After waiting for what seemed like an ETERNITY to get tickets to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, I was FINALLY able to score some a few months ago and make my way there on October 8th, 2017. I felt overly excited and anxious as we slowly crammed ourselves into an elevator that would take us down to the Slavery and Freedom exhibits. As I turn left, I noticed the dates painted on the wall descending with each floor from 2017 down to the 1400s. I could feel the sheer excitement in the elevator, as well as the nerves and could overhear the murmurs of “I don’t know if I’m ready for this.” As we entered the first of the History Galleries and embarked on the dimly lit path for the museum’s “Transatlantic Slave Trade” section, I took note of a plaque that read:
The Marriage of Queen Isabella I and King Ferdinand II created the Spanish Kingdom. Considered religious zealots, they cemented their control through the church, driving out non-Catholics. In 1492 their army conquered the Muslim inhabitants of Spain, known as Moors, and banished them from the kingdom. Jews and Muslims, who refused to convert to Christianity were violently expelled or executed. In their kingdom, national identity was defined by “limpieza de sangre,” or pure blood.
I couldn’t help but slowly re-read the last line, “In their kingdom, national identity was defined by ‘limpieza de sangre,’ or pure blood,” because who knew that 500+ years later, I would continue to hear versions of this expression in places that I frequent and love (like the salón, around the block, in schools, the internet, and, worse of all, at gatherings with family and friends). Soon, it clicked, and I thought to myself: “This is why Dominicans believe and say shit like this!”
Although I was born and raised in Boston, I’ve always felt as though I had un pie aquí (one foot here) in the U.S. y un pie allá (and one foot there) on the island. I grew up listening to Aventura AND hip-hop. I grew up on rice, beans and chicken, AND pizza. I grew up speaking English, Spanish, AND (my favorite), Spanglish. Growing up with this duality was often confusing, but also really dope. I could move between two worlds, often seamlessly, in ways that others couldn’t. But, it also meant that I grew up fawning after my sisters’ and cousins’ beautiful dark, coiled curls while being told that I shouldn’t because I was the “lucky” one with pelo bueno (good hair) due to the soft waves of my light brown hair. I didn’t get it. Why was it that something I considered so beautiful was deemed “bad” and, thus, in need of fixing, but something I saw as boring was beautiful and “good,” thus deserving of praise. It wasn’t until I got older that I started recognizing how the remnants of Spanish colonization still lived and thrived within the Dominican communities both inside and outside of the island.
I remember being in High School and asking my parents whether we could be descendants of African slaves. After all, my paternal grandmother and many of my uncles and cousins on my father’s side are darker skinned, and yet, my father just recalled how White and tall his green-eyed father was. Although my mom had a brother who was nicknamed Moreno for his dark skin, she responded similarly, boasting about her tall, fair skinned father (ignoring her café con leche complexioned mother) and stating that we were Indio – not Black. “But how could we be Indio if Columbus and the Spaniards virtually exterminated the Taínos within 50 years of their arrival?” I protested to no avail. Thanks to my woke ass Dominican HS teacher, I started becoming more aware of race and racism in the U.S., of my Dominicaness and the anti-Blackness that coexisted (and still does) within my worlds.
As we continued on through the museum, reading, witnessing and internalizing the information, I kept thinking to myself, “Fuck, this was awful. What these Europeans and some African royalty did was fucked up!” But if what they did was SO messed up, why do Dominicans celebrate their Independence from Haiti and not Spain? If Dominicans love the Indio narrative SO much, then why does the D.R. dedicate an ENTIRE museum called Faro a Colón located in their “colonial zone” (YES THAT’S WHAT IT’S CALLED) in honor of Christopher Columbus? Why celebrate the legacy of the colonizer who fought to erase everything you claim to hold dear about our culture? You know, like our impeccable sense of rhythm, our bomb food, and our labia that often gets us into trouble or out of it. I get that our history is remarkably complex and marred with racist ideologies, but really? WHAT…THE…FUCK! I don’t want to continue hearing my fellow hermanxs say things like: “You have to think carefully about who you date because you could end up ‘dañando la raza’” – damaging the race – this coming out of a Brown person’s mouth. I don’t want to continue seeing little Brown Dominican girls crying because they don’t look like their White, blonde and blue eyed teacher (yes, this happened at my former school). I don’t want to have to continue defending the beauty that lies within ALL of our rich paradoxical cultures, not just the ones that can be stomached by White America. Ya basta!
To my fellow Dominicanxs, it’s time to wake up (permanently) and realize that yes, we may come in many shades of Brown, have different hair colors and textures, and still use Taíno-derived words, AND we are also Black. Let’s truly love our history and culture enough to criticize it and make it better. Let’s decolonize the Dominican mind juntos, because this needs to be a community effort. It starts with us, with fully loving EVERYTHING about ourselves, even more so, the parts that some might regard as bad or indigestible to White (or white minded) folx.
It starts with us learning our full, complete and accurate history and calling out the false narratives that have been deeply engrained in our psyche for generations. (Interested in learning how to do this with students? Check out my resource on Latinx Heritage Month, which includes 20 projects and activities to explore Latinxs/Afro-Latinx history, facts, social movements, and current events.)
It starts with us calling out our racist parents, abuelos, tias, tios, primos and family friends at every turn. It starts with us listening, learning and fostering honest conversations with ourselves, fellow Dominicans, Latinxs, and people of the African Diaspora. It needs to starts with us before we do this with our kids. Because our kids deserve to live in a tomorrow where they can feel unapologetically proud to be Dominican AND be part of the African Diaspora without anyone giving them that “limpieza de sangre” bullshit.