‘What Are You?’

By Richard Caban-Cubero (’17)

I’m not sure when it began. What I do know is that: Once it starts, it doesn’t go away.

“What are you?”

“What” – As if asking what “being” I am, as if trying to make sense of the physical characteristics of my skin, face, body – Foreign, alien, strange – something to make sense of.

Richard Caban-Cubero at the podium“Are” – As if change is impossible. As though growth does not happen to someone whose nose is just a little too wide, whose skin is just a little too brown, whose physique is just a little too “Ethnic.”

“You” – Taking the focus away from the poser, of the question, questioning the one who cannot pose as anything but themselves, because the flesh they carry gives them away.

In the classroom, my thoughts were met with the skepticism of “What are you?”

In my first social circles, my presence was met with the fear of, “What are you?”

Even as I sought refuge in communities I thought would accept me, in safe spaces, I was confronted with that damned question – “What are you?’

My parents never asked me, “What are you?” – See, I came out as gay long before they could question my sexuality and frankly, we shared the same ancestors in our skin so my parents never questioned my indigenous and diasporic qualities. My parents cared more about who I would become, than who society thought I was.

But, my parents did not know all of the stereotypes of our people. They did not know that mainland Americans believed Hispanics took their jobs. They did not know that mainland Americans thought all Spanish-speaking people were from Mexico. They did not know that my brown body was served on a platter –to satisfy federal diversity regulations.

Fortunately, in the face of all of this, my parents posed a question that shaped my success, “What do you want to become?”

“What” – Referring to profession because no school has the capacity to strip away my brown flesh and clothe me in the pale skin of my Spanish ancestors.

“Do you want” – Because they migrated from Puerto Rico precisely so that I could want.

“To become” – This is the question my parents posed for, not at me; that instilled in me the belief that I could access all the privileges this nation had to offer.

And here is where Wake Forest seemed to offer a pathway. This school is where both my parents and I believed, I would gain access to the necessary tools to navigate this volatile world – A world dangerous for brown, foreign, strange beings like myself.

They were wrong. I was wrong. See, this institution did not offer me a different body. This institution did not offer me a different sexuality. I did not suddenly become naturalized because I learned how to “speak properly”, because I learned to place a napkin on my lap when I ate, or because I became “friends” with gatekeepers.

What this institution did offer me was: Perspective – It gave me the opportunity to become while it illuminated the true nature of the world. It showed me who holds the keys. It showed me how they got the keys. It showed me why. And that it showed me that just because I stepped onto the foothills of North Carolina, as a United States citizen, did not mean I would be considered a member of the national community.

Belonging at this institution, in this nation, has been the most difficult naturalization effort I have undertaken. Asserting my value and worth, daily, has been exhausting. And it was not until my final year that I found my place. But, saying that I found it, suggests it existed. It did not. The community I share in at Wake Forest is a community I helped create. A community of queer misfits who worked together to build a collective home. A community that liberated us from the demands of tradition and respectability. A community of religious, racial, sexual, gender minorities and a community that understood assimilation as wasteful of difference. This community was a haven for people like me, whose very existence, defied the mold of a traditional Demon Deacon.

So though, at first I couldn’t respond:

I am a complex mixture of Taino, African, and Spanish;

I am the last of my family born on an island with a name that calls back to the slave trade;

I am the first of my family to attend an institution of higher education;

I am an angry, relentless, student activist who believes that justice is long overdue;

I am whatever you want me to be, a chameleon, able to use the correct knife and fork, or no silverware at all, able to speak properly or naturally depending on whom I need to take me seriously;

I am my own, able to build my own path, willing to open my own gates;

And though I spent years believing that I was a fraud,

I belong.

Wake Forest Community,

Move from asking, “What are you?” to “What do you want to become?”

Cling to the motto of this University,

And work for humanity greater than yourself,

Work to undo the systems that cause the pain of marginality;

Work to remove racism, sexism, transphobia, and islamophobia from yourself and your classrooms;

Work to use platforms like this one, to uplift the voices of immigrants, of Muslim students, of refugees, and to discourage the celebration of people who work to do the opposite;

Because black, brown, queer, Muslim, Undocumented, and migrant people are fighting to be considered fully human.

If we stand For Humanity, we must hold ourselves accountable and stay true to our standards.

This is the duty of a Demon Deacon.

Finally, I leave all you misfits out there with this:

If you find yourself answering the question, “What are you?”

Before that well-rehearsed response spills from your lips,

Do what I do.

I look down at the tattoos on my wrist and I say,

I am Worthy.

I am Enough.