Please, just call me Negra.
My blackness has gifted me with a million regalos. Resiliency, bravery, strength to start and the rest of the regalitos would be the different nicknames and terms of endearment people have called me since I began to walk. Un dia llegue a casa de mi tia abuela, Tenia 7 añitos y le dije “titi soy negra bella, es que me dijo el señor”. She was negra con pelo lacio from el Cibao region of the Dominican Republic. She consoled me as if the man had offended me. I sat propped in her arms, she had the strongest arms I had ever seen, brazos lleno de la fuerza necesaria para cocinar un mangu espectacular, para meterme bofetas en mis cachetes, y para acarciar cada nene que ha llegado a su vida. I stared at the rings that decorated her fingers. They were cool against the skin of my right shoulder. Her hand was darker than my shoulder. She was the first to call me negrita and that day was just like any other day, she bent down to my height which was never really short but I was much smaller than her. With concerned eyes she said, “Negrita no eres negra, eres india con pelo malo”. She caressed my cheeks and we carried on as if she hadn’t called my “pelo” “malo”. It was normal language for us. She’d say words like grena through clenched teeth when she looked at my hair. “Negrita no eres negra, eres india”. I said ok and vowed to never call myself negra aroud her again. And besides being india, I was also morenita, prieta, mulata, café sin leche, Celia Cruz to name a few and to be honest I played with those terms for years before I knew the responsibility that I have as a negra, which was and always has been to be aware of the power of words. And because words are powerful, please, just call me negra.
I started writing when I was about the same age I had first dared call myself something so dizque “provocative” as negra, 7 years old. I’d sit hunched over in my closet way past my school-night bedtime writing stories, sometimes about girls with dizque “pelo bueno”, tiny waists, and skin the color of café bibi, an experience I never knew but had always imagined. I had always imagined what would happen if I had been surrounded by people who loved my hair. I wasted hours with oil and a brush because I believed that it would straighten my hair. My stories were usually no longer than three to five pages long inside of a yellow diary of dreams, secrets I didn’t know how else to handle and they usually took places in countries that I had never been to but imagined, thanks to the nights that I didn’t write and instead chose to flip through National Geographic magazines on the wooden floor of my bedroom. I knew I was “negra”, a black girl with a lineage of cimarronas costeñas mayaguezanas-loiceñas and cimarronas in kiskeya, regardless of the fact that some black girls just like me would say otherwise, and often times I was categorized as “other”. Black but not black black. To be clear, I am black, I’ve always been black, and I have always been proud to be black regardless of relatives who would introduce me as “la prima dominicana” or “la sobrina dominicana” ashamed of something that I was proud of but I didn’t know how to embrace. But I have since learned to embrace that thing, and out of respect, I ask that you please just call me “negra”.
If I weren’t “black but not black black” I was categorized as “other”. The Spanish translation for “other” is “otro”. It’s one of the laziest words in the Spanish language. Theres no rumba to it, much less any saoco and it requires limited movement of the mouth to pronounce it, unlike the word “negra”. If you wanted to call me, a woman, “other” in Spanish you’d say “otra” and regardless of how “otra” and how “odd” you find my Caribe lineage which stretches as west as Santa Clara, Cuba, and as east as Loiza, Puerto Rico, I am not “other”. I am black and as Pedro Pietri says, “I come from a place where to be called black is to be called love”. I am no perfect piece of love nor perfect lover but I do ask that in honor of the love that I have for myself, you please, just call me negra.
I met a tall dark and handsome black man while walking from class back home after a long day of analyzing Lola Rodriguez de Tio poems in la facultad de humanidades de la Universidad de Puerto Rico, recinto de Rio Piedras. Humanidades was my most favorite part of campus. No air conditioning made my classes uncomfortable and I could stare at the palmas outside of the window anytime I felt compelled to (irresponsibly) tune out a lecture. He asked so politely, so kindly for a minute of my time and he told me his story. He was selling bizcocho de guayaba y queso as a means to raise funds for orphans. I immediately saw the poetry in his face as he spoke to me. His words were warm, his smile, warmer. He carried the same poetry that I have seen in so many of our men de color café who spend hours under the Puerto Rican sun with neveritas de botellas de agua a medio peso. I have a special respect for our men, especially the Puerto Rican men who spend their days selling girasoles to other men, who unlike them don’t get ignored and have wives who receive those girasoles. I have a special respect for the elderly men who sit alongside la carretera selling the latest cosecha of mangos y aguacates to the passerbys. This black man with the bizcocho was no different. He was doing his best. I quickly remembered that one October afternoon I walked a mile to a grocery store and the men who sat in chairs selling water for “medio peso” gave me two for free after having told them I was a student at the university. They called me negra. And they assured me that I would change the world. I had seen so much poetry through just those men and I saw the same in the eyes of that black man, who stood years younger than the vendedores de girasoles, mangos y agua. I dug through my pockets for the rest of the change and proceeded to give it to him.
“y tu si que eres una trigueña linda” he said to me.
“gracias pero trigueña, no soy” I responded. People have called me trigueña for as long as I can remember and it has never been who I am. I have only recently begun to denounce the term with as much fervor as I do because it is an unnecessarily safe word, supposedly more polite than calling me what I actually am.
“como?” he asked. I giggled. He never once stopped smiling at me. I never once stopped smiling at him. I took two deep breaths. I’ve always been sharp tongued, my madrina nicknamed me machetera and used to say “esa prieta no tiene lengua tiene machete afilao”. She was right and in certain spaces it was ok, but this was one of my people. He was a good man. I took another two deep breaths, determined to reclamar mi negritud like I had done in the states anytime someone dared to call me other or went as far as to mention they could “tell” that I was something other than black, oddly directly after calling me beautiful.
“no soy triguena, soy negra igual que tu”. It was truth, an easy truth for me but truth has a way of often being revolutionary. He stared at my canela colored left forearm and back at his café sin leche right forearm, confused and obviously weirded out. He couldn’t believe that I dared called myself something so provocative as negra, because that’s how we have been raised (collectively speaking), to believe that to call one’s self negra is provocative, almost vulgar so we’ve always opted for safe words like india. I grew to have an issue with india when I realized that men would use it as a way to call me beautiful. Instead of “negra pero bella” I was “india”, even in Loiza.
He held the bizcocho de guayaba y queso in his left arm and stopped smiling still in disbelief that I had dared called myself negra. I stared at the tree that gave us a break from the heat. I missed the flores de maga that would fall on my head anytime I walked past sad.
“pero tu piel no es tan negra como la mia.” I smiled and took another two deep breaths. I am not the color black, my skin is the color of canela, and after a day at the beach there’s a slight achiote colored undertone. I identify as black because I am a descendant of black people. Granted I am also the descendant of white Europeans, Mediterraneans and Arabs, and Ameri-indigenous peoples but I am black. Society treats me as such, I walk as such, I look as such and I am proud to be such, even though being black means carrying the worst of traumas in so many parts of me.
“el trigo es amarillo. No soy amarilla.” I said to him nervously smiling. Silence hung between the two of us like a rain cloud.
I broke the silence with two more words, two words that make people stare at me more than my hair makes people stare at me. “soy negra”. I finished collecting up the pocket change. The exchange between he and I was silent at that point. I wished him well and he wished me the same. I couldn’t stop smiling that entire day, not just because he was kind to me and I had a new bizcocho de guayaba y queso, but because I had reclaimed my blackness in one of the most powerful of ways, with a smile in the middle of the street in Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico, the very place that made me black.
One afternoon I walked down el paseo de la princesa in Viejo San Juan. It was a hot January domingo. A few complimented my tresses, a few stared per usual and another recited to me Majestad Negra by Luis Pales Matos while he painted a picture of don Pedro Albizu. And even after telling me “flor de tortola, rosa de Uganda”, and after telling me how beautiful I was and how African my hair was he stared at every feature and named every trace of the Iberian Peninsula he could see and every trace of indigenous heritage he could see in me.
“tú eres prieta pero muy india”. Those were his words but they sounded like “tú eres prieta pero bella gracias a las características y los rasgos de otros ancestros que tienes.” I bit the corner of my bottom lip.
He went as far as to dissect my face, “no tienes bemba, tienes labios como española y el gap es de los tainos”. I smiled with my labios supuestos españoles and my gap supuesto taino and said once again the two most revolutionary words that my mouth has ever made and continues to make.
I am not in denial of who I am or the history that I carry, but I’m also not in denial that there are a million places in the continent of Africa that I could go and I’d blend in just like every other beautiful black woman. It doesn’t offend me that people pick out the indigenous or European features in my face, rather it saddens me that they do it right after calling me beautiful. It is never enough to be black, people like the artist in Viejo San Juan need a reason to understand why they would dare think I, a black woman am beautiful. Black isn’t enough for them but it is for me, and so I ask that you please just call me negra.
Puerto Ricans, collectively have a horrible habit of talking about blackness as if its historical and folkloric, as if it only exists in Loiza, only exists within the musical genres bomba and plena, as if its only relevant to slavery. Never mind that practically every cultural motif in Puerto Rico is the direct result of black resilience and strength. Nevermind that there are blacks in regions other than Loiza even where ignored and erased like Aguada and San German. Puerto Ricans throw around the words “nuestros ancestros fueron negros” as if blackness has ended on the island and there’s no more “real” blacks because blackness is some sort of ancestral phenomena. This is why when I am on the streets of Rio Piedras or el paseo de la princesa in Viejo San Juan and I dare say those two words, that make far too many people, even other blacks cringe, it is a revolutionary act. “Soy negra”. Negra only has two syllables and I exaggerate every letter as if it were a 20 letter word. Negra is the biggest word that I know, y cuan mucho me llena de amor cuando me dicen negra y cuan mucho me llena de asco cuando me dicen “negra, pero” o “negra, y”. Please, just call me negra.
I get it by the way. I get that the effort to call black, black in Puerto Rico and within Puerto Rican communities in the United States, is a part of a very long process of decolonization and empowerment. Unfortunately, ALL Puerto Ricans suffer from a level of identity issues as a result of being colonized by the United States and marginalized on every single level of existence, but in both communities I as a negra have been considered a “negra, pero…” which is one of the most oppressive things people have done to me.
In the states for example, for some very strange reason many believe the word black to be synonymous with African American and when I hear Puerto Ricans often non-black Puerto Ricans talk about “esos negros” and “aquellos prietos”, that’s who they are referring to but they are referring to blackness as if it is exclusively African American which regardless of what the comment about “aquellos prietos” is, it is inherently antiblack because they are erasing me and often their selves from the black spectrum. Granted in the United States I am considered Boricua first. I am an independentista puertorriqueña but this is in no way means I am not a part of the black narrative. I am not “negra pero Boricua” or “negra pero dominicana” I am negra. I am dominicana. I am Boricua. None of them are exclusive. I see myself in all black people, everywhere. There’s no real need to clarify me as a specific type of black unless we are talking about a specific community, experience or a specific narrative which would make national identity relevant.
When I entered el pueblo de Lares for the first time to commemorate el Grito de Lares, a man dared tell me, “eres negra pero decente”. I wore my Lolita shirt like I always do and smiled as he stopped to ask me where I was from and why I was even in Lares, because I guess it wasn’t obvious. He proceeded to tell me how PNP Loiza was but I being negra como los loiceños, pero independentista con dizque educación made me “negra pero decente.” I said nothing to him. He didn’t deserve an explanation. I however deserved ice cream. De coco.
We’ve established that I’m not “negra, pero” but to be clear I am also not “negra y”. Some people have replaced the “pero” in “negra pero bella” with an “y” to make it “negra y bella” because it sounds less problematic. Don’t get me wrong, when las viejitas chulisimas me dicen “negrita linda” my eyes twinkle and my cheeks spark but when people dare say “negra y bella” as if they are telling me something that I don’t already know, it feels very much like “negra pero bella”. Fortunately, beauty comes with the package of being black (primero que todo jeje). No soy “negra pero” ni “negra y”, please just call me “negra” sin toda esa jodienda de adjetivos que aprendiste en el kínder. Being black is enough bella, enough educada, enough fuerte, enough inteligente, enough chula and enough decente/buena persona. Please don’t specify, please just call me negra.
I like so many other black woman am in the middle of my most important journey, I am learning to love myself as I am. I’ve had numerous spiritual mentors who have taught me that returning to my original self was the best way to begin. This is what much of Ifa and Lukumi practices will teach you. I have only recently begun to see myself as a being separate from trauma whether ancestral or personal. Trauma is a part of my experience but it is not my original self. Being a black woman in the Americas is wrapped in its own trauma but if you ever want to heal from trauma, whatever it is, you’re going to have to look it in the eye. You’re going to have to call yourself what you are, negra. During this journey I will say that I have learned time and time again that my ancestors didn’t survive within my melanin and my hair that defies gravity and dances gracima, holandes, and of course el seis corrido only for me to tip toe around the patria they built calling myself “trigueña” and “indisita”. They didn’t survive even after the abolition of slavery for me to accept words as lazy as “oscura” or “mulata” when people recognize and call out the strength, beauty and resiliency these ancestors left me. Please just call me negra and out of respect and love for yourself and your ancestors, if you are black and have lived years under the labels trigueño, mulato, indio, I encourage you to call yourself negro too because being black is enough, ser negro es suficiente.
As a writer it is my responsibility to use words in an honest way and as a revolutionary it is my responsibility to understand the power behind the words that I use as a writer.
Al pan pan al vino vino y a la negra negra. Please, just call me negra.
Muchas gracias a mis mentoras: Maria Reinat Pumarejo y Yolanda Arroyo Pizarro
Dorothy Bell Ferrer, also known as Chachi Yaniré, was raised in Cleveland and is a recent graduate from Kent State University with a degree in Political Science and Latin American Literature. Most of Chachi’s advocacy includes advocating for the independence of Puerto Rico, advocating for socialism that is sensitive to the needs of afrodescendant and indigenous populations in Latin America, the Caribbean and the United States. She also works to deconstruct racism found in Puerto Rico and Puerto Rican societies. Currently Chachi Yaniré is working on her first book expected to be published no later than 2018. When she is not reading, writing, or studying, Chachi is dancing bomba and spending time with family and friends. Chachi connects the majority of her work through her Afrocaribeña identity (Boricua Dominicana con raisitas cubanas).