Who am I? is the most fundamental question you will need to ask yourself if you want to be part of the narrative and not just be swallowed by it. We are born into relationships and move throughout our lives among many groups. Our cultural identity is part of our individuality.

I tend to avoid falling into categories that limit the individual. But what if you are asked on an official form to tick the box that defines your ethnicity? When I had the vaccine, I was asked to specify my ethnicity five minutes before my shot on one of these forms. As I was reading the list of categories I could subscribe to, White, Black, Black and White, Black and White Caribbean, Mixed, Mixed other; I couldn't help but feel that kind of undefinition that has paradoxically defined me all my life. I was born in Paraguay to a Venezuelan mother and a Spanish father. My brother was born in Brazil. I was two when we moved to Valencia, five when I landed in Antigua, eight by the time we arrived in Sofia, from there we moved to Bogotá and by the time I was thirteen, I was living in Caracas. I spent my teens in Asunción and my twenties in Madrid, where I have lived the longest. I was schooled in the French educational system, and my second language is English. That's my mix. So, I'm not quite sure where I fit in. Usually, I just put whatever seems easier. But what if, by doing that, I am allowing others to define me? Do we have to keep answering these questionnaires as if there were no other options? As if the reality in which we live were not broader and more complex? Do we have to keep putting ourselves into categories that do not reflect our reality? What if you have, like me, a multicultural identity?

Technically, I am white because of my skin colour, but my ethnic background is much broader. And although I don't seem mixed and have identified myself as white all my life, with all the privileges that being white entails, I am a white Latina. Because as white as my father is, my mother was mixed, my grandfather was black (born of a white mother and a black father), and my grandmother was mixed (from a white father and an indigenous mother). So, even if I pass as white, which I do, I cannot insert myself into this category without setting aside a part of my ancestry and the culture that I have inherited.

A whiteness that, by the way, varies from continent to continent. In South America, I am perceived as white European, which is the closest thing to a light-eyed blonde, the holy grail in terms of status. But as soon as I cross the Atlantic and set foot in Spain, my whiteness darkens, and I become a little more Latin than European. Part of me is also black, the corresponding percentage of my great-grandfather's line in Venezuela. But what counts as black? If by black we mean skin colour, I am not black; I am white with all the spectrum of colours that comes with being a white Latina. If by black we also understand having black ancestors among your family members, then I'm a little bit black. And if by black we mean cultural heritage, I am Venezuelan Caribbean.

So, am I black and white Caribbean? Not entirely, because that would exclude my indigenous ancestors who come from my maternal grandmother's side.

Then, "Mixed other"? Definitely mixed, but other? As opposed to what? Pure? Aren't we all a bit mixed? "Mixed other" implies that if I choose to include all who I belong to, I automatically fall into the box of other. And if I should not specify my ancestry, I am limited to a category that does not define me.

For as long as I can remember, I have tried to answer questions such as "where do you come from?" by synthesising ad infinitum the same litany of "half Spanish, half Venezuelan", trying not to cast any ancestor out. "But do you feel more this or that?" would fall a little further down the line, to which I often used to respond by submitting myself to the violence of narrowing your identity down to their need of fitting you in a box so they would feel more comfortable around you.

What does it mean to be in the category of other? It means that you are from elsewhere, that you are different, that you are a foreigner. Not only does it evoke the exotic (and wild?), it emphasises distance. Other is a word that creates separation, making it difficult to feel a sense of belonging.

No matter how much you integrate into a collective, people's gaze upon you is also significant. It is a bidirectional force. I carry my family lineage and all the stereotypes attached to every one of my nationalities or cultural heritages. As other, you become, whether you want to or not, the representative of all the collectives to which you may be connected. To have a multicultural identity can feel like having your body as a battleground between cultural clashes. In terms of political representation, it makes you invisible. Other becomes a distant, scarcely understood group that seems to live on the fringes of defined and dominant categories. Suppose a group wants to participate in political decision-making and claim its existence as multicultural and not as an undefined other that remains somewhat on the sidelines. In that case, it needs to be recognised and gain strength within the social structure.

Things have been changing since I was a child. In this increasingly globalised and intercultural world, there is a pressing need to understand the multicultural reality. More and more people are mixed. They are far more interested in exploring their own identity and somewhat less willing to stick to a single category. The experience of who we are as individuals, and how we live, can no longer be confined to one single box. While categories can help us understand and give voice to a collective experience, they shouldn't limit us and encapsulate us within them such that we believe in identifying solely with those in that box with us, recreating the eternal and frankly boring dichotomy of us-versus-them. Moreover, it is a fiction no identity is static, nor can it be pinned down to a cultural, racial, political, or religious category. You name it. Even the most homogeneous group is multi-layered. And if it is not, it is probably a cult.

Since I grew up travelling, I've internalised more than one culture and now identify with cultural pluralism. Having a multicultural identity is not only about being exposed to other cultures, but it also entails that you have a connection to those cultures, that your allegiance does not reside in just one place and that your family lives in many areas. It means that in the process of adaptation, you acquire a certain fluidity that enables you to grasp and adapt to others' gaze more easily, like a colourful chameleon that switches accents, tonalities, and language according to the context. But it can also involve dealing with a lack of belonging. Whether you have moved from one country to another and in the process of acculturation have internalised other cultures, or because you were born into a multicultural family, belonging to multiple places and cultures can be a challenge. This is especially the case when the general sense of belonging is limited to one category, and implicit or explicit messages suggest that you are not enough of one culture or another. Or even when you feel attacked or discriminated against for being the infamous other. Imagine living all of your life in the same city and being seen as the other because you come from a multicultural family even though you speak the same language, eat in the same restaurants, and build your life around the same streets as everyone else. Being accepted implies the freedom to live fully with your diversity and multiple alliances without it impeding your sense of belonging to the community you live in; We are not only a story that we inherit, but we are also a creative process.

So how do we give coherence to our identity when society asks us to compartmentalise our identity? How do we respond to these forms?

On my last trip to South America, it became crystal clear that I would never feel integrated if I constantly felt compelled to define myself in the most comfortable way for others. That it was no longer about being Spanish, Venezuelan, or Paraguayan like everyone else, but about being Spanish, Venezuelan, and Paraguayan with all my mixtures. This cultural unification has been gradually occurring since I decided that I didn't have to be a particular way to belong, that I could be connected to all my parts without getting lost in the process. We can accept to have a devalued identity, or we can own our differences by showing ourselves. By acknowledging your multicultural identity, you're embracing your stories and the plurality that exists in each singularity. The most vibrant places consist of people who weave worlds together within a single city, creating new stories that reframe our individual and group identities.

So, which box did I tick at the end, you may be wondering. "Mixed other", while specifying all my cultural identities; stepping out of my comfort zone by reflecting an increasingly common reality in the hope that instead of considering multiculturalism as something different and distant, perhaps we can see it as a bridge to more synergistic societies.

Maite Oxford
Maite Oxford

Graduate in Sociology. Writer. Wanderer. Interested in cultural and social issues, I'm intrigued by the nature of everyday human interactions.

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