Generations My Ancestors’ Mission to Lighten Our Bloodline Ends With Me
My kin may have erased themselves, but I won’t erase them. Just as I may be their wildest dreams, they are also mine.
I grasp the copper knob of my grandparents’ bedroom door and close it from the outside. My shoulders tighten, waiting for Grandpa’s gruff voice, but all that leaks through the door are muffled explosions from an action movie. The day after tomorrow, I start kindergarten. Tonight, that doesn’t matter.
I slip into the bathroom that I share with my mother and aunt, its countertop cluttered with straightening irons and toothbrushes. The only item in here that’s mine, and only mine, is a metal step stool. I wiggle my arms through the handles and balance its strange shape against my body. It’s heavier than I thought it would be. My ringlets get caught in its crevices, but I can’t worry about them now. I don’t know how much time I have.
I creep back past the explosions and into my mother’s dark bedroom. Placing the step stool in front of the television, I untangle my hair and start to climb. At the top, I stretch my feet as high as my tippy-toes will take me. My arm hugs my ear as it reaches above my head, but I can’t feel anything.
I know they’re here. Come on.
I give up, but only for a moment. My arm stretches farther than it’s ever gone before. My fingertips dig deeper into the darkness. Finally, my hand closes around them.
I hold the cold metal the way my preschool teacher taught me, by the blade with the pointy end facing down, and scurry back along the hallway to the bathroom. I look into my reflection and touch the tendrils of hair near my belly button. Abuela always says she wishes she had my hair color. She loves how light it is, kissed blonde from afternoons in the sun.
Looking in the mirror, I bring the blades of the scissors up next to my ear. I cut and cut and keep on cutting.
“I’m white, like my Almanda.”
Abuela says this casually and often. I don’t know why I call my great-grandmother Abuela when Bisabuela would be the proper translation. Or why she calls me “Almanda” with a mysterious l . At ten years old, what I do know is that she’s my best friend. To her dismay and my delight, her health has recently forced her to leave our island, Puerto Rico, for the bedroom next to mine in New York. Our friendship is full of surprises, sonrisas, and stories. On weekends, we have sleepovers. Late into the night, she tells me tales of summer days sprawled on beaches and evenings spent dancing and playing dominoes. Some Saturdays, we watch forbidden movies until way past my bedtime. I sneak her treats she’s not supposed to have because of her diabetes. She’s teaching me to play 500-card rummy, and also how to cheat.
I don’t think much about my skin—it’s a privilege I don’t quite understand just yet—but Abuela talks about it as if it’s her great accomplishment. To Abuela, I look absolutely right. And when she tells me she wants to look absolutely right too, I’m eager to help. At her request, I start saving bananas every time somebody offers me one. On weekends, we peel them together, giggling. While she presses the inside of the fruit’s yellow rind against her dark brown forehead, I stretch Scotch tape from the peel directly onto her skin. She winces, sometimes, but says it’s worth it. We use enough peels to cover her entire face and neck. Then, we spend hours playing 500-card rummy while the fruit works its white magic.
I’m white, like my Almanda.
For almost a decade, she and I will spend most weekends reprising this ritual. It pains me now that so many of our shared memories took place while trying to lighten her skin. I hate to imagine how many years she did it on her own, without a friend to help her. I’ll wonder when she first looked in the mirror and hated her skin, but I won’t dare ask her. Was it when she still needed a step stool to reach the glass?
In 2006, I sat in a hospital room cackling with my sick great-grandmother, who had just been given six months to live. But the sickness wasn’t going to stop her antics. In that hospital room, she taught my mother’s boyfriend the proper way to flip someone off. She stuffed latex gloves into my jean pockets and under my shirt because she needed me to bring them home for her . Through boisterous laughter, she even revealed the existence of secret husbands none of us had ever known about. Abuela had lived so much life before our seventeen years together. I remember wanting to ask her more. Two days later, she was gone.
My mother had been planning to tell Abuela that, in just a few weeks, she’d be eloping to Curaçao. But after Abuela’s sudden passing, the trip morphed into something else—a way to connect with distant cousins that we only knew through Abuela’s stories. Though Abuela rarely spoke of him, her father was from the island. A bit of family sleuthing turned up a name—Lucille Marie Kroon—and a phone number we dialed when we landed in Curaçao. Lucille wasn’t home when we called, but after a moment of disappointment, my mother asked the woman on the other end if she was related.
“I’m her daughter, Jurina,” she responded. As my mother and Jurina pieced together their own link—Jurina’s mother was Abuela’s first cousin—they became partners in what would grow into a long-term project to uncover their lineage.
Curaçao, a former Dutch colony and now an autonomous country within the Kingdom of the Nethe rlands, was known to keep impeccable public records. The National Archive was only a short drive away from our hotel. The next day , I found myself in a sweltering, cinematic Caribbean records room. While my mother pulled open drawers that were wider than her body, Jurina lifted massive papers containing birth, death, and marriage dates that spanned over one hundred years.
The branches of our family tree grew quickly as they scribbled down names: Ceferino. Nicomedes. Gabriella. The momentum of discovery was building, pieces falling into place, until everything suddenly stopped. While other people’s lineages trailed back much further, ours abruptly ended with Martinus Jonah Kroon (1867–1926), son of Theodora Martina Kroon (also known as Fanny). Fanny, my great-great-great-great-grandmother, had no birth or death certificate. It was a strange absence, but we didn’t worry much about it at the time, assuming that the rest of our story existed in an equally hot and cinematic records room somewhere in Holland.
It would be almost a decade before we learned the truth.
I don’t think much about my skin, but Abuela talks about it as if it’s her great accomplishment. To Abuela, I look absolutely right.
In 2015, my mother received an email with a photo of Fanny’s other son, Eduard Bernardus Kroon. Eduard’s photo exists in a Dutch archive because his son was a former prime minister of the Netherlands Antilles. Eduard hadn’t appeared in the Caribbean records, however, because he’d been born an enslaved child. While the Dutch did indeed keep impeccable records of freed people, enslaved humans were afforded no such dignity.
In 2006, the missing dates felt innocuous, but in 2015, this calculated erasure crushed us. In a society otherwise so meticulous with birth and death records, the absence of our family’s lives ached all the more. Martinus, Eduard’s brother, had been born outside of bondage, after the 1863 emancipation in Curaçao (two years before the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in the US). If Martinus had been born only four years earlier, the Dutch wouldn’t have considered him worth the ink. Abuela, Martinus’s granddaughter, would not know any of this in her lifetime.
My family’s history is ridden with colorism, underscored by an often-explicit goal to erase Blackness by marrying into, or otherwise moving closer to, whiteness. In Curaçao, if a formerly enslaved person wanted to move to an affluent neighborhood, they needed not only enough money but also a white-sounding last name. After her release, Fanny clung to the name Kroon, while working for years to afford a house in a well-to-do white neighborhood.
Martinus’s wife, Anna Lucia, was gifted the white name of Verhelst after she fought for her father, the man who enslaved her, to recognize her as his daughter. She must have known the name Verhelst would get her further than her enslaved mother’s last name, Metaldo. As the generations progressed, Kroon became a rich name on a small island, a far cry from the people that birthed them.
Abuela, born Guilermina Leonor Kroon, didn’t have such luxury in Puerto Rico. After her father died when she was a young girl, she grew up in poverty, hearing stories from her Puerto Rican mother about her wealthy , light-skinned relatives a boat ride away. Throughout her life, she’d make her name more palatable to white tongues by leaning into her middle name, Leonor, denying the name Guilermina until the day she died. She may not have known it, but by religiously lightening her skin, dropping her Spanish first name, and fervently praising whiteness, she was mimicking her ancestors’ impulses to lighten our bloodline.
Abuela’s son, my grandfather, would go on to marry a very light-skinned Puerto Rican woman, fulfilling Abuela’s deepest dreams and his in-laws’ nightmares. Because of my grandfather’s darkness, his father-in-law would not walk his only daughter down the aisle. The couple’s eldest daughter, my mother, would also be fair and would grow up never playing with her dark-skinned cousins. And in 1973, Abuela would tell my seven-year-old mother: “Marry white. Better the race.”
Twenty years later, while holding me, Abuela will ask about my biological father. When my mother shares that he was half Black, Abuela will quiet her voice and respond, “No one will ever know.”
“What happened next?” my therapist asks. I haven’t thought much about the haircutting incident over the past two decades. Even today, it’s only come up by accident.
“I don’t really remember.”
“It sounds like you already hated the way that you looked. I wonder when that started.”
My therapist sees this story as self-mutilation, a term that feels too violent to me. It’s just hair. No blood was shed. It’s not a big deal.
“Try to remember what happened next,” my therapist presses.
I hid my hair in the closet and put the scissors back where I found them. My mother took my misaligned head to a white hairdresser. I left with a combination mullet and bowl cut.
“Well, I bet you’ll never do that again,” my mother said. The next day I cried in the hallway outside of my new kindergarten classroom. I’ve forgotten the color of the walls, but my full-body sobs are a visceral memory.
I wonder, now, if some part of me already knew that my curly hair would be the thing that gave me away. Sometimes, my hair feels like the only evidence left of the Blackness in my blood. My curls hold a culture that people both within and outside my family have tried to erase. Did I intuit the ancestral mission so early? Was I cutting away anything that would hold me back from passing?
I don’t think the idea of valorizing whiteness had entered into my consciousness just yet, but the seeds must have been there. How could they not? My skin, hair, and body have always been up for discussion. Some of my earliest mood memories are feelings that I didn’t look right: neither white enough nor Puerto Rican enough. What strikes me now is that I didn’t cut my hair just once to see what would happen. I looked in the mirror and kept on cutting.
My mother was both right and wrong when she said I’d “never do that again.” I would learn other ways to hurt myself, to hate the way I looked. I’d pull at my hair, straighten it, burn it, put chemicals in it, and tell it it’s ugly every day for years. At the same time, Abuela would tape banana peels to her face every week for decades. Now, when I think about Abuela’s face covered in Scotch tape, the memory feels almost too violent to bear. When my mother shares that my birth father was half Black, Abuela will quiet her voice and respond, “No one will ever know.”
“You’re doing things right. You didn’t bring home a mulatto. Thank God; your great-grandmother would be rolling over in her grave.”
In 2021, I recognize the violence in my light-skinned grandmother’s words as she talks about my own engagement. Beyond the vitriol and the racism, I’m struck by the ridiculousness of her sentiment: the idea that Abuela, from her grave, would be worried about my suitor’s skin color. But I also understand where my grandmother’s thoughts might come from. She is not immune to the colorism in our community just because she married a darker-skinned Puerto Rican man—a complexion, very similar to my future husband’s, that seems as dark as my family is “allowed” to go.
It appears that the unwritten rules born in Curaçao and bred in Puerto Rico have successfully immigrated and blossomed in New York. Some members of my family would have me believe that there are certain lines too dark to cross. But now, we must ask ourselves a different question: How do we erase those lines?
Colorism and racism don’t go away without a deliberate and ongoing effort—just like my family’s Blackness and history of enslavement didn’t disappear by chance. My skin, and the violence that lives within the act of praising it, is no accident. I’m haunted by the words I’m white like my great-granddaughter . It’s a line my grandfather, her son, still says: “I’m white like my granddaughter.”
The irony is that now I yearn for the BIPOC communities in which I often feel like an intruder. I grew up in a white world at school and a Puerto Rican one at home, always feeling I didn’t fully fit in either one. My mother always made sure I knew the white world wasn’t ours, no matter how light our skin was. I’ve never deliberately sought to pass, as easy as it would be, but I often did anyway. I’m grateful I knew from an early age how deeply problematic my family’s relationship with race was, but I didn’t always know how to put that knowledge into action.
Now, I understand that my soul work is to undo the things set in motion by people in survival mode, victims of a world that refused to let them feel safe or see themselves as beautiful and worthy. Part of that work is reclaiming their stories, recording their memories, and reciting their names in my ancestral prayers. It’s unlearning the unconscious bias that did make its way into the recesses of my mind, whether it came from my family or simply from being light-skinned in this world. It’s understanding the communal responsibility to show up for those that don’t have the privilege of whiteness. After my family’s discovery in Curaçao, this crucial work became personally essential as well, imperative to both my ancestors’ and my own healing.
My ancestors chased whiteness with a hunger—idolized it, married it, prayed for it. Today, I am the very embodiment of what they wished for: a white-skinned, blue-eyed, light-haired descendant, free from many dangers when I walk in the streets. They succeeded in their mission to lighten the bloodline, but that mission ends with me.
My kin may have erased themselves, but I won’t erase them; I won’t cut them off my head or lose them in my heart. Instead, I’ll share their stories and carry them with me every day. Just as I may be their wildest dreams, they are also mine.