Years ago now, I found myself lounging on a friend’s futon in her dorm room, discussing our very different childhoods. She laughed as I told her about my Puerto Rican mother’s stance on everything from sleepovers (“Why go to someone else’s house when you have a perfectly good bed at home?!”) to tampons (“Don’t use them, they’re too close to having sex.”) to her go-to response to everything I wanted to do (“You are not a gringa.”).
“But you aren’t really Puerto Rican,” my friend said to me that day.
My eyes flickered to her face, so earnestly offering me a pass on my ethnicity, my culture, my truth. What I had experienced and how I had turned out didn’t fit her preconceived notions of what it meant to be Puerto Rican — a judgment that wasn’t unusual in my life. Throughout my adolescence, I repeatedly experienced a full pendulum swing of what my Latinidad meant to others.
On the one hand, I wasn’t really Puerto Rican because I wasn’t pregnant and I didn’t speak with a heavy accent. On the other hand, when the guidance counselor challenged me because he felt the classes I wanted to take were too ambitious, he didn’t ask about my goals or why I wanted to take them. He simply said, “Aren’t you Puerto Rican?”
Though it has been years since then, these memories unexpectedly rushed back to me as my family went to see Zootopia recently.
Zootopia tells the story of a “mammal metropolis” where animals, both predator and prey, have found a way to peacefully coexist. The story’s main protagonist is Judy Hopps, the first bunny to land a job with the Zootopia Police Department. Working on a case to solve a missing mammal, she joins forces with Nick Wilde, a fox. Nick has just the connections and quick-thinking Judy needs to help solve the case, but she’s been told her whole life that foxes cannot be trusted. So even though Nick and Judy become friends, when things get stressful, Judy resorts to what she has been taught — to the detriment of the trust they had built.
Sometimes, when life is asking us to break boundaries in our minds, we hold even harder to the beliefs, bias, and stereotypes we have been given. In the face of the unknown, we commit to what we have been told, in the hopes that it will somehow keep us safe. It is something both Nick, and I, have experienced first-hand.
Life is complex and overwhelming. In our desire to make things easier, we make subconscious shortcuts — we put people in boxes and define them in ways that make sense to us. Oh, you are Latina? Well, that means this. You are male? That means this. You are a woman and you date women? That means this.
All too often people believe that the best thing to do is resort to color blindness. But when someone says to me, “I don’t see you as Puerto Rican,” what I hear is a denial of a very real part of my experience. My Puerto Rican-ness does matter. It is one of the lenses through which I see the world. I want you to see my Puerto Rican-ness and ask me what it means for me, not assume that you already know.
As I watched Judy realize her mistake and work to make things right, my eyes swept to my son’s face. He, himself, is Ethiopian — the adopted son of a Puerto Rican mom and Caucasian father, living in the south. He takes it all in.
I realized in that moment that this film was an opportunity for me to talk to him about how the assumptions of others shouldn’t limit us, that our options are boundless, that we are not defined by bias and stereotypes; that the “boxes” we use for others are an inconvenient shortcut, keeping our brains and hearts from catching up to the expansiveness of human (and mammal) possibility. But in a way that a first-grader could understand and relate to.
“What was your favorite part, mama?” My little boy asks as we leave the theater.
“I liked it when Judy and Nick made up,” I tell him. “Because it’s important to realize when we have done something hurtful to our friends; we learn from it, apologize, and keep trying.”
“Yeah,” he agrees. “Nick was helping her and then she wasn’t nice. I am glad he forgave her so they could solve the crime.”
If there’s anything we learned from Judy and Nick, it’s that creating the collective and individual future of our dreams comes down to how much we love and how much we have to offer, as well as realizing that judging others hasn’t done any of us a lick of good.
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