British | Bolivian
I am Bolivian & British. On the forms I tick “Mixed Race Other’. My mother is Bolivian, from Tarija, but I have family in La Paz, Sucre and Santa Cruz. My dad is from Coventry in the UK. My father was working in Bolivia with a telecommunications company. He was invited to a New Years Eve party in La Paz. It was the party of my mother’s Uncle. They met at that party.
I was born in Coventry and then moved to Bolivia for 4 years. I spent time in Rio too, and Spain. There is video footage of me dancing to Bolivian music when I was two years old. I think that is the distillation of me, who I am always trying to get back to. I grew up in Nuneaton (a small market town in the Midlands), and it was a predominantly White area. It wasn’t usual to hear any other languages (and none of my peers spoke Spanish). South America was a place no one could really imagine at that time.
I was bullied a bit, for being a bit different, and got very good at reading body language and at intuiting what people were thinking and feeling in social situations. I got into dance and judo and music. Later, I got excited by language, the power of it! Theatre and plays. I loved hearing my mother speak her Latin American Spanish. I went to Uni in London and studied Psychology, but re-trained and became an actor, and then a theatre maker. Now, I work a lot with movement. I choreograph and Movement Direct for performance. I think my formative years in Bolivia and then being an outsider in primary school have fundamentally shaped how I interact with the world.
I started school with no English and no one understood me. Making friends was hard because they couldn’t communicate with me, and I tried to fit in a lot. Quite hard when your mother sends you to school in an alpaca poncho! As I got older I would get excited and talk loudly and take up lots of space. My mother does this, and then later at school I was told off for talking too much. I wanted to leave my hometown ever since I was tiny. When I arrived in the midlands, my father said that I said “it’s freezing, I don’t like this country, I want to go back”, and my dad felt terrible about it. I finally left for University and went to the most multicultural place in the UK. London. I was aware mum was different to dad and subsequently the people around me. No one else in my community looked like her. I remember asking her why my skin was a different colour when I was small. We ate differently to my peers at school. When I went to their houses, it was food I wasn’t normally allowed to eat, loads of processed and frozen things. When they came round to my house, they would often be scared of the food my mum prepared. We also ate loads of rice, and I realised that my White friends only ate rice in very specific circumstances! We ate rice with everything! I became obsessed with all things Bolivian. I also remember loving the food and drink, and clothing of Latin America. They were colourful, and looked ancient and new at the same time. The food was spicy and aromatic. I became good at trying food from everywhere. Mum was good at making sure we tried as many different things as possible. Music too, I hated it a lot as a child, but Bolivian folk music was played all the time. It was music I didn’t hear anywhere else. That and Julio Iglesias.. crooner of the Spanish speaking world! I am always trying to work out my identity; I spend a lot of time feeling like it’s in a state of flux. Now I see this as a blessing, that I can be lots of opposing things, not just one, neatly defined thing.
Now, I live in a multicultural city, I have noticed that lots of my friends are from mixed backgrounds. It doesn’t feel so unique any more, which I like. I have pale skin, so people make assumptions based on that, it’s very interesting to note that when I say that I am mixed. People say things like ‘Really?!’, and with an authority as if to say ‘prove it’. Then I feel obliged to do so, and the cost of having to prove your experience over and over again gets tiresome. I feel sad because, therein lies the mixed-race psychology- not fully belonging to one group, whilst being denied access to the other. It makes me mad, because it highlights how dominant society engages with the world, that if they don’t see it, it doesn’t exist.
Cultural background doesn’t affect my choice in choosing friends/partners, but I do think I have recreated the choice my mother made. She married a White blonde haired man. The opposite of her in some ways. It’s only in hindsight do you realise how much of your parents become your pattern for the world.
I work in an industry where what you look like is a commodity. I think there is something inherently dangerous in mixed-race people getting labelled with being more White, therefore more ‘desirable’ in some way. I often feel less authentic to other Latina women, because I am mixed. I have come to realise, that I am always trying to work out my identity, because so many stereotypes exist, I am always trying to work out who I am against other people’s rules. For me there is a tension between the dominant culture (the one I live in), and the other. On some level, I get to really think about who I am, where I am from, and where I am going. On the other hand, I want to just live without having to define myself.
Watching my mother deal with racism has been the single most important dynamic in my life. I saw it when I was little. I saw her being told off for touching fruit on a market stall, being made to feel like her hands were dirty somehow. I remember seeing her being followed in Superdrug by security. It didn’t happen when I went in with dad, or when I went in alone. She would often stop shopping and start following the security men around the shops. It was embarrassing at the time, but now I realise it was her way of resisting the racism she was experiencing. She has taught me a great deal about resistance, who is allowed to resist, and how society is complicit in perpetuating systems of oppression. I get angry when people don’t see their privilege. But being mixed has also meant I have access to two different cultures, two different ways of seeing the world. It’s made me interested in people, in their stories, and I try not to make assumptions based on what a person looks like.
If I had the opportunity to be reborn I would stay the same. Ten years ago I might have said, make me fully Bolivian! Now, I am coming to terms with who I am, and how living a bridge between two races is a privilege, my perspective is wholly formed by living two cultures. I am proud of it. I am really hopeful about there being more and more of us. We are becoming more visible. Visibility is political. The more stories we hear, the more we can encourage empathy in our society. We need more of that right now.