When she attended East High School in Green Bay, Wisconsin, Carina Abrego-Koch’s 10th grade social studies class was asked to stick a thumbtack into their family’s country of origin. Holding the single thumbtack in hand, Abrego-Koch looked from Mexico to Japan, conflicted. Mexico was already studded with tacks. Japan stood in a world of blue without a single pin. After she placed her tack on the other side of the world, her peers had several questions, and her response was part of a repertoire she had perfected over the years.
“I am half Mexican, a quarter Japanese, an eighth Irish and an eighth Norwegian,” she told the class. Growing up most of her life in Green Bay, Abrego-Koch was used to people asking her the question, “What are you?” It was enough that, even when a bully kicked her seat and tapped her shoulder with that persistent question, her teacher singled her out to share her ancestry with the class—rather than reprimanding the antagonizing teenager. As a girl, she felt special among her classmates, but quietly, she longed to be part of a group. As a teenager, she had see a group of Hmong girls walking one way in the mall, a cluster of Mexican girls going the other way.
“I always felt like they looked at me like ‘Where do you fit in?’ ” Abrego-Koch said. “Native girls often asked me what tribe I was a part of. And, being lighter skinned, people also assumed I was White. ”It was not until she found the Hapa Project while scrolling through MySpace that she had the language to articulate why the question of “what” she was left her so bothered. The online project by artist Kip Fulbeck promotes awareness of being mixed race with a focus on Asian roots. “I remember someone being interviewed for the Hapa Project responded with, ‘What am I? What about who am I?’ That was my first real exposure to anything outside of northeast Wisconsin,” Abrego-Koch said.
Hapa is the Hawaiian transliteration of the English word “half,” and the project’s tagline, “half Asian, 100% hapa” resonated with Abrego-Koch.
t is a feeling that Miriam Brabham (UW-Green Bay), 31, of Green Bay, also has encountered. For her, the complication of being multiethnic is bound up in her black curls.
Brabham, the daughter of a Black father and a White mother of Italian and Irish origin, followed her boyfriend to Green Bay three years ago. While she adores summers at Bay Beach and the uniquely warm and welcoming community, she has had to travel as far away as Chicago to get her hair braided.
Growing up with a White mother who didn’t have the knowledge to treat her black hair, she internalized ideas about her hair. Its dryness, a factor of using the wrong products, amounted to people calling her hair as dry as a broom. Its knotted curls, a result of her hair not being properly wrapped at night, led to people saying she had a rat’s nest.
“I have a lot of trauma wrapped up in these curls,” she said.