Well, I Guess You Can Join Us
When I watched the Latin Grammys one year, I overheard the Mexican girls recalling the performances the next day. After attempting to join the conversation, they very quickly said, “Oh, you don’t know what we’re talking about.”
But I did.
Things changed when the Latina girls eventually discovered I was Puerto Rican and they suddenly wanted to be nice to me.
“You’re one of us!” said the girl who sat next to me in Physiology as she smiled and grabbed onto my arm.
“Why didn’t you tell me, puta?” said the Mexican chick from homeroom.
Now I was invited to quinceñeras, even though mutual friends weren’t, because as one chick said, “She ain’t Latin.”
It reminded me of a few years prior when a classmate told me all about how her parents hated Black people, and then decided to introduce me to her mother.
“Mamá, this is Angie. She’s part Puerto Rican — that’s why she’s so light.”
And clearly, that was supposed to make us all feel safe.
There were three other Puerto Rican girls in my school — all of whom could pass for the recognizable type of Latina — una mestiza (usually Spanish and Indigenous). They had dusky-pale skin, dark, long, loosely curled hair, and pointy, albeit, slightly broader prominent noses. Mine was a little round, flat pug nose. My Dad had always rubbed the tip of it and told me how beautiful it was — there was a ridge on it that only he noticed. He said that if he ever went blind and I ever got lost he would immediately be able to find his daughter.
The only time I became insecure about my nose was after my White cousin got pummeled in the face and screamed, “At least I don’t have a nose like Angie’s!”
Apparently, I was defective — caught in the middle — clearly not good enough for White people, too Black for Latinos, and not Black enough for Black people.
One of the Puerto Rican girls who became a close friend was irked when she discovered I spoke better Spanish than her. “Damn girl, you’re hella good.”
“I think it’d be kinda cool to have kids who aren’t mixed,” she said. “Everyone’s mixed these days — even me and you. Don’t you think?”
I didn’t agree — but I kept my opinions to myself because I was still trying to reach a place of acceptance with others who were deciding whether or not they wanted to accept me.
That girl and I had both been ripped from our roots somehow, somewhere. Her mother never taught her Spanish because she wanted her to assimilate. My mother rarely taught me about my Latina heritage because our Blackness was the priority. Still, we were both supposed to be proud somehow, but were waiting for affirmation in the strangest of places.
Black and Brown
The dividing line between Harlem and El Barrio in New York is the perfect metaphor for my very existence. Cuando yo camino through Spanish Harlem, la gente only speak en español to me. Y candy yo llego al otro lado (Harlem), I’m once again reminded that I’m that light-skinned chick. My identity changes depending on where I am, who I’m talking to, and who’s watching.
But on both sides — the Puerto Rican and Black sides — my people recognize that we’ve been colonized, and that we (should) share a kinship.
Sadly, what both groups often fail to acknowledge is that our heritages don’t have to be mutually exclusive, opposed to one another, afraid or disgusted, enemies of, or at war with each other.
Though I rarely discuss it, I’m probably more comfortable being Puerto Rican than anything else. It’s not a race or a color, but an identity born of rich heritage and roots that run deep — ones that are embedded in Caribbean, African, and European soil. Being mixed is often a given when you’re Puerto Rican, even though too many of us — over 75% of us — identified as White on a 2010 census. But you don’t really have to explain anything to anyone — if you’re surrounded by your people, that is.
Still, anti-Blackness within Latino cultures is real. My Blackness was at the center of everything that my fellow Latinas questioned about my being Latina. To them, I couldn’t be Puerto Rican if I was also Black, or anything else for that matter. African blood was like a poison, as if to be Latina was an anomaly that was as old as the Earth.
In the Americas, the Natives — the people indigenous to this land — were the first peoples. And even though Latinos descend from and wouldn’t exist without Los Indios, when Black slaves were forcibly brought here, our ancestors mixed with one another, creating what is a multiethnic and multicultural population. That is historical fact.
As I attempted to navigate Latino, and Black and White social circles when I was younger, I eventually came to the conclusion that being Black is not a crime — even though that was always implied.
I had to — for self-preservation — especially since, in short, I was “white-washed.” If I didn’t, I would die as a Black person, and Latina person, and maybe even (probably not) a White person without proclaiming that my Blackness wasn’t criminal.
We are the oldest people on earth. Everyone came from us. We have contributed to our cultures and our food and our languages and our music. The oldest empires would not exist without us.
El mundo would not exist without us.
So remember, mis queridos compañeros Latinos — por favor recuerde — estamos aquí — even if in the shadows.
Aunque en las sombras.
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