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Natalie Morales: How I respond to people who say I'm 'not Latin enough'

I’m half Brazilian and half Puerto Rican. But all my life, I’ve been told I’m not quite Latin enough — or white enough.
In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, Natalie Morales wrote an essay for TODAY about her Brazilian and Puerto Rican background.
In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, Natalie Morales wrote an essay for TODAY about her Brazilian and Puerto Rican background.Katty Huertas / TODAY / NBC

During Hispanic Heritage Month, TODAY is sharing the community’s history, pain, joy and pride. We are highlighting Latino and Hispanic trailblazers and rising voices. TODAY will be publishing personal essays, stories, videos and specials throughout the month of September and October. For more, head here.

For more of our Hispanic Heritage Month coverage, tune into TODAY All Day’s special, “Come with Us: Celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month,” hosted by Tom Llamas. Watch Wednesday, Sept. 29, at 12:30 p.m., 4:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. EST at TODAY.com/allday.

What does it mean to be told you are “not Latin enough?" I have heard it often throughout my life but especially as I navigated my career in TV. An agent once told me that someone I worked for — someone who had a lot of power over my career — had told him, “We want more Morales, less Natalie.” Ouch! Si es la verdad! It’s true. It hurt a lot, as those comments do to so many of us who are una mezcla, or a mix. We come in so many shades — of not just brown, but also white, black, tan, olive and more.

Morales (far left) as a girl with her parents and sister in Panama.Courtesy of Natalie Morales

I am 100% Latina, born to a Brazilian mother and a Puerto Rican father. I speak both Spanish and Portuguese and grew up speaking and hearing both at home and with family abroad. I have lived in Panama, Brazil and Spain and have spent many holidays and summers in Puerto Rico with my family there.

When someone says — based on the color of my skin or the fact that I don’t have an accent when speaking English — that I am not Latin or Hispanic enough, I always say, “What is your definition of what a Latinx person is supposed to be?” From Mexico to the Caribbean to Central and South America, the Hispanic and Latinx labels are so broad and encompass many in-betweens, but this doesn’t make us any less of a part of this community. Whether one speaks Spanish or not doesn’t even matter, as many of us were taught by our immigrant parents to assimilate and blend in culturally.

Morales (bottom center) as a child with her sister, mother and grandparents in Rio de Janeiro. Courtesy of Natalie Morales

I am very proud of my heritage and background and I aim to educate as often as I can. We should never live with stereotypes. I will admit, as a Latina-raised woman born in Taiwan (my father was in the Air Force serving in Vietnam at the time of my birth) and having grown up all over the world, there was a time I wished to be blond and blue-eyed and often told people I was born in California.

I was often asked why my mother had such a thick accent, which I never really noticed because it was the only accent I knew. Classmates called me racial slurs, jokingly, yet it was painful. That was the flip side of not being Latin enough: I was never quite white enough, either.

That was the flip side of not being Latin enough: I was never quite white enough, either.

It wasn’t until I moved back to the U.S. from Spain for my senior year in high school that I truly began to understand the importance of preserving my family’s heritage and our culture. I embraced all things that made me “different” or “exotic.” I have learned that checking a box, even though I do not like being forced into one, means identifying with my cultural ethnicity, which is very important to me — more so now that I am a mother raising the next generation.

Morales (second from left) with her sisters and their mother in Puerto Rico.Courtesy of Natalie Morales

Both of my children are 50% Latino. They are not fluent in Spanish, as much as I have tried. They have green and blue eyes and are whiter than I am. They are also part German, English and Scottish, among other ethnicities. So what does it mean to be Latin or Hispanic today? It means a lot of different things, from the foods we eat to the families we share to the accents we have to the various shades of our skin tones and to the many beats of the music we dance to. My children have learned to appreciate all of it.

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Part of why I wrote my cookbook, “At Home with Natalie,” was to preserve some of that cultural identity, as the book contains recipes and stories from so many places where I have lived and traveled. Making my Puerto Rican abuelita’s “Ropa Vieja,” or my Brazilian vovo’s croquetas or flan always evokes the aromas of my childhood. My children have learned how incredibly lucky they are to be unique and to have such a rich blend of so many backgrounds.

Morales with her husband, Joe Rhodes, and their two sons.Courtesy of Natalie Morales

That blend is very much what it means to be Hispanic today. And while our culture, traditions and religion may differ, we pride ourselves on working hard, educating ourselves as much as possible, striving for better lives for our children, loving our often large and blended families, and sharing as much of our history and customs as we can with anyone who chooses to really see us. We are not so different after all. People simply need to see us for who we are and not who they expect us to be.