During the Fall of 2014, I was making my way from New Orleans, Louisiana to Memphis, Tennessee on yet another research trip for my first book, American Boricua: Puerto Rican Life in the United States. I’d started the drive later than planned but didn’t think twice, the nearly 400-mile leg of the trip almost felt like a vacation considering the miles I typically clocked on the road.
As a Puerto Rican woman I live beyond the racial divide in North America. We are an island and a people that are literally of all of the sides. It is impossible to choose just one color when all of the colors of humanity are in your immediate family. Yes we are Black, yes, we are Indigenous, and yes, we also have European and Asian ancestry. How to handle both being put on a pedestal for what is often perceived as racial ambiguity, and hostility from those who reject what they don’t understand, isn’t a dance I ever expected to perform in the 21st century.
My parents fully expected racism, even the idea of race, to be an antiquated memory by the time I was born. Yet. Here are we at a crossroads in this country, challenged yet again with the task of living up to the ideal of Democracy and freedom: genuine equality. To give up the mental and structural framework of white supremacy means we must move away from race. It means we move toward ethnicity and culture. To live in a society that actually treats all people with the same level of dignity and respect is the core value from which I have operated from my entire life.
Equality is something that I think of often as a photojournalist. Yet the daily acts of survival that people of color know all too well are absolutely necessary, how else can you get through your day? The moment my eyes glanced up at my rear view mirror, my heart turned to stone. Moments before, desperately needing coffee, I’d stopped to ask for directions from a Mother and Daughter who I got the impression had never seen a Puerto Rican woman before. I was thankful for their help, wondering if seeing a woman traveling solo was also a new experience:
‘What’s a Starbucks?’
‘That place where they sell coffee that looks like a living room inside? With the big sign with a lady in a circle on it?’
‘Oh! That place with the green and white sign? Yes ma’am, right down the street three blocks. You’ll see it right there.’
The memory of that conversation brought a huge smile to my face as I drove on. People patiently doing their best to understand one another, and eventually finding success. Beautiful. Human. So the sight of a police car following me wiped that smile right off of my face. I knew better than to speed, especially on a rural state route with west coast tags. I slowed down a bit more. My heart began to race. I began the mental checklist:
License and registration ready, hands visible at all times, speak slowly, deliberately, with absolute calm. Find that small video camera and start recording. Find a public place with potential witnesses, a store, a school, maybe a gas station to pull into if stopped. Look the officer directly in the eye. Repeat every single question they ask calmly. I began to pray: We are ok. Everything is fine. I am calm. Hands on the wheel. Hands on the wheel. Hands on the wheel. After another 10 miles I wondered if I should call someone, an attorney, maybe my Mom? (This was before car safety cell phone applications, which I highly recommend.) Thankfully there was a gas station within sight after 20 minutes of what was my most stressful experience of that entire year. Slowly pulling off the road, I smiled for my survival at the first person I saw: a young Black man pumping gas who immediately recognized my friendly panic. He nodded at me protectively as the police car slowly passed on by. We stood together in silence until it felt safe to talk. I started a friendly conversation, asking about his town. What it was like, where to eat.
We were in Olive Branch, Mississippi.
The irony wasn’t lost on me as I slowly drove out of that suburb of Memphis, Tennessee. I fought back tears of rage, grief, relief, and confusion. We are in the 21st century. Why should my expression of Blackness as a Puerto Rican woman be seen as a threat, as less than? Why? Fear. Ignorance. Addiction to the absolute hypocrisy U.S. history shows us again and again, that all men are created equal…until they aren’t.
As a world we can no longer afford to hold onto the exclusive idea of race. It perpetuates inequality and justifies senseless violence. I refuse to live in a country where Blackness is a death sentence. People are beautiful. People are equal. By telling the story of Puerto Rican people in every U.S. state, I am creating the visual evidence of ethnicity and culture. We have nothing to fear, nothing to lose, and everything to gain by relearning how to see one another as equal.
Culture and ethnicity.
This is the future of cultural expression in North America today.
The future is now. Won’t you join us?
View photos from American Boricua below.
Wanda Benvenutti is a first-generation U.S. mainland born Boricua. Her award-winning photojournalism has been recognized by the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, the National Press Photographers Association, and the Society of Professional Journalists. Her work can also be seen in the book 100 New York Photographers by Cynthia Maris Dantzic.
top & bottom photos of author: © Grayson Dantzic