magazine



Image Sources:


RobertoVi (Pixabay—Creative Commons)

Voces de la Fronteras (Flickr – Creative Commons)

Free Stock Photos

Cocoparisienne (Pixabay – Creative Commons)

Quinntheislander (Pixabay – Creative Commons)


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