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Queer, Mixed-Race, and Growing Up on an Army Base

Santos

I often think of where I’d sit in prison. If I were to ever go to prison. Like, if I ever accidentally brought an IED onto a military base. (I still haven’t ever seen one. Please don’t put me on a national-security-threat list.) I have a fear of going to prison, and there’s no mystery about why. Military kids are given a military ID at age ten, and I lost mine because . . . hello, I was ten. When I told my dad, he scolded me for an hour about how someone had probably stolen my identity and was now using it in Indiana. Then he made a call, put me into the car, and we drove to the military base and pulled into the United States Penitentiary.

The notorious United States Penitentiary, known as the Harvard of prisons. Ya know, formerly home to the Birdman of Alcatraz, Michael Vick, and even George “Machine Gun” Kelly—not to be confused with Machine Gun Kelly. We parked. I gawked at him and then scanned the tall, ominous tan building with barbed wire all around it. It was the exact place that my parents told me I wasn’t allowed to go near, so why were we here now?

We walked into the building and waited in a small room with fluorescent lights, with a tired security guard behind a glass window. I guess this isn’t so bad. Then an MP came out through a buzzed door with an extra gate attached and escorted me into a menacing, desolate cement-block room. I noticed a table in the center with handcuffs attached. All the room needed was torches on the wall, and I’d have been sure they were about to flay me right then and there. The table seemed to telescope away from me as I gaped at it. I looked back at my stoic dad as the gate slammed and locked behind me with a huge KA-CHUNK. The MP motioned for me to sit, and then he silently filled out a huge stack of paperwork.

The scratching of pen against paper was somehow my worst nightmare.

More silence and scratching.

Without a word, he got up and disappeared into the darkness. I could make out a figure opening another door at the far side of the room, and then he was gone.

The MP left me alone in that room for twenty minutes, wringing my hands. Welp, might as well say goodbye to my clothes. I patted my cargo shorts like a sad puppy—hoping to god I hadn’t brought the pocketknife that I didn’t own. Right as I was about to give myself a full cavity search, the MP returned, and instead of bringing me a bright-orange prison uniform, he brought a newly printed ID.

“You know your way back out?” he asked as he sat down again and continued to do paperwork. Chyeah . . . I wobbly stood up and walked toward the locked door. I stood there, and before I could knock, another KA-CHUNK and SQUEEEK, and I was let back into the real world. The sun on my face never felt so good.

For the next ten years, I thought that’s what happened when you lost your military ID: you were taken to prison. But when I lost my ID again in college (not due to drinking or anything), my dad admitted that I could just go to the commissary, and they’d print me out a new one in fifteen minutes.

“WHAT? I THOUGHT YOU HAD TO GO TO PRISON!”

“I wanted to teach you a lesson,” he said with a shrug.

I’ve been scared of prison ever since. And I often wonder, if I had to go for real, where I’d sit in the prison yard. I’m white, but not white enough to sit with the Aryan Brotherhood. I’m Spanish, but not Latino—and seeing as I don’t speak Spanish, I would be booted before I could mumble, “Lo siento.” And I wouldn’t be able to sit with the Asians, because no one knows I’m Asian. (I know you picked this up because you assumed I was Puerto Rican.) Plus, Filipinos are often told that we’re not Asian enough. That’s the thing. I’m not enough of one thing, which is kind of the biggest head trip there is when it comes to being multiracial. That and is this Goya product we’re using tonight for Pee-Paw, Grandma Carmen, or Grandma Sally’s black-eyed peas . . . ?

It’s a hard world. Let’s hope I never have to go to prison.

All this is to say: I’m an “Other.”

Other definition: being the one or ones distinct from that or those first mentioned or implied.

This was Merriam-Webster’s definition. I have not a flippin’ clue what the census thinks it means.

I’m an Other because of my parents, naturally. Today, interracial marriages are not uncommon. At the time that my parents—a southern white woman and a Filipino/Spanish man—hooked up, they were a sight to be seen walking together down the street.

I’d like to think that, instead of the race issue, it was really because he was a foot shorter than she was.

There is clear evidence to the contrary.

Mom once dropped my baby butt off at a walk-in day care on the base. When she returned, they wouldn’t give me back.

The woman looked at me, “Santos” name tag on my shirt; looked back at my mom; then looked at me. Then she said, “That’s not your daughter. I can’t let you take her.”

My mom can quickly go from zero to one hundred. I can’t remember what happened that day—because, once again, I was a baby—but I’d like to think she stopped nothing short of becoming the Hulk . . . that she grew ten times her size to hover over the woman and demanded, “GIVE ME MY DAUGHTER, GODDAMMIT, or I’ll tear this place to smithereens!”

This was the first of many cases of false assumption that have plagued us.

For at least the first decade of my life, I didn’t notice. The first time I became aware that I was an Other was in sixth grade, in Miss Rast’s class. And no—it wasn’t because of how I was dressed. That’s a whole different kind of Other.

It was in Miss Rast’s class that I first took a standardized test, otherwise known as the stupidest test known to humankind! I hated standardized testing so much that I took a cue from my Baptist days. I prayed. I prayed long and hard that my teacher would forget to hand out the tests.

She didn’t forget.

Miss Rast passed out the packets, and we sat quietly awaiting instructions. Miss Rast, the love of my life, suddenly became a robot.

“We’re now going to begin our state-mandated test. Please do not pick up your pencils until you have been asked to do so. If at any time you have a question, wait until we get through a section, and then you may raise your hand. Please remain quiet.”

In my head, I heard the deranged clowns say, Please keep all hands and feet inside the car. You are strapped in! This roller-coaster ride to hell is happening whether you like it or not—ha-ha-ha!

Miss Rast continued. “We’re going to start by filling in a few demographics. Please fill in your name.”

Should I put in my actual first name or the name I preferred? Already, I felt like a failure. I decided to choose my battles wisely and begrudgingly bubbled in “Sophie.”

We then had to fill in the little bubbles of our date of birth, birthplace, and gender. This I could do, and I sat up straighter in my chair. Then, finally, we were onto the last part of the data collecting: our ethnicity. The choices swirled in front of my eyes, each contradicting the one that came before it. “White, not Hispanic,” “Hispanic, not white,” etc. The bubbles taunted me like my very existence was a sick joke.

“We will now begin the math portion,” Miss Rast announced. “You have sixty minutes. Your time starts now.”

I still hadn’t picked which bubble to fill in for my ethnicity. I started to debate why one choice was better than the others. The voices arguing for each bubble fought like a jury inside my brain.

The minutes were ticking by. I was still hung up on the census survey while everyone else was now on the math portion. “If Isabella has four white friends, and I have one brown friend, how many snooty test makers does it take to make one kid feel excluded from a goddamn census survey?” I glanced around the room, then guiltily turned my attention back to my paper. I wasn’t allowed to move a muscle—this was a totalitarian regime, and The Man would think I was cheating.

I raised my hand. Miss Rast walked over to me.

“I don’t know what to put.”

“What do you mean?”

“I don’t know what ethnicity I am. It says ‘Hispanic, not white.’ I’m both.”

“Pick what you feel is best. You’re not going to be graded on this portion.”

In other words, she abandoned me—no child left behind, my ass. I now had to, as a confused sixth grader, decide who I was.

I filled in the “white, not Hispanic” bubble and felt a swell of guilt. Like I had forsaken my Jacksonville family and all our ancestors. Though I had made a choice, and that part felt good! I had answered the question. I’d chosen my bubble. I felt a sense of warmth wash over me. I looked up at the clock, and twenty minutes had already passed. That meant I only had forty minutes left to do the math section, and—despite being able to calculate that amount of time pretty quickly—I sucked at maths. I sank back in my chair.

Just as I went to turn the page, my eye caught on another bubble: Asian / Pacific Islander.

I forgot about Pee-Paw!

That evening, I went home, slumped onto the couch, and tossed my dirty backpack onto the opposite couch (a disgusting habit that I still have). Sam curled up next to me and nudged me with his wet nose. My mom walked in.

“How’d the test go, honey?”

“Fine. I killed the essay. But, Mom! They asked us all these questions that we didn’t cover in Miss Rast’s class. It’s not fair!”

Mom kissed my head and said, “I’m sure you did fine, honey. I can get you a tutor.”

“Ew, no. Also. They made us fill out questions about our race.” I told her about the contradictory bubbles.

“Just put white, honey,” Mom said. She opened her new book, Sanity: Is It Really All That?

“I’m not just white.”

“It doesn’t matter.” Her drawl sounded even more intense than usual. “It’s all a crock of horseshit, anyway.”

I went into my room, opened the door, and almost got hit by a baseball. My room was still decorated floor to ceiling in SPORTS! I sat on my twin bed and looked at a photo of my parents and me. It was a crock of horseshit, but I still felt lost. I felt white around my mom, but something was off. Sam peeked his head into my room, and I gave him a nod. He understood. A dog always understands. He hopped onto the bed and tried to put his entire human-size body into my lap.

The next day, I called my dad via webcam. Over the video call, I brought up my conversation with Mom, and he almost jumped through the computer screen.

“You’re BROWN! Elizabeth! Look at me. You’re brown!”

“I know, but Mom thinks I’m white. I am white.”

“Yes. You are—partly. But not completely. Pee-Paw is Filipino. Look at your skin.” He held up his arm to the webcam. It was certainly brown. It was also hard to really tell . . . we’re talking about a 2001 webcam.

“What about the Spanish side? It said, ‘white NOT Hispanic.’”

My dad just said, “Naaah—you’re brown. You’re brown.”

“Thanks, Dad.”

So that clears things up. Mom thought I was white. Dad thought I was brown. And I still had no idea what was going on or when my dad was coming back.

“Good news, though,” Dad continued. “You’ll get to meet the rest of our family when we go to Spain this summer.”

“Yeah! You’re right.” I felt better once he reminded me.

“Love you bigger than a dinosaur.”

“Love you bigger than ten dinosaurs.”

His screen went black. I wanted to be both, equally, but I felt like it would be easier to just say I was white and leave the rest alone. I didn’t have time to juggle my identity while also juggling how to deal with Dad living across the world. All the K-pop in the world, all the frozen MREs he’d send me so I could eat lunch like a soldier, all the times I stood up at Career Day and said, “My dad’s not here because he’s in Korea fighting the enemy. Which is way cooler than your dads who work in HR,” didn’t really cut it. I wanted him home. I thought about what we’d do if he could squeeze through the webcam and appear in person—even for an hour.

“Hey der’, kiddo. I only have an hour, but I wanted to come and see you.”

“You’re back?”

“I am. Let’s go do brown things!”

“YES!” I’d jump on his back, with my arms around his neck, and we’d fly up in the sky (because if he can jump through a webcam, he can fly, duh) to travel to Saint Augustine and go have flan at our favorite Spanish restaurant. I know Spaniards are white, but flan rocks, and that’s what we liked to do.

He didn’t come through the camera. I pushed it off the top of the computer because I didn’t want to stare at it anymore.

I still didn’t have total clarity about my ethnicity, but I would be getting more clarity about our family dynamic.

Before long, we were off to Spain. Unbeknownst to me, it’d be our last hurrah.

Santos

Excerpted from The One You Want to Marry (and Other Identities I've Had by Sophie Santos, out in October. Reprinted courtesy of Topple Books & Little A.

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