I have always been black. But there was a long period during my adolescence where my racial identity floated above my head and existed outside of me and my comprehension. I lived in a very conservative, predominantly white, rural county in New Jersey where my parents believed they could forge a “better” life for us. My survival was in speaking my racial identity rather than living it; in acting like it was my ancestors who were of color and I was the post-racial child of a post-racial world. The majority of my classmates and peers read me as black, and a part of me knew they weren’t wrong; but I had been conditioned to sigh, “No, I’m Puerto Rican.” My blackness was palpable before my understanding of it was.
What is perhaps so insidious about the way Latinx people address the Afro Latinx among them is the contradictory way they participate in heinous anti-blackness while simultaneously denying that racism exists in their community. Puerto Ricans taunt you by telling you that you have distant relations in/from Loiza (a coastal town with a large Afro Boricua population); praise your cousin’s new girlfriend for her whiteness (“ay, y ella e blanquita!”); and criticize your decision to wear your hair naturally, two breaths before telling you that we are all “one race.” Throughout my youth, my brother and I were subjected to “concerns” about our hair from nosy tias; I was in a long-term relationship with a white boy who didn’t like that his friends saw and named my blackness, and teased him for it; I watched my bi-racial father struggle with his relationship to his own blackness; I played Tituba in The Crucible and saw the delight many of my white peers took in participating in and perpetuating slave jokes; I felt the questions of diaspora rattling through my skeleton almost every day.
If other countries and ethnic groups have dictators and their influence to blame for their anti-black sentiments, I would argue that the continued occupation of Puerto Rico by the United States (a dictator in its own right) has allowed for an All Lives Matter variety of anti-blackness to exist; based primarily on the foundational myth that all Puerto Ricans are equal parts European, West African, and Taino/Arawak. In his article from this past summer addressing racism amongst Puerto Rican Olympic athletes, author William Garcia writes, “…there is nothing in this world that dismays Puerto Ricans more than speaking about race and racism, especially at a time when there is a massive population decrease towards the United States accompanied by the economic crisis as a result of vulture hedge funds…In order to support [the foundational myth of ancestry], there had to be racial hierarchies and social Darwinian actions to whiten the population by bringing in more Europeans and encouraging Blacks not to procreate with other Blacks—essentially to ‘improve the race.’ Another tactic used was to ingrain in Black people the idea that no such hierarchies existed and encourage them to compare Puerto Rico as more racially democratic in comparison to the United States. As a result, when Puerto Ricans are discussing race and racism with other Puerto Ricans who defy racism, they enter the world of psychosis where they are unable to distinguish personal subjective experience (and patriotism) from the reality of the external world such as institutional racism.”
Bring this same sense of racial unconsciousness to the mainland, and Puerto Ricans become their own ethnic group: more easily (perhaps purposefully) confusing race and ethnicity; aching for assimilation;
looking to distance themselves ethnically and racially from Black Americans; and disgracing the legacy of African people they come from as well as the Pan-African culture that is embedded in them. An overwhelming percentage of Latinx people seek to use their status as such to validate their perceived approximation to whiteness. White Latinx, in particular, feel that they are separate from the myriads of brown and black folks that make up the rest of their ethnic population, particularly when they are two and three generations removed from their family that immigrated to the United States. In a recent New York Times article, a study revealed that, increasingly, more Latinx people declare themselves white than ever before. The article states, “…researchers found that 2.5 million Americans of Hispanic origin, or approximately 7 percent of the 35 million Americans of Hispanic origin in 2000, changed their race from ‘some other race’ in 2000 to ‘white’ in 2010. An additional 1.3 million people switched in the other direction…The data provide new evidence consistent with the theory that Hispanics may assimilate as white Americans, like the Italians or Irish, who were not universally considered to be white.”
It is violence to deny my lineage.
I know who am and I know how I walk through this world.
I am black. I always have been.
* * *
i am a daughter of Yemaya.
a wonder of the earth, from an island of el mar y el sol, a child of oceans, from ancestors who forged home after being kidnapped and carted across their turbulent nature.
i was born mother; without
the language to assert the
of my spirit.
i was born child; language a privilege.
whose usage could only be determined
by those who most desperately needed it;
by those who wanted to claim it as their own.
i was born a wordsmith.
words scattered like cowrie shells across a table, mapping where my ancestors have been
letters spilling out of my mouth like an entire swallow of condensed soup;
scalding and too much to handle all at once.
but i am of hearty broth;
made to fill, sustain, feed, help survive.
in a world of death i am in the business of construction, mending, gardening.
dirt under my fingernails.
in the earth.