by Charlotte Force
Simone Reisman, the founder of Project: Mixed, is Nicaraguan on her mom’s side and a Russian-Jew on her dad’s side. People tend to not ‘believe’ her when she says she’s Hispanic, which is an interesting phenomenon: why would you question someone’s race? This question, as well as issues of perception, judgement, racism, and sexism, are the queries that Project: Mixed aims to bring to light.
Project: Mixed was created in order to expose people to the rarely publicized struggle associated with being mixed race. Heritage is often more complicated than superficial appearances would suggest, especially in a metropolitan city like New York. Paired with the prejudices associated with being a woman, there are often tangible effects of growing up mixed race and female. Simone interviews women of mixed race to document their stories, raise awareness about this internal conflict, and show girls that may be struggling with their origins that they are not alone.
“I definitely hope the fan base – the likes – will increase, to the point where it will be featured in a magazine or something. My main goal is awareness. It’s not as easily seen as the fight against racism or what’s going on in Indiana right now. It’s not as crucial as that in terms of resolution, but it’s important for people to think about as we turn into a slightly more accepting age.”
Until now, she’s mainly been the one to approach her interviewees, but one day she hopes that will turn around and people will approach her. “I’ll ask people, some people have asked me, but generally I’ll ask people. But if people want to get involved, they can Facebook message the page, or message me directly.” Right now, she’s venturing to create a website, and later, she says, “It would be cool to turn it into a book at some point.”
The inspiration to create Project: Mixed came from Simone. Her mother’s family hails from Nicaragua. Her mother moved to America at a young age, and grew up assimilating into American culture, encouraged by a mother who thought integration was the only way to succeed in a new country. When Simone’s parents got married, her mother converted to Judaism and she was raised in an English-speaking, Jewish environment. Growing up, then, Simone was disconnected from her Hispanic heritage. Moreover, she doesn’t appear ‘Spanish’, so had to fight off stereotypes of Hispanic features. Growing up without speaking Spanish, never visiting Nicaragua, and with her family scattered, Simone always struggled to answer the question, “Hey what’s your ethnicity?”
In AP Spanish at school, her teacher would always favor the native speakers, who share the same roots as Simone – but she wasn’t raised speaking Spanish. She says about the class, “Spanish made me work even more in order to prove that I was supposed to be one of those kids.” She feels that she “can never be one of those kids, because [she] didn’t learn [Spanish] during that stage where you can learn multiple languages. [She] always feel like [she’s] faking it, even though it is a part of [her].” Instead of Spanish, her parents chose to put Simone in Hebrew school. She recounts, “I feel like if you go to Hebrew school twice a week, you should be able to speak Hebrew. But I can only read really slowly, and I don’t know what it means,” meaning she can only read it phonetically. “I look back on that – it wasn’t really my crowd." Simone would have liked to learn Spanish, which is more widely used - or at least would have liked to learn Hebrew properly.
Even so, Simone appreciates being mixed-race, “I love the fact that it connects me to multiple cultures – for English I did a poet’s study of Ruben Dario, and I was pretty much able to understand his poems. Had I not been exposed to Nicaraguan culture, I would never have found him, and I think his poems are really beautiful.” She talks about the “Cultural Pockets” she’s founded while exploring her heritage. At El Taller on 99th st., she speaks conversational Spanish for 3 hours every week. “I feel like I’m accepted there, being Hispanic. Had I not really wanted to be a part of my culture, that acceptance would not exist, and I’m glad it does.” She gets to explore these “Cultural Pockets” with her family now as well – her aunt came to America when she was 14, so has more Nicaraguan culture within her. “You can kind of see it in the way she cooks, and the way she decorates her house.” Of course, now she can speak Spanish with her mother too. It even affects the way she’s learned the language – “ll” is pronounced as a “j” or “y”, but in Nicaragua they pronounce it as “y”, so she speaks that way.
There’s a wealth of opportunity to be cultivated from the interactions of cultures. Children of mixed ethnicity embody that potential to cooperate and create, which has led to some of the greatest advancements of humanity. There are challenges associated with growing up on the border of two cultures, but with campaigns like Project: Mixed, that barrier can be broken and people can begin to understand each other. Ultimately, the goals are for people to understand that people are not only what they appear to be and to establish that being mixed race is okay - even great!
"I'm happy with who I am and it's not a bad thing to be mixed race at all, it's great," Simone concludes, "but I believe it's important to make the concept of 'I am not what I seem' public because individuals might have a different view of race. In order to change people's view of race I believe we must show that color and facial features cannot always be immediately connected to race, as stereotyping is detrimental. Ultimately, although we are celebrating mixed race through Project: Mixed, the goal is to show that race does not matter or change anyone's value and it is what makes us unique and the same."