Congratulations, mi negra! It finally happened. Today you looked into the mirror and said, “I’m black. Soy negra. Vaya.” You embraced your black or brown skin, your curls and kink. No small feat for a Dominican. You’re ready to forgo the centuries of Dominican anti-Africanism and embrace your brothers, sisters and cousins of the African Diaspora.
The reality is, there is no “black coming-out party.” Soon it will begin to sink in that everything black, everything African Diaspora, is appropriated, commercialized, monetized and exploited. Arguably, the term “Afro-Latinx” is suffering from “gimmification.” Within our community, there are Afro-Latinx who pretend black when it is convenient and then try to blend right back into anti-blackness when it is not. The colonial trauma and legacy of self-hate continues to morph into stranger things.
Thankfully, many Afro-Latinx are sharing their stories. Read this excerpt from Yesenia Montilla’s poem “The Day I Realized We Were Black,” from her collection The Pink Box:
because my godparents were Irish-American
because I had suppressed my blackness
because my brother shook me when I told him he was stupid we were Latino
because he had missed his Jersey to Port Authority bus
because he was walking to the nearest train station and lost his way
because he was stopped by the police
because he was hit with a stick
because he was never given the right directions even though he begged
because trash was thrown at him from the police cruiser’s window as he walked
because he was never the same
because we’re black because we’re black and I never knew I was twenty-two
Or my 2015 Gawker essay, “Hiding Black Behind the Ears: On Dominicans, Blackness, and Haiti”:
America thrusts black or white upon you quickly, and you have to decide, you have to know who and what you are. Life in the Dominican Republic had been too culturally ignorant and insular. Meanwhile in America, some Eurocentric or Castilian Latinos pass for white, but Afro-Latinos are either self-hating or catching hell or both, or just plain confused about who they are. Most of the Dominicans I know have a recognizable African lineage, but too many are quick to claim Latin American status as opposed to Afro-Caribbean identity. But let’s be honest: Cuba, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, and Haiti aren’t in South or Central America—they’re in the Caribbean. We need to re-examine our historical cultural selves. I agree that race is a construct, but identity is a necessity.
These stories are necessary, and we still need to shift the focus on strengthening the intersections of our common African heritage and struggles.
Remember: We’re not creating a brand. Your identity is not a marketable widget. We do want to move ever closer to a reunification of displaced African people: a political, social, economic, technological and global reunification. Europeans hoard resources and exact power in the name of whiteness. We need to come together and go a step further by accepting our African heritage and by working to eliminate the “color” construct.
That being said, all the new terms flying around are confusing: Latinegr@, Blacktino (my fave), Afro Latinx, Latinx, Afro-Latino and Afro-Caribbean Latino. You’re probably wondering which one of these applies to you. In his article “Afro-Latinx: Representation Matters,” Jose Figueroa defines “Afro-Latinx” this way:
An Afro-Latinx is a black person from Latin America. Despite sharing the identity of Latinx, colonial structures of privilege and power thrive within the community ... black and indigenous Latinxs are consistently forced to the sidelines and denied, despite their strong influences to Latinx culture.
Recognizing and accepting your African heritage doesn’t mean you pretend that you’re African American. Don’t parrot, imitate, appropriate or otherwise “act” African American. That shit is offensive to the African-American community, and stupid. We are a large black family, and we’re all unique based on our experience in the Diaspora. Embrace the beauty of our differences. You have a Caribbean identity, and because people of the African Diaspora share so many traits, you don’t need to play roles.
Fact: White supremacists don’t care that you speak English, Spanish, French, Creole, Portuguese, etc. Observe what a Ku Klux Klan leader told Univision news anchor Ilia Calderón, live on camera, during an interview: “To me you’re a nigger. That’s it.”
Language is just another of the master’s many tools. The African Diaspora speaks more European languages than we do languages native to the continent of Africa. We embrace the master’s languages as if speaking them makes us special. Coño. Colonial empire builders believed in the exceptionalism of their culture and language. They branded the native languages of the lands they conquered as unfit for instructional purposes; stripping us of our native languages facilitates stripping us of our identities.
Show up for black people and support Afrocentric movements—globally, black folks in America (see Black Lives Matter), in Portugal, Brazil, Mexico, France, Germany, South and Central America, and the continent of Africa. The Inter-American Foundation observes:
There are significant Afro-American populations throughout the region [South and Central America], although some have been reluctant to acknowledge them. Throughout the 20th century, Argentina, Uruguay and Chile have insisted that they were white nations with few or no citizens of African descent. ... In the Dominican Republic, people visibly of African descent constitute a majority, but because African ancestry is stigmatized it is commonly denied even when it is obvious. ... Afro-Latin activists are changing the national dialogue by insisting that the African and Afro-American contribution to the national culture be recognized.
Many African descendants are now realizing that in their home nations they are black first and a citizen second. In his essay “Why It Is Necessary That All Afro-Descendants of Latin America, the Caribbean and North America Know Each Other More,” Afro-Cuban history scholar Tomás Fernández Robaina writes:
It is very important that we recognize how this struggle began long ago, when we did not call ourselves “Negroes,” “African-Americans,” or “Afro-descendants,” as has been used more recently, but as “Cubans,” “Mexicans,” “Colombians,” “Brazilians,” identified, rather, as citizens of our respective countries, and as such, rightfully evidenced in our constitutions. Beautiful words, which, in practice, have been mostly lies ... [Emphasis added.]
You will not all of a sudden become the epicenter of knowledge on black identity and the African Diaspora because you read a few articles. Don’t pontificate to Afro-Latinx who don’t get it and don’t want to get it. Keep discovering the facts for yourself and, if you’re fortunate, with a community. Find your truth and be open to listening to other people’s stories. Check out Alan Pelaez Lopez’ article in Everyday Feminism:
But especially, I thought I couldn’t be Latinx, because everywhere I went, I was labeled “African American,” “mulatto,” “negro,” and so on. But, the reality is that there’s no need for me to apologize to my younger self and there’s no need for you, my fellow Afro-Latinx sibling to apologize because there is no manual on how to navigate being both Black and Latinx. If you are reading this, I hope you understand that being confused is not your fault, that having questions is okay, and that you’re not the first to learn to accept your full Black self and your full Latinx self. Let me get something clear: you are not an impostor!
Visit African countries. I had the European trip fever. I wanted to go to Paris and Madrid, and I have visited London and the Canary Islands. Ultimately, the time away with my family was nice, but the trip didn’t bring me closer to my roots. This yearning to visit the master’s cities is the same as the urge to learn the colonizer’s languages (Ooh la la, I speak French, Italian, German). Yes, European cities are beautiful places, but built on the corpses of colonialism. The next international trip I want to take is to Ghana.
Read up. Take courses and workshops. Watch documentaries like Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s Black in Latin America (free on YouTube or PBS). Get your hands on books like the ones in the Ain’t I a Latina article “10 Afro-Latina Authors You Should Know.” The website teachthought has compiled a list called “25 of the Most Important Books About Racism and Being Black in America.” Blavity compiled a list of books by Afro-Latinas: “11 Must-Read Books That Center Powerful Afro-Latin@ Narratives.”
Find the intersections created in our communities by the Black Panther Party, the Young Lords and the Brown Berets.
Visit the Civil Rights Digital Library online. The HuffPost article “Who Benefited From the Civil Rights Movement” briefly demonstrates how the movement became a blueprint for every other marginalized community in America.
But be wary as fuck, too. Your family and that clique of cousins who can pass for white might not be ready for this new woke version of you. Get ready for an intervention from the primas and the tías, the mamis and the abuelas, when you decide to stop relaxing your hair and go natural. “Tu ta loca muchacha el Diablo!”
Or when you finally call bullshit on that anti-blackness you’ve been hearing your whole life. You are going to be challenged on this newfound blackness; hold fast.
And please, whatever you do, don’t expect to be welcomed by all black people, either, simply because ta-da, you dique woke now. Many people of color feign blackness when it suits them, then relapse right back into their self-hating and black-denying ways. You’ll have to forgive us if we’re not ready to grant you a plaque on a building somewhere.
Yes, you will get some side eye, and yes, you must learn to deal with it. Black people from Trinidad to Mississippi have seen the “gimmification,” and appropriation of blackness ad nauseam, and we’re not here for that. Be proud, be aware and be emotionally intelligent.
A post on the website Lipstick Alley, “A Recent Trend in Many Latinos Identifying as Black/Afro Latinx for Convenience,” reveals what some folks in the African-American community find problematic.
I’ll end with a cautionary tale about relapses. My man Sammy Sosa meant a lot to me during the ’90s, and especially during the 1998 home run chase. Here was a paisano representing pa la gente, a Dominican who looked like me shining in the unforgiving American spotlight. After the performance-enhancing-drug drama and the fall of Sosa and Mark McGuire, America did what it does best: It forgave its white heroes—McGuire and, ultimately, Ryan Braun. Then it burned Sammy Sosa, Alex Rodriguez and Barry Bonds at the stake.
I don’t know how much that had to do with Sosa bleaching his skin white, but damn, Sammy, just damn. It’s possible Sosa believed that going white would let him back into that spotlight, into the realm of white forgiveness. Or maybe there’s a deeper trauma at work. Listen, I still love Sammy Sosa, but don’t go out like Sammy Sosa. Don’t relapse.
Bueno mi gente; stay woke, stay black.
Roberto Carlos Garcia’s book, Melancolía, is available from Červená Barva Press. His second collection, black/Maybe, will be published in April 2018 by Willow Books. His poems and prose have appeared or are forthcoming in Those People; Rigorous; Academy of American Poets Poem-a-Day; the New Engagement; Public Pool; Stillwater Review; Gawker; Barrelhouse; Tuesday; An Art Project; the Acentos Review; Lunch Ticket; and many others. He is founder of the cooperative press Get Fresh Books LLC. A native New Yorker, Garcia holds an MFA in poetry and poetry in translation from Drew University and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Visit his website.