For a long time, it was easier for me to value the white person, the inner and outer Barbie illusion, which made it very difficult to truly see, value, and love my sister Susan.
Even as a child I watched TV and chose different white characters for a fantasy marriage mate, and there were plenty to choose from. On Star Trek, I chose Captain Kirk AND Bones, the doctor. I was into high status males. I believed I belonged. Susan chose Spock, which mystified me. He was so dry and unemotional, so unappealing and so not sexy.
Susan, being an introvert, being darker skinned, protected her feelings by living in her head. Like Spock, she eschewed feelings in favor of what could be measured and proved. She had, early on, ingested a clear understanding of her lower class status as a girl of a darker color and chose the “Trekkie” who was most “other”.
This difference, her cappucino to my cafe latte, played out in subtle and painful ways for us as sisters. We may have been close in age but not in our heart’s desires. We shared the same bedroom with matching bedspreads for almost 15 years, but rarely shared our secrets. I never knew the depth of her loneliness in pre-school when she was the only one who did not speak English. She did not share how excited she felt when another brown Latina joined her class in second grade and gave her a reflection of herself. I never knew she was too scared to ask an elementary school teacher for permission to go to the bathroom.
She never knew when I started my period or that I cut the pads in half because they seemed too big or how many pairs of chonies I stained and hid under my bed. I was stunned to discover she was tracked into Home Economics in the same the high school that bestowed multiple awards to me at graduation. She did not know I entered Stanford feeling I was a smart cookie and left feeling I must have been mistaken.
For my part, I did not see her as a big sister growing up. I was busy chasing the white ideals that tantalized me with promises that were just beyond my grasp because the society that educated me and my own Latinx culture venerates light over dark. I did not see her color as shaping her experiences in profoundly life altering ways, just like white people telling me now that color doesn’t impact success.
After I graduated from college and moved back to Los Angeles, we began cautiously circling closer to our own and each others’ corazones. I supported her through her unplanned pregnancy and she supported my decision to join a social justice community on Skid Row. We re-connected for good, even as our parents surveyed our individual choices with great dismay, having hoped for better from their US born children.
We spoke openly of our current challenges and our differing experiences growing up and at work. We rejoiced in our small and big triumphs and mourned the losses that are an inevitable part of living. I don’t know when, but one magical day we gave up expecting our mom to tell us she loved us and we told each other, healing ourselves and giving up one more delusion about the way things were supposed to be. We shared the last years of our mother’s life together; calling, crying, and beseeching each other for help and a date at a day spa.
We took an amazing journey to Colombia with my mom to let her family bid her farewell. We exchanged knowing looks during the trip when our cousins suggested my mother probably had osteoporosis instead of cancer. The power of denial was intimate to us, having bathed in it seven years earlier when our father had become ill and we refused to acknowledge his obvious decline, even saying he “died suddenly” for several years. We lament our brothers’ different styles of communicating and take turns reminding each other to be compassionate when they drive us crazy.
Reconstructing our memories together led to tentatively sharing stories unearthed and dusted off from our parallel universes. My writing life was an unexpected tool to bring us these cuentos because I had alot of unanswered questions and she had a much better memory. I slowly shed my privilege and listened for the differences now, breathing in Susan’s pain. I saw more clearly the immense burdens she carried as the daughter who never left the city of our birth, living within arm’s reach of our mom’s internal pain turned outward on her eldest, her brownest, her shyest niña.
She laughingly called me a “born again” Latina and we both admitted I often act like I’m the big sister cuz I have the louder mouth coupled with the false sense of entitlement bestowed on me by virtue of being closer to the white ideal than she. We raged at the white male estate attorney who we ultimately fired with a feeling akin to glee. “Face it,” I told her, “this will probably be the only time we are in a position to fire a white man. Let’s enjoy our moment in the sun”.
I know how hard it was for her to go to, as she called it, “the white block party”, still one of few people of color on the block after 50 years of our family owning the house. She ended up marrying, almost divorcing, and finally re-committing to a boisterous, warm man quite the opposite of Spock. Susan laughed as she recounted her husband Fred saying he wanted to have a cigar to hold in his hand to make him feel more comfortable. I joked that that was why men of color were always grabbing their crotch, to remind themselves they have “huevos” despite the daily attempts to castrate them of their worth.
We made a momentous journey together in 2004 to México, uniting the four sisters for the first time ever, at ages 55, 49, 47, and me in the unaccustomed role of baby sister at age 46. While the journey itself was fraught with more drama than a telenovela, it birthed a tremendous moment in the process of ending the cycle of separation of my father’s two familias.
Susan came up to celebrate my birthday a few weekends ago, extracting herself from her job as an elementary school principal to join some of my friends at a delicious brunch. She joked that my cottage was like camping and I teased her about her obsession with the Pokémon app. Yes, we laugh now and are so honest that we wince at times. We talk freely about race and gender and class and the little nicks and cuts we get every day, validating each other’s reality. Authenticity does not mean bliss. We attended a restorative yoga class and indulged in a purification scrub and massage at the Korean Imperial Spa before I drove her to the airport.
We ended our visit as we have ended all our connections for many years, sharing the words that bind our wounds and feed our spirits: “Love you,” I say. “Love you, too” replies mi hermana.