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Race: Are we so different

A blog looking at the changing face of race around our region, created in cooperation with Pacific Science Center, the University of Washington Department of Communication and the City of Seattle Race and Justice Initiative

November 19, 2013 at 6:01 AM

Race project | Beyond Racism: The Gradation Scale

Colorism. This word is so unused that even my word-processing program doesn’t recognize it. This element of discrimination, which assigns value to one’s skin tone instead of race, is hard to publicize or rally against, simply because it’s often so personal and subtle that it goes unnoticed by everyone except those who experience it. It’s hidden in families and social spheres; less of a volatile hate than a cascading gradation of worth — implemented by whichever end of the “scale” deems themselves better. In many cases, it’s the lighter side, but not always — as in case of Jordan Cañas.

(from left ) Parents Jesse and Julia Cañas, Jordan, Jordan’s husband Scott, her half brother Jason, and full brother Josh. (Photo taken from Cañas wedding album, courtesy of Jordan Cañas)

(from left ) Parents Jesse and Julia Cañas, Jordan, Jordan’s husband, Scott, her half-brother Jason, and brother Josh. (Photo taken from Cañas’ wedding album, courtesy of Jordan Cañas)

“How have you been?” she asks, with warm emphasis. She’s a long-time friend, and it’s a rare treat to have time for a lunch date. We aren’t just here for gossip, however. I am attempting to unravel the complicated story of her heritage: although visually as white as I, a German-Swedish-English mash-up, Jordan is a racial minority.

Her father is full-blooded Hispanic; her mother, a mixed bag of light-skinned European. Jordan has one brother, and while they share the same lineage, she got fair skin; he, dark.

I ask her how it was, growing up looking “white” next to a sibling who looked Hispanic. “He definitely latched on more strongly to Mexican culture,” Jordan said. “But I have the better accent.”

For Jordan, it is less the contrast with her brother that is bothersome; she says what her mixed heritage does affect is her relationship to her father’s family – which, she says, she “has mourned the loss of” since childhood.

Her father, Texas-native Jesse Cañas (born Jesús Cañas), was born in the States, but his parents were both immigrants, and they raised her father and his six siblings in a culturally traditional Mexican-Catholic home. Like Jordan, Jesse had the lightest skin in his family – by far. According to Jordan, her father always felt somewhat disconnected from his family because of this, and when he married a white Presbyterian woman from Pennsylvania, the breach was seriously deepened. When Jordan was five, the family moved to Washington state to start a new life.

“We didn’t learn Spanish growing up – I learned it in school,” Jordan said. Her father was anxious to shed the culture that didn’t accept him, and chose to raise his family in a different way, adopting the traditions of his wife’s family and culture.

While the family of Julia and Jesse Cañas is a happy one, periodic trips back to Houston are not. Jordan remembers traveling to her grandparents’ house as a child and being chided for not calling or visiting more, which she says instilled a great burden of responsibility for not being accepted or being like “them.” She also recalls her aunts gossiping viciously about her mother, because she was non-Catholic and, more detrimentally, not Mexican.

Despite this treatment, Jordan says she feels a growing connection to her Hispanic heritage as she gets older.  “I feel that I am caught between two cultures – I wish I could be more involved in one or the other,” Jordan said. “I am a minority and can reap the benefits – but don’t have to face the downsides. It’s a blessing and a curse.”

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