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'Soy Yo!': Play explores being multi-racial in a world where race matters

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 26, 2013 : Parents, can you even imagine being accused of kidnapping your own children? It happened to Shari LeKane-Yentumi of University City.

The reason was race. She’s white, her husband's black. Their three children are both; and in our society, "both" often reads: black.

It was the mid-1990s. LeKane-Yentumi opened her door to the accusing faces of state officials. Someone had seen a white woman shepherding a black toddler and baby across a grocery-store parking lot on Lindell in St. Louis, and called the authorities.

“It was reported that I had children who were not mine,” LeKane-Yentumi said. “And I was investigated.”

A review of birth certificates and other documentation settled that situation. But the demoralizing incident put LeKane-Yentumi on alert whenever she left the inclusiveness of her own community.

Being multi-racial -- with African, Caribbean, European and Native American heritage -- also forces the Yentumi children, now young adults, to deny much of their identity when they have to check a single box.

LIke the loose translation of "Soy Yo!," an upcoming local play about being multi-racial, the Yentumi children believe, “I Am Me.” They and their friends, who are mostly multi-racial, reject narrow definitions of “black,” “white” and other such categories.

“They aren’t as strict about how they want to define race,” LeKane-Yentumi said. “And they don’t want to be defined by it.”

Hispanic and black not 'mutually exclusive'

The number of Missourians who designate themselves as multi-racial is small. But it grew to 2.1 percent from 1.5 percent between 2000 to 2010, according to U.S. census figures. In Illinois, the number increased to 2.3 percent from 1.9.

“Soy Yo! (I Am Me!) An Afro-Latina Suite” zeroes in on the issues around a specific ethnic mix: Latino and African-American. The Gitana Productions play, opening Friday at the Kranzberg Arts Center, was written by Mariah Richardson, whose “Delilah’s Wish” won a 2011 Kevin Kline Award.

“We like to think that, in the U.S., being Hispanic and black are mutually exclusive when in fact they are not,” Richardson said. “But they don’t show you black people on Spanish-language TV.”

“Soy Yo!” takes place in three time periods: 1763, 1943 and 2013. It traces the connected lives of four Afro-Latina women living in the Spanish-speaking colony of Florida, mid-century Mississippi and modern-day Missouri.

“My idea is to show in the U.S., we have this issue of color and what we think of as ‘race,’” Richardson said. “I know race is a construct, and I wanted to show that if you are born in the U.S., you are an American -- it has nothing to do with what you look like.”

Oreos to Cheerios

But the way you look does count when it comes to people’s perceptions, according to Ninfa Matiase, who is sometimes called Betsy. The 45-year-old Tower Grove resident and Normandy High School science teacher came to the U.S. from Panama when she was 17 to attend Saint Louis University.

Her mother is black and Panamanian Indian; her father was Haitian and French. She grew up speaking Spanish.

“When they hear me speak Spanish, they look at my skin tone and they’re like, ‘Wait a minute, what are you?’” Matiase said.

When she sought to join SLU’s black student alliance in her freshman year, its members made fun of her, categorizing her Hispanic side as white.

“They called me an Oreo -- black on the outside, white on the inside,” Matiase said.

She left the black student alliance and found acceptance within the international students' group.

“There, I didn’t have to explain myself,” Matiase said. “I am Afro-Latino but I don’t identify as African-American. “Some people say, ‘When it’s all said and done you are still a black person,’ and I say, ‘Yes, but my experience isn't that of an African American.'"

Talking about being multi-racial is important, according to Professor Karla Scott of SLU, an expert in the areas of culture, language and identity. Scott referred to the recent Cheerios commercial portraying a family with a white mother, black father and biracial daughter, that resulted in a cavalcade of criticism.

“There are people who hold fast to their stereotypes about other races or ethnicities,” Scott said. “Their strong feelings are probably grounded in what they were told as they were socialized by their family, school and church.”

Re-arranging one’s mindset is no easy task.

“You have to say, ‘I was wrong about that.’ You have to admit, ‘My parents were wrong, my church was wrong, God was wrong,’” Scott said.

Both the commercial and the play, “Soy Yo!” help to jump-start the much-needed conversations that may eventually alter these entrenched perceptions, Scott said.

“There have always been people of mixed race and interracial relationships,” Scott said. “The commercial and the play give voice to the real, lived experiences of people who have historically been silent and marginalized."

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