If my skin were a cup of coffee, it would be Bustelo with a dash of cream. Add a pinch of brown sugar, and there you have it. A perfectly in-between blend of light cocoa and cinnamon tones. This is the skin with which I was born, an olive-caramel hue that exists between worlds — and conveys stories of music, revolution, and ancestral wisdom in a way that no one shade can capture.
Being a woman of Puerto Rican, Jamaican-Chinese descent has made me acutely aware of my skin tone and how I move through the world. Growing up, I was lucky that most conversations about my skin were based on genuine curiosity. With questions like “Where are you from?” or “what an interesting mix,” and often, “how did that happen?”, I grew to understand my complexion as a catalyst for conversation and connection.
My Puerto Rican ancestors were farmworkers who spent their days tending the fields. The summer heat turned their skin dark. Their hands were calloused and careful, from harvesting sugarcane and raising cattle from morning until night.
When they came to New York City in search of a better life, their quiet farmland became an urban jungle. My abuelito worked long hours in factories operating machinery, and my abuelita crafted dolls with her delicate-yet-deliberate hands. As foreigners, English words often escaped them, but they understood the language of the city: how it was a pulsing melting pot of immigrant narratives, every skin tone representing a different story.
My Chinese ancestors were bronze-skinned nomads of Hakka origin who migrated throughout China and eventually landed on the island of Jamaica. My great-grandfather, a Chinese scholar, opened a store on the island and doubled as the town translator, keeping records and writing letters for Chinese immigrants who couldn’t read or write. He and his wife gave birth to my grandma, the matriarch of our family, and thus, the Chinese-Jamaican family line was born.
Over the years, I have always wondered where I belong. Not Puerto Rican enough. Not Jamaican enough. Not Chinese enough. I’ve been called “too white” by Puerto Ricans. I often stumble as I speak in Spanish. I feel connected to the electric energy of metropolitan Shanghai but removed from the experience of elderly women farmers in rural China. Across cultures, I strive to fit in, to be enough, accepted by all. I yearn to feel at home in each world, to piece together the many disparate parts of my origin story and make myself whole. And while I know that my blend of cultures is a blessing, it can also feel like a burden.
Skin tone has always been an armor or a bullseye. It can serve as a shield, protecting one from harmful injustice. Or it can attract, making someone a target of slurs and prejudice. I got lucky with my caramel complexion, the in-between swirl that allows me to walk through spaces with more ease than others.
My family wasn’t always so lucky. During my abuelito’s commutes between Boston and New York, porcelain-skinned train passengers would roll their eyes and comment aloud, “I’ve never seen someone like you on this train.” When my abuelito asked in broken English, “What do you mean?” the silence was deafening.
When my father moved from Brooklyn to North Carolina in the ’80s, a white man glanced at his brown skin and asked, “What landscaping company do you work for?” My father is an engineer. The man was running for town mayor.
While the world seeks to categorize us by color, when I look in the mirror, I see a multidimensional human who takes pride in her skin tone. I hear coquís, the little native frogs of Puerto Rico, chirping in the trees and salsa music echoing through the cobblestone streets of San Juan. I feel the rush of cool water running through a humble fishing village as my Chinese ancestors fill their straw baskets with the day’s catch. I hear steady reggae beats, the cries of people calling for justice in Jamaica, and voices singing for liberation. My skin color reminds me of the people who raised their voices and their fists for opportunity, for love, for freedom. For me.
When I look in the mirror, I’m reminded that it’s beautiful to exist in the in-between.
4 replys to The Beauty of “In-Between” Skin Tones
This was so beautiful Tianna. Thank you for sharing your experience.
So beautifully written. Loved reading your story.