For the past couple of years I’ve visited my daughter’s elementary school as a Diversity Day speaker, and I’m sure as the students enter the room they’re wondering why a lady with skin as white as Carrara marble is standing at the front talking about multiculturalism.
I introduce myself as an Italian-American from Brooklyn, N.Y., which I am. My dad’s family was from Italy, so I had an Italian maiden name. I grew up in a primarily Italian and Catholic neighborhood, but also, I had the requisite New York accent, ate red sauce on Sundays, and wore big hair and fake nails like the rest of the guidettes.
My street cred was pure, but inside my parents’ row house, stowed in a kitchen cabinet behind the Ronzoni pasta, was the truth. It had a blue Goya label on it. The mere sight of the box sent me into overly dramatic convulsions and retching fits. “Deneeese,” my mom would coo in her somewhat neutralized Spanish accent, “you have to try this guava paste. It’s delicious. How do you know you don’t like it if you won’t even try it?” Then she’d proceed to hold a cube of quivering jelly the color of a pencil eraser beneath my nose in a vain attempt to force open my mouth.
What almost no one knew about me was that my mother was Cuban. In a place where the word “Spic” was thrown about as casually as “fugeddaboudit,” it wasn’t the sort of information you volunteered to the kids hanging out at the corner, or to the adults sitting on the stoop fretting about a black family that had looked at a house for sale several blocks away. My mother wasn’t ashamed of her heritage, but she didn’t want to be seen as less somehow. She was happy to keep her Goya stash tucked behind the Tuttorosso tomatoes, and her origins safely hidden behind her husband’s Italian last name.
That would seem like the end of my presentation and enough to teach the students a valuable lesson about making assumptions about others—but it isn’t. The story really gets going the year I turned 27 and traveled to Cuba with my mom to meet my family for the first time. One of my mother’s sisters had been trying to leave Cuba for many years, but couldn’t. She thought she might finally succeed by obtaining their father’s (my grandfather’s) birth certificate from Germany so she could claim German citizenship.
As a journalist and a history buff, I naturally wanted to see it. I knew a little German from having dated an Austrian guy in college. Most of the words on the birth certificate had about 26 letters, nine syllables and made no sense, though next to my great-grandmother’s name one word jumped out: lutheranischer. Lutheran. What came after my great-grandfather’s name, however, rocked my world. Judischer. Jewish.
This is where I really get the kids’ attention. Because seriously: How weird is it to arrive at adulthood thinking you’re as Catholic as they come—the one thing in your life you could claim as 100 percent—only to find out your grandfather was half Jewish?
Early in the presentation I briefly mention the summer my mother sent me to camp at a Jewish pool club near Coney Island in Brooklyn. I spent nearly every day being teased or shunned for not being a member of the tribe. Would the children have treated me differently if they knew I was at least part Jewish? Would they have welcomed me if they found out, as I did years later, I had blood relatives murdered by Nazis at Theresienstadt?
At the time I was simply grateful they couldn’t see the guava paste in the pantry.