Real Talk on Race is CBC Montreal's special series exploring personal conversations and experiences around race in the city.


Eleven-year-olds Sachin and Mara Tartamella know their appearance attracts attention and it's not because they're twins.

"People don't really know we're twins because my brother's skin colour is darker so they think he's more of the Indian one and I'm more of the Italian one," Mara said.

The fraternal twins – brother and sister – live in St-Leonard with their parents Lorenzo Tartamella, an Italian-Montrealer, and Dawn Barretto, who was born in India, immigrated to Toronto as a child and now calls Montreal home.

'I like rice, he likes pasta'

Mara says people often assume that Sachin "acts more Indian" while she acts "more Italian" because of their different complexions.

She wants people to know that's not the case.

Lorenzo Sachin and Mara Tartamella with Dawn Barretto

Lorenzo Tartamella and Dawn Barretto with their fraternal twins Sachin and Mara. (Shari Okeke/CBC)

"We kind of act in our own ways. For example, Indians like rice, Italians like pasta. I like rice, he likes pasta. That doesn't really matter," Mara said in a confident matter-of-fact tone that suggests she has explained this before.

Living in a predominantly Italian neighbourhood, the family knows they look different from most other families in the area.

For example, Lorenzo says while shopping with the twins, people will often assume they're not his biological children.

"They'll say, 'They're so nice, beautiful children. Where did you adopt them?' We really get that a lot," Lorenzo said chuckling.

"I still find it kind of cruel that people judge what race you are." - Sachin Tartamella, 11-year-old fraternal twin

But he said he simply replies that these are his children and people learn.

From Sachin's perspective, he says looking different was sometimes a problem when he was younger but now he's learned to ignore upsetting comments.

"I still find it kind of cruel that people judge what race you are," Sachin said.

If adults think skin colour is no longer an issue for kids his age, Sachin says they're wrong.

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"It happens. Kids just don't say it because they're afraid they'll get bullied," he said.

Lorenzo was not in the room to hear that comment from his son, so I told him about it.

"I'd love to hear my son talk about those things because when I try to talk to him about certain things, he says there's nothing to talk about," Lorenzo said.

"But maybe he's protecting me and that's amazing," he said.

Life-changing moment

Lorenzo remembers the shock he felt seeing Sachin – at the age of five – pinch his own skin and ask "How come I'm black?" after an incident with another child. 

"That was a changing moment in my life," Lorenzo said, taking a deep breath.

"(I thought to myself,) 'We're packing up and we're moving to Toronto...I don't want to bring my children up here,'" he said.

Mara and Sachin Tartamella

Mara and Sachin Tartamella in India in 2014. (Submitted by Lorenzo Tartamella)

Lorenzo says the family adjusted and stayed put largely thanks to his wife, the twins' mother, Dawn.

She insisted the children participate in a wide range of activities – acting, singing, hockey, soccer – and that helped them fully integrate into the community, Lorenzo said.

Dawn has a lifetime of experience of standing out as "different."

Racism

"There was so much overt racism in the '70s. Growing up (in Toronto) we were called 'Paki'...We were not accepted," she said.

She spent much of her youth priding herself mainly on the fact she had a British grandmother.

"I'm proud that I'm Indian and I'm proud that I'm Italian." - Mara Tartamella, 11-year-old fraternal twin

"I wanted to identify more with the white part even though it was a quarter of me," Dawn said.

"We never had those discussions with our parents. We had to discover (our identity) ourselves," she said.

As a young adult, Dawn travelled to India and connected with her Indian roots. She finally felt part of a visible majority but eventually realized she relates more to fellow Canadians who share the experience of being children of immigrants.

As a parent, she takes issue with anyone who refers to a mixed race child as being part of just one race.

"Why can't they be both?" she said.

More than anything, Dawn wants both her children to embrace both sides of their heritage and feel comfortable in their skin.

That's why she and Lorenzo took them to India a couple of years ago.

'Strength of character'

Dawn says she knows throughout the twins' lives they will "feel the hatred of people just looking at you and judging you not knowing who you are" and she wants them to have the tools to handle it.

"The tool being strength of character, having a sense of belonging and having a sense of identity," Dawn said.

Little did she know how much confidence they each exuded while talking about identity with a reporter they'd just met earlier that evening.

Mara said people assume she's only Italian but she wants them to know more.

"I would like them to know that I'm Indian because I'm proud that I'm Indian and I'm proud that I'm Italian," she said and smiled, adding that people say that's "cool."

Sachin wanted me to know his idea of a perfect meal: butter chicken with any Italian dessert.

"It's good that everyone's different because it would be boring if it was all the same. We're all human," he said.