I've decided to republish my article, "The Black Latino/a Experience" here because the two websites that originally published it - ParaMi.net in 2005 and Blacktino.net 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 http://www.slaveryinamerica.org/geography/slave_trade.htm, 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.