Last week, I attended a Three Kings Day event my Puerto Rican homegirl and her family hosted in Los Sures. Every time I visit them, I think about the gentrification in Williamsburg – her family tells stories about the way the neighborhood has changed since her dad grew up there. I hate going to Williamsburg because of experiences of racism I’ve personally had there, but when I’m with my friend and her family tribe, I am reminded of the rich heritage of Puerto Ricans in NYC.
Diego Echeverria provides a glimpse into this past while organizations like El Puente have been doing dope work in the Southside community for decades. Everyone was warm and friendly, the Bacalao stew was popping, and the hips were swaying all night. We left the house and ended up at Las Tainas (which I highly recommend). The music was amazing and as I got some Bachata tips, I had Diaspora on my mind. I was thinking about the connections I could hear in music from Puerto Rico, The Dominican Republic, and Jamaica. Even though I couldn’t always understand the song lyrics, I got the feel of songs.
Coming away from the night, I felt a profound connection to the Latinx community I was just a part of. I could see, smell, taste, and hear the diaspora through the night and my genuine thought to myself was “we’re not so different after all.”
Diaspora vibes are so deep and it amazes me to think that PEOPLE OF THE AFRICAN CONTINENT ARE EVERYWHERE. Brazil, US, Mexico, the Caribbean (DR, Puerto Rico, Cuba included), Morocco, Egypt, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, India.
This map lays out the extension of forced migration of people of the African continent. The enslaved people shipped to the US, Central and South America, and the Caribbean likely had the same experiences across the Atlantic. The prominence of sugarcane as an export in the 1500s – 1800s meant that enslaved peoples in countries like Jamaica, Brazil, Puerto Rico are literally share the same histories.
Sugar cane cutters, Jamaica, 1891 (Photo: ALAMY) Sugar, Slavery, and Freedom in Nineteenth-Centry Puerto Rico by Luis A. Figueroa
Despite the truth of our common histories, the experience I had the other night in Los Sures is rare when it comes to interacting with many Latinx peeps around me. It breaks my heart as a Black person to experience rejection and dismissal from my Latinx brothers and sisters in my day to day life in NYC. I think of going out to restaurants in the Heights, having people speak to me warmly in Spanish, and then giving the worst service of all time when I answer in English. I’ve been told I’m pretty for a Black girl or that I MUST be Cuban – as if there’s no way I could look like I do and just be Black.
The sad truth is that a number of forces – racism, colorism, language differences, limited depictions of history – keep Black and Latinx communities separate, even in a place like NYC where we live side by side.
Working in schools all over the Bronx, I’ve seen crazy dynamics in terms of encounters between Black and Latinx students, teachers, and staff. I worked with a school a few years ago run by a Dominican principal who showed obvious favoritism to Latino students (sending them on field trips, giving ELL classrooms the best supplies) while Black students were tracked to the Special Ed classes and overlooked. The teacher I supported identified as a Black Dominican who shared thoughtful reflections on her own identity journey – the work she has done in her own development and within her own family to highlight commonalities. She told me that the thing that changed her point of view was taking some Africana studies classes in college. Once she learned about her history, there was no going back. In her classroom, she made it a point to introduce this shared history to her students (though she taught math), and included culture builders to break down barriers between students. The most powerful thing I also observed her do was to pause instruction for meaningful conversations – taking the time to explain the shared history of those in the Caribbean or to discuss why using the N word is so loaded.
When I taught in Atlanta, there was frequently tension between my Mexican and Black students, yet our unit on Latin American history was a source of unification. I showed some clips from Henry Louis Gates’ series Blacks in Latin America, specifically the episode titled “The Mexican Grandma in the Closet” and it blew my mind as well as the mind of one of my students. A kid named Jorge came up to me after class and was like “so Ms. Chin, are you saying I’m Black?”
I urged him to pursue the question with his family and he came back the next day with some pictures of his grandmother. As he entered the room he basically screamed, “Ms. Chin I’M BLACK!!!!!!” I was like “Me too, welcome to the club.”
I’ve observed tons of classrooms full of Black and Latinx students all over the Bronx and the overlaps between our communities are undeniable. Students dress similarly, go home to similar buildings and communities, engage with each other and with elders in similar ways. I have been riding the 4 train, see a group of students, and in my mind I’m like “look at those Black boos” and then they break out in the fastest Spanish ever and I’m like “checked!” We even look the fucking same.
Yet, despite our similarities, our shared histories, our shared features, I still sometimes feel the barriers between myself and Spanish speaking members of the African Diaspora. There are so many questions I want to ask, perspectives I want to push, clapbacks I wanna clap when someone treats me warmly when they think I’m Latina but then like shit when they realize that I am Black.
I’m like damn, I know “Everybody wanna be a nigga but nobody wanna be a nigga” but at what point does a Latinx rejection of Blackness translate to a rejection of Self?
I have been thinking a lot about the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. I’ve seen so many of my Latinx comrades in the struggle speak passionately about support for Puerto Rico while countries like the U.S. Virgin Islands, Dominica and Barbuda are completely left out of the narrative. Why has the conversation not been – provide relief for Puerto Rico AND the U.S. Virgin Islands? The arguments about U.S. annexation and imperialist control apply to both islands, the positioning of people who are technically U.S. citizens without full rights such as voting. I was recently talking about my frustrations to a pair of elders and they gently patted me on the arm and said, “No one cares about tiny islands full of Black people.” The message sent here is, again, that Black lives Don’t matter – a message which I expect from White America, but which was hard to hear from Latinos around me.
In reality, White America doesn’t care about Black or Brown or Asian people, so what are we going to do to start caring about each other? How can we as communities of color learn from and support each other as we all battle forces of White supremacist imperialism in modern day contexts? When will we start working together holistically and meaningfully? How do we stop barriers/resentment/forces of institutionalized racism from preventing our collaboration?
When working through this post, CREADNYC editor Zenzile shared – “Mental colonization is deep. Knowing how we are connected goes hand in hand with knowing how we have been forced to internalize Whiteness, aspire towards the access that comes with it and never process or examine the self hatred it generates that keeps us from ever uniting together because who wants to be connected to what is hated and has no value or privilege?”
Damn. I don’t know. How can I tell you to want to love the Blackness in you, Latinx fam, when the world tells you otherwise?
I think it starts by loving the Blackness in me and showing you the beauty of our ancestors. Knowing our history is key. Just like my Dominican teacher said – once you learn about the commonalities between the histories of those of the African diaspora, you can’t unlearn it. And the truth, my Latinx brothers and sisters is that you are also Black – you are also descended from peoples of the African continent. Yes, you are probably mixed (or not), with Spanish (European) and indigenous cultures, but claiming this part of yourself while denying your Blackness leaves an incomplete sense of you. Doing some work and reading on racial identity development and multiculturalism has been powerful for me along these lines.
Having a global perspective on this work is key, and the more we expand our mindsets out of individualistic ways of being, the more our common connections and histories are revealed. I know I didn’t start learning about these connections until college – imagine what we can do for our world if we start teaching kids about these connections from the very beginning. Imagine Africana studies beginning in Elementary School.
So I am committing to speaking my truth and asking more questions of my Latinx comrades in 2018. Here are 3 things I plan to do as a Black person in 2018 to move forward in building with Latinx allies. And here are 3 things I’m asking of Latinx allies who want to build with me.
Learn (and relearn) about Black/Latinx connections in a global context
- I came across this video the other day of a community formed by enslaved people who claimed their freedom in San Basilio, Colombia. I’m like yaasss, Black communities in Colombia. I see you, thank you for seeing me.
- One of my favorite books that rocked my world about the African Diaspora is called The African Diaspora: History Through Culture by Patrick Manning. This book is lit and traces tons of connections between people of the African Diaspora all over the world and I need to step my game up.
I’m going to hold my Latinx allies accountable
- When I see and hear anti-Black statements from Latinx friends, I will do my best to speak my truth, even if my voice shakes.
I will share more about my journey of racial identity development and accepting my Blackness
- Internalized oppression is real and the media tells us that Black is not beautiful. I know that’s bullshit, but it’s still a process. Hopefully sharing my journey – like why I went natural and how navigating PW contexts pushed me to accept me for me – will help you on your own journey
Don’t tell me about your old racist family members
- I don’t want to hear about how your Abuela doesn’t accept your Black boyfriend or racist comments you tia has said. Process with other Latinx peeps unless your story is about how you challenged your relative on their anti-Black views and schooled them on our shared history
- Think about how we feel when White people do that shit…don’t repeat with Black people
Please reflect on messages you’ve received about Blackness, skin tone, and yourself.
- Do you secretly believe that lighter skin is more attractive? Do you deep down think that Latinx people work harder than and therefore have more than Black people based on merit? Do you cling on to your Spanish or Indigenous heritage, but distance yourself from Blackness?
- This work is hard. You are not alone. Ask yourself those questions, be honest with yourself, strive for open convos with self and others.
Delve into the history of your country, seek to elevate stories of people of the African Diaspora.
- Might you, like my student Jorge, have a Black Mexican Grandma in the Closet?
- The truth will set you free! There is no liberation like knowledge of self.
Thank you for reading. Please let me know what you think. Btw I’m def trying to get my Spanish up, so if any of my Latinx peeps wanna barter lessons for another service, please let me know <3