Discovering my blackness
October 27, 2015 at 2:00 am
“Oh, you’re Latino. I thought you were black.”
For most of my life, I’ve had people pose some variant of that statement to me. In our society, the prevalent idea is that a person can either be Latino or black but not both. As a child, I would identify only as Latino. I didn’t see myself as black and I didn’t understand, and therefore denied, the fact that I have African ancestors. Sadly, this is the case for many Latinos in America.
I was born in Dominican Republic, a country in the Caribbean that shares the island of Hispañola with Haiti. At a very young age, my parents (who were already living in Brooklyn, NY) purchased airline tickets for my brother and I and before I knew it we were on American soil. As an immigrant who didn’t speak English, I had a hard time adjusting to American culture. Thankfully, I befriended two Haitian-American kids who were around the same age as me. With the help of my new friends, I became more confident and learned more about American culture…specifically, black American culture. I discovered the hypnotizing, age-inappropriate rhymes of Biggie Smalls, laughed at DJ Jazzy Jeff getting thrown out of the Banks residence on The Fresh Prince, and empathized with a nerd who couldn’t get the girl on Family Matters. All of this mirrored what I saw in my day-to-day life. The music, the slang, the fashion sense, the TV shows, they were all things I identified with in large part because everyone who participated in the culture looked like me. However, despite all of this, I didn’t see myself as black. Like a “real Dominican”, I denied my blackness
Dominican Republic has an identity crisis when it comes to blackness. In large part, this is because of Rafael Trujillo, a racist dictator who ruled the country for 30 years. During his time in power, thousands of people were killed. Most notorious among the murders was the genocide that has since become known as the Parsley Massacre of 1937 where it is estimated that as many as 12,000 Haitians were killed. The irony of Trujillo’s campaign against blacks and Haitians is that his mother was of Haitian descent. This internal racism displayed by Trujillo ran so deep that he even powdered his face so he could appear lighter in photographs.
The level of self-hatred that Trujillo demonstrated still exists in the Dominican community today. Whether intentional or not, many Dominicans teach impressionable children that they are not black. They are “indio” (Indian), a term used by Dominicans to identify with their indigenous Taíno ancestry and distance themselves from their African ancestry. This is what I identified as until my early twenties. At this point in my life, I was a college student working part-time in sales. One night, the company had a regional meeting in New Jersey and, having no other form of transportation, I hitched a ride with several coworkers who were all black. Once we crossed into New Jersey, one of my coworkers made a joke about a car full of black people playing hip hop music in a white neighborhood to which I quickly responded, “I’m Dominican.” Without missing a beat, another coworker looked me right in the eyes and said, “You’re still black.”
“Regardless of whether you’re from Jamaica, Haiti, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic…England. Black is Black and Black is beautiful and we need to celebrate that.” -Laz Alonso, Actor
That was the moment that changed everything for me. Those three words started a journey where I delved deeper into Dominican history. I learned about the enslavement and decimation of the native Taíno population by the terrorist Christopher Columbus and his men. The decline of the Taíno population drove the Spanish colonists to bring in slaves from the West Coast of Africa starting in the early 1500s. Despite being in a foreign land, these enslaved people did not forget who they were. They continued to practice their religions, play their music, and cook the meals of their homeland. Over time, these African traditions mixed with the indigenous Taíno traditions and the Spanish culture of the settlers and together they became what is today seen as Dominican culture.
Out of the three, it is the African influence on Dominican culture that is most prominent. For example, Mangu (a staple dish for many Dominicans which is made of mashed boiled plantains) is directly inspired by the African dish Fufu which usually uses cassava or yam in place of plantains. Even more, this influence can be heard most in the music, specifically in Gagá. Having made its way to Dominican Republic by way of Haiti (where it is called Rara), Gagá features many percussive instruments and is used by Afro-Dominicans as a way to celebrate their African ancestry.
Despite having all of this information, however, I still struggled with my identity. I’m not from Africa but African traditions and culture have influenced me as a Dominican. I’m Latino, but I didn’t identify with the Latinos that I saw in media (the fact that Latino people were always surprised when I spoke Spanish didn’t help the matter). I didn’t have a word to describe myself and couldn’t fully explain to myself, let alone other people, my background.
“Afro-latino is not about being black and Latino, Afro-Latina means to be a black Latina/Latino hence why the term Afro-latino came about in the late 70’s.” Rosa Clemente, Ph. D candidate at UMass Amherst’s W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies
The term I was looking for and found is Afro-Latino. I am a black man who was born in a Latin American country. The two cannot be separated. This moment of self-discovery has opened my eyes and has helped me further appreciate and examine my Dominican heritage and my life as a black man in America — I’ve been targeted by the police, empty cabs have passed me only to pick up a white passenger a few feet away from me and so on. These experiences and many more are specifically black experiences and these are things that I have been through. Despite this, I am proud of my blackness. I am proud of everything that people with my skin tone have overcome and the levels of success that they have reached in this country. Now, I no longer have an identity crisis when someone asks me about my background. Now, when faced with this question, I look the person square in the eye and tell him or her, “I’m Afro-Latino.”
Juan S. Robles is a video producer and editor living in Brooklyn, NY. During his time in the industry, he has worked on projects for various television networks including CBS, VH1, HBO and The Travel Channel. His work has also been featured on Huffington Post, Yahoo News and Vice. Follow him on Twitter, Instagram or check out his website here.
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