I’d been in Wellesley for all of a few weeks when it first happened. It was the fall of 1989, my first year in boarding school. I was walking with another ABC (A Better Chance) student back to our dorm on the outskirts of the Wellesley College campus. We were the “scholarship kids”— her a St. Lucian girl from Flatbush, me a Boricua-Hondureña from Bushwick. We were walking along Washington Avenue, the main street that runs through the town, past the Town Hall that looks like a castle, and the duck pond. I don’t remember what we were talking about or if we were even talking, but I remember his face, bloated and red and angry. He stuck that face out of the truck that slowed down as it passed, then he threw a lit cigarette at us, two teenage girls, her 16, me 13, and said, “Go home, niggers.” We jumped away to avoid getting burnt and stared at the truck as it sped off. She started crying, a quiet, blubbering cry that shook her shoulders. I stayed quiet the rest of the walk home.
The following year, a black girl who was all of a shade darker than me told me I didn’t know prejudice, “because you’re not black.” She pursed her lips and shook her head. I thought back to that lit cigarette and that bloated red face.
In the summer of 1985, my mother took us to Honduras for the first time. One morning, my brother Carlos and I were picking naranjas off the tree whose branch extended out into our family’s patio. We were just kids—I was nine, Carlos was thirteen. We just wanted some oranges. Suddenly the neighbor came running out of her house screaming. She called us malditos prietos, thieves and criminals for picking fruit off her tree. She said she’d rather they rot than have us eat them. My brother pulled open an orange with his fingers, put it to his mouth and sucked on it while he stared at that woman. She sneered and called him, “un prieto sucio.” My brother laughed, juice dripping down his chin, grabbed my hand and walked off. I gave her the universal fuck you sign—the middle finger.
I didn’t grow up talking about race. There was no time for that. There were other more important issues—like keeping the fridge full and making sure that crack, the drug that ravaged our neighborhoods in the late 80s and 90s, stayed outside our doors. It was hard enough keeping the family together, but I look back now and can see the ways that race influenced my life: in how my sister was always called the pretty one “con su pelo rubio”; that black girl in seventh grade who said, as my friends and I were walking by, “I hate these little Spanish bitches swearing they all that.”
Sure, there were some racial tensions in the largely black and Puerto Rican neighborhood I grew up in in Brooklyn, but the pervasive issue was poverty. We were all poor. We all lived in the rubble and crack that was 1980s Bushwick.
The summer before my senior year, I participated in the LEAD Business Program at UPenn’s Wharton School of Business for three weeks. One day we were talking about who knows what when I started talking about my sister, how amazing she was, how I looked up to her, how gorgeous she was. “She has this straight blonde hair and light eyes. She’s just beautiful.” A black boy I had a thing with said, “You talk like she’s all that because she’s white, Vanessa.” I didn’t know what to say but I look back on that moment as a key step in my awakening to my racial consciousness and the ways that the European ideals of beauty were instilled in me.
Years ago, my mother told me a story of when we kids were really little. She went to a “face to face” (pronounced “fay tu fay”) appointment at the welfare office and brought us in tow–my sister, la gringa who then had almost-white-blonde hair; my brother, el moreno; and me, la india. The case worker stared at us then back at mom. “Those are your children?” she asked. “Seguro,” mom said, without blinking. “Those are not your kids!” The woman said we didn’t even look like we were related to each other, much less to her. She accused mom of trying to cheat the system, and even called security, threatening to bring her up on fraud charges. Mom said, “Yo le quería meter en la cara con las actas de naciminto de ustedes.” And if I know my mom, she would have done exactly that, smack that woman upside her head with her paperwork.
We hear so much about those latinos who straight out negate their blackness. Like my ex-boyfriend’s Dominican mother who whispered with pride that Trujillo was her distant cousin. I heard this woman say, “Yo soy india” several times over the six year relationship I had with her son. I remember staring at her full lips, wide nose and coarse hair, her dark skin that she took caution with, staying out of the sun, walking around with an umbrella on especially beaming days, “ay no, ese sol me va ‘cer prieta y yo no soy prieta.” It all made sense when I learned the history of the Dominican Republic and how Trujillo would put make up on his face and hands to lighten his skin.
In an interview in the March 2015 VONA newsletter, Mat Johnson wrote:
I thought the mixed race advocates were sellouts at first, just trying to run away from their own blackness. Over time, though, I began to feel that by just saying I was black I was denying half of my family and my own cultural influences. Also, I was being forced to fit into an archetype that visually I didn’t fit. The constraint and struggle of that started to wear me down, so I had to reexamine my identity.
Your proclaimed identity should fit you, not the other way around.
I’ve been thinking a lot about race, as a Boricua-Hondureña who identifies as BOTH black and indígena, because I am both and neither is mutually exclusive. Here’s the thing, I’m all for conversations about blackness. They are necessary. But to have a complete conversation, we need to talk about how some people, African American and even my own Latino people, have denied me my blackness because “you don’t look black,” they’ve said. The issue is that people like me do not fit into their construct of what race is.
I’m writing this as I stare at a picture of my deceased brother and I to the left of my computer screen. When you negate my blackness, you deny him as my brother. I can’t have that. I won’t have it. I will respond viscerally.
I get that this essay is going to get some folk riled up and shifting uncomfortably. I’m cool with that. These conversations are necessary and long overdue. Yes, I am black. I am also indígena. It is not up to the world to decide my identity for me. Seriously, what’s good with this policing of one’s racial & cultural identity? To say that I have a “choice” is to say that I can “choose” to deny my black brother and my black aunt and my grandmother and my great grandmother and the long history of blackness in my blood. Not gonna happen. This construct of race is much more layered than people want or care to admit. I’m cool with dialogue. I am not cool with some cualquiera claiming dominion over my identity. You can take several seats with that pendejada. I’ll open an auditorium full of seats for you, if you wish.
I had someone, an academic, try to impose the label of “afro-latina” on me. Friends have asked me, “why don’t you call yourself afro-latina?” It’s an accusation. They are saying I am denying my blackness. Here’s the thing: yes, I am black, but that’s not all of who I am. It’s problematic to impose an identity on someone. It’s problematic when my blackness is denied of me because “you don’t look black.” Because my hair is curly and my skin is that of my Mayan ancestors, because, see, I’m not just black, tambien soy indígena. One does not negate the other. Why does it have to?
I think of my greatgrandmother Tinita, her skin brown like the frijoles she shelled in the patio for hours, her waist-length hair pulled back into a braid that hung over her shoulder. When she heard about what the neighbor had said to my brother and me, she laughed her toothless laugh and pulled us into her chest. “Si somos prietos, y que?” Then she sat us down and served us tortillas and frijoles with her specially made crema and the white cheese she soaked all day to remove some of its saltiness.
One time, when I was in my mid-twenties, I went to a barbecue at my mom’s house with my boy, an African American writer. Mom greeted him politely and showed him how to climb out the window of her first floor apartment into the backyard where the grill was already on and people were milling around eating and sipping on beer. When he was outside, mom pulled me aside and said: “Tu no estaras con un moreno, Vanessa.” I gasped and said, “Ma, you know we’re black, right?” She rolled her eyes and went back to seasoning the meat.
When was eight or nine, I was playing with a black boy from around the corner named Damon. We were playing scully in the street with the bottle caps we filled with wax. My second mom Millie, a Boricua straight from the campos of Lares, was sitting on the stoop of our building peeling an orange with her pocket knife. She called me over, feigning to offer me a piece. When I reached for it, she pulled me closer and whispered, “No te atrevas enamorarte de uno d’esos prietos, ¿oistes?” I ate that orange slice slowly, trying to hide my frown. When I was done, I told Damon that I had to go inside. I didn’t play with him much after that.
Race is a complex thing. It’s been a unique experience for me as a Latina who looks more like her indigenous roots, but who is one of only five light-skinned people in my family, my mom, my sister and me, and our kids.
Once, when I was pregnant with my daughter, my daughter’s father said some shit to me that still shocks me ten years later. We were on our way home after having dinner at my grandmother’s house with the rest of my family. I was rubbing my huge belly when he looked over at me and said, “Our kid could be black, V.” He sounded exasperated. An “Oh my God” lingered in the air like one of those fogs in scary movies that portends some shit is about to go down. “And?” I said, all Brooklyn attitude and what the fuck. “Nothing, I’m just saying, ma.” He knew he was in trouble. “You know your mother’s black, right?” I said and glared at him. He sucked his teeth and rolled his eyes. “Ay, forget it,” he said. We never talked about it again, but I wondered what crossed his mind when he saw our daughter for the first time. I wonder if he said a silent prayer thanking God for her having inherited his lighter skin.
This essay has been simmering in me for a long time but I knew I had to write it when the other day a black poet attacked VONA for not including any black alumni in the line-up of a faculty-alumni reading at an AWP event entitled Consequences: VONA/Voices Generation One. There are multiple issues with the accusation (including an assumption of maliciousness without knowing how the alumni were selected), but this essay addresses one: the negation of my blackness and that of another Latino writer on the line-up. This woman talked about the invisibility of blacks without realizing (or perhaps, not caring) that she too was imposing invisibility on Latinos like me who have time and again been denied their blackness. I took that rage and put it into this essay.
Race is such a layered, complex thing. I won’t pretend to have all the answers. I won’t pretend to know fully how to confront and talk about race in ways that will make everyone happy. I understand that my views on race are complicated by my experience being one of two or three Latinas in the entire boarding school I attended, at a time where race was polarized into white and black (which is still very much is). I had too much melanin and was too Latina to fit into the white world, and I was poor to boot. I didn’t have enough melanin to fit in with the black kids, so where did I belong? I didn’t. I had to learn how to pave my own path. Create my own little niche, which largely meant solitude. That solitude gave this rage time to gestate.
This is what I know at almost 40:
- I cannot and will not deny my indigenous blood to fit a construct of race that’s not inclusive of the layers that make me me, especially since my appearance is clear evidence of that Mayan blood.
- To deny a latin@ her blackness just because she doesn’t “look black” or has a different experience because she’s not African American, is to be ignorant of history. There were millions more Africans taken to the Caribbean and Latin America in the African slave trade. You think racism is bad in the U.S.? Go to Latin America and then we can talk. This attempt to erase my history and my blood because it doesn’t fit into your construct of race is problematic on numerous levels, and must be included in these oftentimes uncomfortable conversations about race.
- I’m done being politically correct and trying to tiptoe around these conversations because I’m often attacked or dismissed. That shit’s been happening to me since I was a kid and I’m tired of it. I have my story and you have yours. A dialogue is possible, albeit probably uncomfortable, but for you to impose your view of blackness on me is a single story, and we already know what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has to say about that: it’s dangerous.
This is why I penned this here essay: because I’m tired of the divisiveness within our own communities. I counter and confront it in the way I do best: by writing about it, screaming and raging and crying on the page. Es con hablar que nos entendemos. I’m ready to talk when you are.