I am black. I am Puerto Rican. I am a black Puerto Rican. As a child growing up, my parents called me “La negrita.” This was the way I was described because of my skin color. The truth is that while it was a sweet expression, it was also a constant reminder that I was the darkest of my siblings. I was different. My younger sister ‘s skin color is white. She has straight hair, thin lips and a narrow nose, so negrita was a term that could easily distinguish the two of us.
Looking back to my early childhood, I remember that my maternal grandmother had kinky hair and light skin. She married twice to white-skinned Puerto Rican men. She believed in the myth that marrying these men improved one’s race. Her son, Francisco, and many of my cousins had light skin with kinky hair. In the argot (popular language) they were referred to as “Jabaitos.”
They call me trigueña in Puerto Rico.
In Puerto Rico, as in other countries in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean and Latin America, there are a myriad of terms to express color, social class, family roots, racial identity, affection, respect, and/or disrespect–depending on who is speaking and what they are trying to communicate in that moment. Terms used in Puerto Rico can include negro (a), blanco (a), negrita, blanquito (a), trigueño (a), indio (a), and de color. I was often referred to as trigueña, which can describe Puerto Ricans whose skin color is in between dark and white. At times the person could have more of a light brown color or dark olive skin. I had relatives and neighbors that were very dark-skinned Puerto Ricans and they were explicitly referred to as negro (black) in color. Because of my “in-between” color, trigueña was often the term attributed to me.
In my early years as a student, my classmates in my small town of Loíza, Puerto Rico were composed of an array of colors from very white skin to the darkest tones. Many of our role models were dark-skinned black Puerto Ricans, which included our principal and the most prominent lawyer of the town.
During my college years I had no problems. This doesn’t mean racism doesn’t exist in Puerto Rico, it just means that my “in-between” shade and non-kinky hair afforded me experiences outside of the blatant discrimination and prejudice that some people may experience on the island. In Puerto Rico I was always identified as trigueña. I recall a pale-skinned classmate of mine writing in my school autograph book a poem about my identity. He said there is a pretty trigueña that pulls my heart out of its place because she lives in my seasoned Puerto Rican land. In Spanish it rhymingly states:
Hay una linda trigueña,
que me arranca el corazón.
Porque vive a la sazón,
de mi tierra Borinqueña.
For my pale friend, I was the pretty brown girl. Although it was my island too, I was young and found the verse to be cute.
Stay tuned for Part II of this post, which we will share tomorrow.
Read Part II, The U.S. Mainland Awakens My Blackness.