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Mejorar La Raza: On Anti-Blackness in the Latinx Community

“My mother tells me to fix my hair. And by ‘fix,’ she means straighten. She means whiten. But how do you fix this ship-wrecked history of hair? The true meaning of stranded: when trusses held tight like African cousins in ship bellies, did they imagine that their great grand-children would look like us? And would hate them how we do?” – Elizabeth Acevedo

“Hey, Willie! What are you, man? Boricua? Moreno? Que?
I am.” – Willie Perdomo

“…my grandfather would tell me ‘Stop looking like a nigger!’ I tell him, ‘I’m celebrating the way God made me.’ My grandfather smiled in the faces of my black friends like he had a lynch mob in his back pocket; his teeth, the 13th, 14th, 15th amendment shredded into 36 different pieces of bigotry…my grandfather died as the moon. I am not him. I am black, and full of stars.” – Gabriel Ramirez

It’s a strange thing, this body of mine. It has only started feeling like a home the older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve been able to trace the routes of ships through my limbs and chart entire maps with my veins.

Genetics in Latinx families are a trip. Folx can have entirely different phenotypes than their immediate family, prompting impolite stares and even more impolite questions from a few bold strangers. My mother tells stories of riding the bus with my grandmother, who was biracial, and having countless people dart their eyes between the two of them, trying to decipher the relationship. My mother, taking after my grandfather, was and still is often read as Southeast Asian. The tradition of mystery has been passed down to our mother/daughter relationship; for two people with almost precisely the same facial features, folx still stare hard trying to figure out how she managed to make me. It’s funny, really. Her oncology nurse, an Eastern European woman, totally changes demeanor at the sight of me on the occasions I accompany my mother to one of her appointments. Mom has also taken notice: “When you’re not here, she’s different. She sees you as blacker than me.”

By no stretch of the imagination would my mom be read as black, but she makes no bones about the fact that she comes from a lineage of black women. My dad is a different story: biracial himself, he comes from a family that values whiteness as correct and beautiful. Combine their given lineages and you get my brother and me: two light skinned Afro-Latinx who on any given day will either be read as black mixed (which is correct) or any other non-white ethnic and racial combination you can think of. Growing up in a predominantly white area, I was already keenly aware of my color; but I came crashing into the final component of my identity when I was cast as Tituba in our school’s production of The Crucible, which subjected me to the anti-black jokes and taunts of my peers. My boyfriend, who was white, would get teased by his friends for “liking black girls” (“they call you black because they know it pisses me off”); I felt and lived my blackness before I had an understanding of or access to the language to describe it. You’d think after the hostility of racist teenagers, family would be a reprieve, but no; my extended family regarded my brother and I as anomalies.

“Ay, pero wassamatta with ya hair?” The ring of my aunt’s words will always be branded in my frontal lobe. My brother David, who is lighter than me with much kinkier, more tightly coiled hair, was the subject of her inquiry. We sat close on her stuffy couch, playing at polite family as best we could.

“What do you mean?” he countered with his signature sardonic drone and deadpan delivery. “It’s my hair. That’s how it grows.”

“I tell him he needs to cut it but he don’t listen,” interjected my dad.

“But it looks like a mess!” continued my aunt. “Like a Brillo pad!” And off to the races they went; my father and his sister dragging my teenage brother and his fro for a solid 5 to 8 minutes while my mother resisted the urge to beat my aunt’s ass for the sake of avoiding bochinche. This particular incident is one David and I come back to often. Sometime last year, he relayed another instance in which his hair (his display of blackness) was a subject of infuriation for my father. He was about 17, he said, and getting ready to go out. My dad was staring at him hard, and when he asked why, my dad blurted, “You look like a n*gger.”

“What?!” I stared, wide-eyed, unblinking.

“Oh, yeah,” David chuckled, as if to say, “Does that surprise you?”

Horrified me, yes. Surprise me? Depressingly, no. The subject of anti-blackness in Latinx communities is one the majority of Latinx people deny when called on it but keep as a dirty inside joke amongst themselves. Part of what creates this culture of anti-blackness is the miseducation and cognitive dissonance surrounding discussions of what Latinx people ARE; often, ethnicity and countries of origin are conflated with racial identity, based on the falsehood that we are all equal parts European, African, and Native, and therefore our own, separate race. By doing so, folx in Latinx communities are able to distance themselves from either their blackness or their privilege, depending on what their race is, and the insidiously genius part of this particular construction of white supremacy is that we are conditioned to do the work ourselves. Mejorar la raza, or “better the race,” is a phrase often used to discourage Latinx people from dating, marrying, or having children with unambiguously black folx. It is code for “make us a prettier people- whiter, smaller, more attractive”; a genocidal mindset seeking to erase any trace of blackness from Latinx cultures (despite the fact that many Latinx cultures are Pan-African in practice) in a world that is set on wiping out blackness in its entirety.

I can’t count the number of times I have had white Latinx people outright deny that they are white and as such receive privileges that rest of us don’t. I, being read as black as often as I am, also do not deny that I am racially ambiguous in the eyes of a lot of people and as such receive mobility that others don’t have access to. This kind of cognitive dissonance, enabled by the “people of color” umbrella, allows phony solidarity amongst Latinx people that promotes violent erasure and silencing. By refusing to gut anti-blackness from their own communities, non-Black Latinx send the message that they do not want to achieve liberation from white supremacy, but rather seek to be elevated to its status by stepping on the backs of their Afro and Black counterparts.

I feel like this is a story I have told over and over again; a narrative I’ve tried to compartmentalize and make known, make beautiful, make intellectual. But the truth is I search for myself almost constantly: in every new paragraph I write, in every new book of essays I absorb, in the faces of strangers on the subway that I hope I resemble. This story is the empty rattling in my ribs; the vacant rooms inside me that I leave open to welcome family but instead they are played like a xylophone by those who wield my Latinidad to suffocate my blackness. The dissonant chords vibrate through my entire body, trying to erase the traces of what makes me an inconvenient presence for their comfort and they call me cruel when I will not let them kill me. My ancestors have survived too long in my blood to be snuffed out by the descendants of those they evaded.

For those of us who cannot escape our blackness and the reality of our lineages, our bodies are the expendable currency non-Black Latinx use to cash in on their proximity to whiteness. In order to achieve liberation, Afro Latinx folx need to prioritize the realities of their race over the false cries of unity from people with whom our only connection is the tongue of our colonizers.

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Jackie Torres avatar About the author: Jackie Torres is a poet, performer, writer, Afro Boricua, and mal’criada whose work seeks to utilize storytelling as a method for personal healing while simultaneously demanding societal accountability, transparency, and reconstruction. She is one third of the production company CRACKED BINDING, which seeks to create a platform for people of color to use personal storytelling for truth, reconciliation, and human rights education. She is also the author and a co-collaborator of IN THEORY: Notes on Home, Love, Diaspora, and Failing Adulthood, a dance and spoken word fusion about converting the pain of our past into the resistance of our future. Jackie will be attending Baruch College in the fall to study Journalism and Creative Writing as well as Pan-African Studies, and hopes to cultivate a collective artists’ space some day in the future. Catch her as Sonya in The Eagle Project’s production of Uncle Vanya in NYC this spring. Follow her on Instagram, @jackieines, for more details.

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