Thursday, May 05, 2011

Dear Torii Hunter, Carol's Daughter, Henry Louis Gates and All the Hype Freaks: Black Latinidad/Mixed Identity Is Complex, So Stop Being Divisive

In the last four days, I have heard way too much divisive language about being a multi-racial person in the United States. I have spent most of the last 10 years getting to know all the different cultures that have created the mix that I am - West African, Spanish, Caribbean, Black, White, indigenous, Middle Eastern, South Asian - and I have found great respect for all these cultures and I feel proud of all of them. I choose to identify as a Black Latina and/or mixed Latina because: 1) many members of my family in both Cuba and Colombia were hurt by racism, slavery and the denial that both caused, so I feel it is my mission to embrace my Black roots; 2) I absolutely love that if you look at my family, you can see our Middle Eastern features, White features, Black features and South Asian features - I think it is vital to embrace all the journeys that created that mix.

HOWEVER, it seems that people like Torii Hunter have a problem with Black Latinos/as, just at the moment when scholars like Henry Louis Gates, Jr., are bringing their experience to a wider audience. Now, I have issue with many missing things in Gates' work, especially the work of Black Latino/a scholars who made his PBS special possible, but I still think the documentary has value in that it legitimizes the subject for many people who were in denial about it or didn't even know it existed. The PBS special will open the doors for new scholarly activity; new scholars will be able to write about the gaping holes in Gates' work, for example. It is irresponsible for an athlete to attempt to close those doors. I simply cannot understand why an African American like Hunter does not feel connected to his fellow Black players, regardless of where they come from. Isn't the Black experience deeper than a major league baseball job? Does Hunter feel that he must act like a rival gang member in a 10 block radius and decide that he feels more threatened by someone who is just like him, instead of directing his anger towards a system that makes all athletes court jesters to entertain the masses? Why is he unable to see the big picture? Why not join forces with his brothers in order to create more fairness for ALL Blacks in the sport?

Another divisive news item that came to light is decidedly more female-centered. Apparently, the folks who run Carol's Daughter, a website that sells hair and beauty products for Black women, decided to expand their merchandise base to include products that are useful to "mixed women." The statement sent many Black women into a fury because apparently including "mixed" women means excluding "real Black" women. Things got so heated, there is a blog solely dedicated to hating Carol's Daughter. I think the phrase that made the women most upset was when the press release stated that the global women who are of many cultures don't pick one box on a form and that they are "colorless" when it comes to defining themselves. I can completely understand how "colorless" was the wrong choice and any PR person worth his/her weight would have said you can't use that word. However, I don't understand how the folks who used products on the site didn't understand that mixed women were already part of their world. I mean, most people, Black or White, have a mix if you reach far enough back.

The new spokespeople for Carol's Daughter - Selita Ebanks, Solange Knowles, and Cassie - are mixed Black women who have a huge Black fan base. So, exactly what is the problem? Is this just another case of hating the high yellow lady? I don't think it is or should be that simple. Many of us are mixed and we finally want to acknowledge that journey. Acknowledging our mix does NOT mean that we do not identify as Black or find "true Blackness" - whatever that is - ugly. In fact, it is the opposite - we find ALL of it beautiful. It just means that we have many different cultures that we want to acknowledge. Why is that concept frightening for so many people? Just as Hunter does not see Black Latinos/as as "real Blacks," the women who are boycotting Carol's Daughter do not see Ebanks, Knowles or Cassie as representative of "real Blacks." That is a problem. On the one hand, people want us mixed folks to acknowledge our African ancestry, but on the other hand, they feel that we can never really represent our African ancestry. I find the double standard completely counterproductive.

But not everyone is hostile towards the variety of Black people found all over the world. For example, there is one website, Round Brush Hair, which I have been faithful to for years now. It is a Dominican website that sells Dominican hair products which work on hair that ranges from super thick and kinky to super thin and stringy. The website acknowledges the many races found in the Dominican Republic and features products that work for the full range of hair textures. I swear by the products found there and I love how Blacks of many different cultures - African American, Black Latino/a, UK Blacks, etc. - all find a home there. Whether you are lightskinned-ed or black sand dark, you will find people with good advice for you and products suited to your needs. And, NO, I don't work for the site. I'm just pointing out that I suspect that Carol's Daughter was trying to capitalize on this concept, the idea that there is a full range of Blackness that should be acknowledged. I mean, aren't a bunch of African Americans mixed, too? Um - yes! These African American mixed chicks acknowledge it. If you have a mix and acknowledge it, does it mean you are negating being Black? I don't think so.

Furthermore, if you are Latino/a and Black, or Chinese and Black, or whatever and Black, does that mean that you are not really Black? I've always said, I think each person has to choose for him/herself and that the rest of us should respect that decision. Zoe Saldana identifies as a Black Latina and she, indeed, has had a life as a Black woman - no one can take that away from her. It may not be the same life that an African American woman in Houston might have had, but it is still part of the Black experience, just as the life of a Black woman in Germany is still part of the Black experience, etc. Chanel Iman is half African American and half Korean, and she has lived the life of a Black woman, too. Joan Smalls, same thing. AND, Saldana has also has a Dominican experience, and Chanel Iman a Korean experience, and Smalls a Puerto Rican experience, and so on. One experience does not negate the other. One is not more than the other. They are all equal.

Stop denying us. We are here and our lives have been hard and beautiful, just like yours.

(I wrote on this subject years ago. You can look at my previous article on the Black Latino/a experience here. Also, Rosa Clemente wrote a great article on the subject years ago, too. Find it here.)

The Black Latino/a Experience (originally published in 2005 on

I've decided to republish my article, "The Black Latino/a Experience" here because the two websites that originally published it - in 2005 and in 2008 - are now defunct. I thought I should have a record of it and I believe the issues are still culturally relevant. I hope you think so, too.

When I was a little girl
my mami said to me
if you had straight hair
then you'd be so pretty
when I was a little girl
my daddy said to me
good girls never fight
if you fight, then you're ungodly
my black friends said, “You're white.”
my white friends said, “You're black.”
I wish I could take the strength I have now
and shoot it straight on back
to that time when I was so helpless and so weak
to them I was invisible, a flimsy transparency
not black, not white, not anything distinct
a flimsy transparency

Growing up in the 1970s and ‘80s as a mixed Cuban/Colombian in Chicago's Logan Square neighborhood, with its large Puerto Rican and Polish populations, was confusing. Everyone thought I was Puerto Rican, and when I explained where my parents were from, they looked at me funny, as if I had said, “I am from the galaxy of Cuba, located in the region of Colombia, far, far, away.” However, what would be infinitely more confusing was when I earned the privilege of attending a 7th -12th grade prep school in the affluent neighborhood of Hyde Park. That area, and the school, was primarily African American and Jewish. After a couple of months, I began to notice how much the seventh grade black boys liked me. I began to ask my parents if I was a black person. They responded with a bunch of references to words I had never heard of like, triguena, morena, mestiza, and they said something about the indigenous peoples of Colombia, but they refused to answer my question directly. After a few weeks of what they called my annoying gringa persistence (Would they ever forgive me for being the first born in the U.S.?), my mother did admit that her father had refused to go to her wedding because my father “era un negro.” My mother had always called my dad “negrito,” but I had always thought of it as term of affection, not as a reference to his being black. Was I black? Then why had my race always been referred to as “Hispanic” or “Latino”? Do those terms refer to skin color? My mother is also Latina, but she is white. Do the words “Hispanic” and “Latino” equally address the backgrounds of my mother, my father and me? Not really.

Another fellow black Latino, Piri Thomas, born in 1928, is the first Puerto Rican American (he is also half Cuban) to be published in the United States. He is also one of the first Latinos to have addressed the issue of race in our barrios with his groundbreaking novel Down These Mean Streets and other works. He knew he was different when his family moved from his birthplace of East Harlem to Long Island, New York. “My sister came out blanca, my one brother had blue eyes, bluer than the sky, and my other brother had hazel eyes and he had hair that he could shake back. I did that and nothing would move!” As a result, many of the local high school students, none of them Latino or African American, could not understand how Mr. Thomas could come from a family that had lighter siblings. To make matters worse, even Mr. Thomas' fellow Latinos made him feel like an outsider. “I think it was when I came to my age of awareness, which was about seven or eight years old…I would pick up on words, phrases, they'd say things like, ‘ Mira, casate blanca pa' que suba la raza' or ‘marry white so you raise the race.' There was teasing, they called me narizón, cabezón, y bembu. My own people were being racist towards me.”

According to José Luis Vilson, Co-founder of the Latino Alumni Network of Syracuse University, his own peers, from the Caribbean and from South America, would tell him he was “not Dominican enough” because of his dark skin color. “There are many people who are very dark Dominicans and you see them on the island, and I come back to the United States and there are these people in New York City who are telling me I am not Dominican enough. That infuriated me.” When asked if the Latinos who made such a statement were white, he laughed. “As a matter of fact, they were somewhat in the middle, like, brownish. This has a lot to do with Trujilloism. You may, or may not, be aware of the fact that when Trujillo arrived in the Dominican Republic, he tried to make everyone as white as possible because if you were black that meant you were Haitian, so he wanted that division.”

Arlene Chico-Lugo, a black Puerto Rican actress who has been seen on programs like FOX's Johnny Zero, told me that she had never talked about being a black Latina with anyone in her 20 plus years of life. She confronts racism within the Latino community on a daily basis when she walks into auditions and sometimes the confrontations are quite blatant. “I went to this one audition…and the woman said to me, ‘I don't even know why you're here. Take a look outside. You're not what [the producers] want. I don't even want to put you on camera because I'll get in trouble,'” Ms. Chico-Lugo said as she explained her experience with the casting director for a Spanish-language car commercial. All of the other actors present that day were white Latinos. “I just stood there with this dumb smile on my face, thinking, ‘I can't believe this is actually happening.'” Yet, it happens every day. The overwhelming majority of Spanish-language programming on television does not reflect the variety of races represented in Latin America and this obscures our roots. My own students, who range in age from 10 to 70 and who live in different locales throughout the New York and New Jersey areas, are often unaware that one can be white or black AND Latino at the same time.

According to a 2003 report in The L.A. Times by Daniel Hernandez, the U.S. Census has finally started allowing Latinos to pick more than one category in terms of race and ethnicity in 2000, thus opening up a field of research in terms of black and white Latinos. However, through my own informal research on the black Latino experience in the U.S., I have found that Latino families have traditionally talked very little about race and its effect on identity. Add to that the fact that few Latinos are taught their own history in terms of race and nationality in U.S. schools and you have a mix of denial and erased truth that is specifically Latino. In fact, according to the slave trade map available at, between 10 and 15 million people of African descent were shipped to the Americas from the years of 1650 to 1860. The majority of these slaves were brought to areas of the Caribbean and Central and South America and only 500,000 were brought to the U.S.

It may seem crazy that Latinos could actually deny that there are any blacks in Latin America, but I have heard it from my own friends, too. Growing up I constantly heard the older Cubanas in my church claim that there were no blacks in Cuba, even as they listened to Celia Cruz. My own aunts, to this day, deny that they have a black ancestry, despite the afros that we all have (and straighten). By the time I was out of college, I had finally accepted that I am a black Latina and stopped straightening my hair. Now, whenever people asked me the rude, but inevitable, question of “What are you?” I have an answer.

However, there is still much work to be done. One day, walking home, I did not respond to an African American man's advances and he yelled that the reason I had not talked to him was that he was black. I told him that I was black, just like him, and he said, “You can't be black. Maybe you're a spic or something, but you can't be black.” Even though his response was very rude, I felt, even at that time, that it was representative of what so many people, black and white, still believe. It is futile to deny where a good part of our warm color comes from; let us embrace all of our roots.

My hope is that one day we will refuse to live by the labels on the boxes of so many of the bureaucratic forms woven into our lives. My hope is that one day we will see the true woven fabric of our lives, a fabric that has little pieces of gold from all over the world which form into one solid, reflective entity.

Hernandez, Daniel. “Report Shows How Racial Identities Affect Latinos.” L.A. Times, 15 July 2003.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Modern Foxes: A Guide to Women and Adventure in Film

What does a girl have to do to get some adventure around here? No, seriously - I'm not talking about Terry McMillan novels or adventure fantasy junk that describes in detail the texture of a fairy's iridescent wings. I'm talking about Tama Janowitz adventure, or Sylvie Simmons adventure. Adventure where women are tough, sarcastic, and have a humorous free spirit that finds them in an elite pad on the Upper East Side one minute and then on an expedition in Egypt the next and then maybe learning how to sculpt in Southern California the next. I'm not talking about your typical, corny "girl power" story that either shows us how oppressed we are and that...sniff, sniff...we CAN survive it or YEAH (!!!), we're BADASS and we can use just as many guns as the next guy, all while wearing a short skirt.

Octavia Butler, Anne Rice and Joyce Carole Oates have crafted excellent stories, but not all my students get their culture from reading. Furthermore, there is a darkness to their writing, a sense of complete suffering, which is vital to the work. I appreciate that women have suffered, but I also appreciate that we have a great time. Why not celebrate that more? It's missing from the conversation. It's like when the Wayans' brothers made this film in order to criticize the stereotype that all African American people are miserable in the 'hood - we need to make fun of the Lifetime network stereotype of women suffering for two hours then feeling empowered for two minutes already.

In that vein, I have created a comprehensive, but not all-encompassing, list of films that have inspired my female imagination and sparked my desire for more and more and evermore adventure. I had a few requirements when choosing what would go on the list: 1) the film can't just be about getting the guy; 2) the film has to show women thriving in some way, even if they are totally not perfect; 3) the main character has to be powerful in a fresh way (i.e., she can't just be a chick with a gun - can we say "fetish"?); 4) there has to be adventure!

The list is in chronological order and I have not included documentaries; if you think anything is missing, post a comment!


Auntie Mame was based on a novel by the same name. Our main character has many adventures while raising her nephew in a wacky, bohemian way.

DARLING (1965)

Julie Christie plays a woman who does whatever she wants...and makes it all the way to a palace doing it. However, it is not a Cinderella story because the palace - and the prince - are boring.


Shirley MacLaine stars, Chita Rivera is featured, and the women shine and believe in love, despite others around them who are not as strong.


Riff Randall is the embodiment of adventure - she lives for it!


Two teenage girls, who have both been deemed crazy, btw, hold a concert in Times Square. One of them is a tough street chick and the other is the daughter of NYC's mayor! Class rules broken!

FOXES (1980)

Jodie Foster, and Marie Curie of the Runaways, star as fearless teens who try to negotiate growing up in corrupt L.A.


The adventures of a true, English, punk rock queen.


Diane Lane stars as a young girl who heads a band and gets thousands of people to follow her lead.


Ann Carlyle plays with gender roles and looks amazing doing it.


Okay, technically, the main character isn't female, but there are definitely girls doing their own thing here and they aren't wimpy or afraid of abandoned buildings, etc. Furthermore, a woman - Penelope Spheris - directed the film.


Miriam, played by Catherine Deneuve, is the oldest person on the planet, the mother of civilization, an imperialist beeatch. She meets her match in Susan Sarandon's Sarah, an innovative researcher. Current vampire films don't compare to this one, imho.


An Almodovar film where nuns do some very peculiar and wild things. It could be said that most of his films feature badass women who are on adventures, but this one seems to be the least related to boyfriends or births, so I thought I'd share the rare film. I guarantee it will become one of your faves.


Rock and roll debauchery in a silly, silly film.


Rosanna Arquette is adorable, Aidian Quinn is quirky, and Madonna is Madonna. The outfits and locations make an adventure out of 80s New York and New Jersey - love it! If you rent the DVD, look at the alternative ending, where the women leave their men sitting at home while they explore Egypt.


Three roommates, no money, no car, and it's the weekend. Step in geek and the adventure begins! Ex.: One of the roommates has a chance at running off with a famous musician - but she chooses her own life!


Melanie Griffith stars as Audrey/Lulu, a woman who is hot, smart and could care less about convention. Jeff Daniels is funny as her cute puppy and Ray Liotta is amazing as her psychotic husband.


When I first saw this I loved it because it showed a big girl with a hot boyfriend, something which I had never seen on-screen. It also showed girls willing to stand up against racism, defending interracial romance, and kids, in general, being fun and smart at the same time. Totally liberating without that "oh poor us" syndrome. But I love all John Waters films. A DIRTY SHAME is especially empowering and hilarious, too.


Great dark comedy with Winona Ryder and Christian Slater, but more importantly, she doesn't choose to be with a guy at the end. Pretty girls can be smart, too? Wow, what a concept.


Helen Slater and Melanie Mayron - who were later cast in much blander films and TV - are classical musicians trying to make the rent. Again, great outfits and locations, but most importantly, the resolution really has nothing to do with getting the guy - in fact it's quite the opposite.


Parker Posey in one of her great indies where a party girl re-evaluates her life and re-invents herself.


The sweet artists who you thought were dumb in high school actually got skills - and they are more fun than you. Work can be fun - who knew?


I think all Gregg Araki films have strong women in them but this one is notable because it turns marriage and childbirth on its head. Technically, it is NOT about getting the guy but about getting TWO guys. Completely unconventional but definitely adventurous - and hilarious. A newer film, HAVANA EVA, explores this concept, too - it won an award at San Anto's Cinefestival this year. I should also mention Araki's NOWHERE, which stars Rachel True as a girl who does only what pleases her; I have mixed feelings about it because the character is somewhat unsympathetic, but True is amazing in the role - very nuanced - and I wish there were more roles like this for Black women.


Suburban girls navigate identity while at rummage sales and in art classes. I do have to mention that I'm creeped out by the older guy relationship, but the complexity of Thora Birch's Enid overrides that.


Ironic/funny look at L.A. artists with a very strong female lead. The guy from T.V. on the Radio is in it, too, as a filmmaker - and the analysis is scathing! So much fun to watch!


A teacher who has a sex life (!), has a nightlife, has friends, wears cool clothes, and is completely moral and sweet and hopeful, even around negative people. I'd say she's the new Sweet Charity - and my hero!

WHIP IT (2009)

Girls supporting each other without getting all annoyingly corny - I'm there! I think this is much better than Drew's other "girly" projects.

I hope you find the list useful. Like I implied earlier, I'd like to see more novels with the spirit found in these films, but these will do for now. Oh, and I should mention that I found lots of "girl power film" lists online, but too many of them had stuff like THELMA AND LOUISE, where the chicks end up committing suicide (!) at the end, or SISTERHOOD OF THE TRAVELING PANTS, which makes me want to regurgitate my dinner, or films that were just too victim-centered.

And that's the worst part of it, isn't it? That is, to constantly portray women as having to get out of a victim situation instead of happily sweating out a challenging, exciting situation, in the end, perpetuates our concept of ourselves as victims. These films, with all their flaws, show me how women/girls can have fun with challenges and I am certain that imagery has contributed to my own success.

Now, go ahead, all you writers out there, start writing more stories that show women for who they are: adventurers. I'll be waiting...or actually, no, I'll probably be busy with my next adventure...maybe a trip to a new place...or finally editing that play...or maybe...

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

PULL UP TO THE BUMPER: Curves are normal, caramba!

I am not going to attempt to make any new joke about that idiot Limbaugh talking about the beautiful First Lady, Michelle Obama - I'm sure the best jokes have already been said - but I am going to question why people think it is okay to continually insult beautiful women who look strong and healthy. Basta!

Look at a damn Fellini film. Fellini women are not size two. Most women are not a size two, yet people in San Antonio are trying to oust Miss San Antonio because she is only a size two. They said they want to promote healthy eating. Asking a 17 year old girl to lose 13 pounds when she is a size two is unhealthy and actually promotes unhealthy eating habits. Implying that Michelle Obama is overweight when she's had two children, has arms of steel and still manages to look like this

is freakin' unhealthy. Man, she looks hot in that dress!

Exactly what do people have against women? Are folks still upset that we get to wear both skirts and pants? Why do some of you insist on making us believe that we have to look like this in order to be "healthy?" Sorry, Stella Tenant, but I don't think visible rib cages are a sign of health or sexual prowess. Is it that people want to keep us weak and silly, because that seems like the only possible explanation. Our brains are made of body fat, so we simply cannot rid ourselves of all the fat - sorry, I'd prefer that the governing organ of my body be able to function properly.

Here are some averages of women's measurements. Note that the older average measurements (35-27-37.5), from around the 1940s, are not what is considered a size two today, which is a max of 34-24.5-35.5. Yet models are expected to be 34-24-34, and that is at 5'8 or taller. What we need to consider is how perception changes. In the past, a curvy woman was considered healthy; now, she is considered obese. I've taken certain surveys on weight and size and I've gotten "obese" back as a result. My waist is 26 inches. I don't want to look scrawny like Charlotte Gainsbourg! Ugh!

Don't get me wrong - we have promoted a healthier lifestyle as of late. I do believe that changing our smoking habits from those promoted in the past is totally correct, but making women believe that their natural body shape - one which has carried many women in the 1950s to age 80, or 90 or older - is totally incorrect. Even today we have many women who are energetic forces of nature who have commanding bodies we should admire. Here are some beautiful women who are certainly not a size two and, apart from Monroe, most are/were incredibly healthy.





And, iconic beauties:





None of these amazing beauties are a size two, not that I'm saying there's anything wrong with being a size two (as someone who is 5'1, I've been there, but I was also very young and without child - as an older woman I enjoy my new curves and I think my husband does, too). We definitely shouldn't be hurtful to women who are NATURALLY thin, but to expect our First Lady to change her beauty when she represents the ideal - a strong, healthy, active woman - is ignorant. Furthermore, to ask a young girl who is already thin to risk her health for the camera is horrific - what kind of adult are you?? To expect any woman who is healthy and active to conform to unhealthy delusions is just plain stupid, especially when we have so many examples of how healthy is beautiful.

Can we just squash this stuff already? We made sexual harassment a big no-no; can we make weight harassment a no-no, too? Or maybe we can just get Grace Jones to kick Limbaugh's ass.