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April 12, 2012

Love and Race

interracial couple

DATING FOR 5 YEARS Kelly Roughan and Reynaldo Torres

Photo Credit: Chris Buck

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A Mexican-American recalls her dad's advice —By Michele Serros

The plan was to not marry a Mexican. Don't believe me? I have proof: a letter I wrote to "my future daughter" when I was 11 years old. There it is, in proper preteen cursive handwriting:

"When I grow up, I'm going to marry a surfer with blond hair and brown eyes. He's not going to be a Mexican."

Before you judge me, know that I'm a Mexican-American myself. And that I never rejected my heritage altogether. As a child in Oxnard, California, a coastal town near Malibu, I loved hearing my father recite the works of 19th-century poet Amado Nervo, eating chicharrones (fried pork skins) as an after-school snack, and showing off my limited Spanish slang. But as much as I treasured those memories I felt only a Mexican family could create, my parents — especially my dad — told me that, for my own good, I should look outside of our culture for love.

One day when I was 8 years old, I tagged along with my dad to his job as a janitor at the city airport. Even I could see that he seemed invisible. Although he had worked there for three years, many people didn't know his name. By comparison, the tall white pilots strolled through the airport with purpose, commanding respect. My father nodded to them and told me, "That is the kind of man you want to marry. A white man."

My parents' relationship only underscored that message. For 18 years, I heard them argue about my father's salary, which wasn't enough to afford my mom the lifestyle she wanted. Eventually, those fights tore their marriage apart. To avoid my mother's fate and to live a prosperous life, I knew what to do: not marry a man like my dad.

Throughout my 20s, I followed my parents' advice, dating only white guys. When I was 30, I fell in love with — and married — a white man who was an aspiring rock star. He wasn't rich and his career wasn't exactly father-approved. But my husband embodied excitement and opportunity, and he embraced my culture, learning Spanish.

Ultimately we weren't compatible, and our marriage ended after two years. With divorce papers in the works, I flew to New York City to emulate Erica Benton, Jill Clayburgh's character in the 1978 film An Unmarried Woman. Benton rediscovered love after her divorce. Maybe I could, too.

I moved to the predominantly Dominican area of Washington Heights, where meeting my white prince seemed unlikely. The guys who lived in my neighborhood were mostly newcomers to the United States, and as a fourth-generation Californian, I just couldn't relate. Through my job in publishing, I fell in with a mostly white crowd of creative types. And I spent most nights below 125th Street, in karaoke bars and at poetry readings.

After living in Manhattan for a decade, I had dated casually but hadn't met anyone who fit my husband model. From talking to my family in California, I knew that my younger female cousins were repeating the same pattern: They wanted so badly to emulate the roles played by Jennifer Lopez in films like Maid in Manhattan, Monster-in-Law, and The Wedding Planner — young Latinas who marry wealthy white men. But if I hadn't achieved that by my late 30s, was there any hope for my cousins?

On a trip to Berkeley, California, in the summer of 2010, a friend treated me to lunch at a vegan Mexican restaurant. As the handsome chef-owner took our order, he said he recognized me from back home. We had both attended Santa Clara High School, and Antonio confessed to having had a crush on me. I blushed as he recalled my teenage persona: a New Wave girl who "only hung out with the skinny white boys." I didn't remember him, but now, 25 years later, I was drawn to his lean build and intense eyes. When he asked me to lunch, I didn't overthink it — my plan was to not marry a Mexican, not avoid having lunch with one.

We spent the remainder of my weeklong trip together, talking late into the night over vegan tikka masala and red wine from Sonoma Valley. Since Antonio had a hectic work schedule, text messages flew back and forth between us when we couldn't be together. He was direct: Te quiero, te extraño — I want you, I miss you. And when he touched my nose — a feature I always disliked — and told me he loved it, I knew I was falling for him.

Antonio was turning around my perception of Mexican guys, but I could still hear my father's voice. At face value, Antonio represented everything I was told would block my success. He was the man who, despite all his accomplishments, embodied an ethnicity that would hold me back in life. And yet, I was a successful writer with a thriving social life and a new co-op apartment. I was struck by a realization: On my own, I had achieved the kind of life my father said only a white man could give me. This revelation freed me to be with the man I loved.

Within a month we told our friends that we wanted to get married. But the last hurdle was introducing him to my dad.

Antonio and I flew home to Oxnard for the big first meeting. On the morning Antonio met my father, he whipped up vegan pozole and tamales. Although an enticing aroma of chile California and corn tortillas enveloped the kitchen, I couldn't eat, I was so nervous about how my father would react. As they ate, my father was cordial yet reserved. I braced myself as he asked Antonio if he owned his own home and about his college education, and I could tell he was pleasantly surprised by Antonio's plans to expand his business to New York City. Soon my dad and Antonio were laughing about mutual friends from the old neighborhood. It was then that I finally exhaled. I had made my dad and myself happy at once.

Antonio and I were married this past June. While I no longer write letters to my future daughter, I now share a stepdaughter with Antonio from his previous relationship. And this is what I want her to know:

"Dear step-hija, I did not marry a surfer with blond hair and brown eyes. I married your dad, a Mexican just like us. And the best-laid plans are often the last thing you really need."

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