Growing up, I was confused. I was very confused. I was specifically confused about my racial identity. It wasn't always like that. There was a time before my confusion, a time when I was comfortable being me and thought others felt the same. I was confident about my cultural roots and I didn't feel obligated to fit into a certain mold. Dear people don't fret. This confusion no longer reigns over me. I've broken free from its tyrannical hold. Society, on the other hand, isn't so lucky.
I identity myself as a Latina and a Hispanic (for the record, these words are interchangeable). For starters, my parents hail from Dominican Republic, a beautiful Caribbean country on the island of the Hispaniola. Although I was born in Brooklyn, I never got the chance to grow up there. As soon as I was born, I was shipped off to Dominican Republic (not literally, of course; that would have been unfortunate). A few months before I turned seven, I came back to the lovely U.S. of A. with my mother and I've been here ever since. Spanish was my first language and I speak it fluently. It is the language of my household; my parents abhor the utilization of English under our roof (unless my brother and I are teaching them a new word or something of the like). I've always been OK with that. I'm grateful for it, actually. I'm proud of my culture and I admire their efforts to preserve it in this country. And, that's that folks. I'm a Hispanic. I'm a Latina. The funny thing is, a lot of people don't believe it, which is why I felt the need to provide some background information.
Every time I walk into a Spanish-speaking restaurant or some other Spanish-speaking facility or event, there is always at least one person, and I mean always, who is startled when I start speaking Spanish. Granted, these people always try to politely hide their surprise. I always catch them in the act, though. It's the way their eyes get slightly bigger after I answer their meticulously-presented, English-posed question with a Spanish-spoken answer. It's the "Well, whaddaya know?!" look, the "Gee, well, how bout that?!" look. If you didn't know already (because I talked about it in my first post), I sport an afro. When people think of the hair texture of Hispanics, they think of luscious curls or straight, thick locks. I have no such hair textures. My hair is wild. It has tightly-coiled, barely perceptible curls. My hair is virtually equivalent to that of my black peers. My skin color is also fairly dark. I have a caramel complexion. And, why shouldn't I? Latin America is a potpourri of colors and appearances. Didn't people of color, Native Americans and blacks, inhabit and toil its lands? Didn't Europeans, and even Asians, cross oceans in pursuit of Latin American land, power and opportunity? The face of the Hispanic is not the stereotype that conquers the minds of many an individual. It is not simply fair-skinned or tan or shaped by black waves. It is a rainbow of diversity. Its color is both ebony and ivory. Its hair texture is both unruly and sleek. Its features are Caucasoid, Mongoloid and Negroid. In the beginning, people think I'm African-American. In a way, I am. I have African roots -- my features tell me as much. Being identified as African-American upon first glance doesn't irritate me. What irritates me is that many people, Latin Americans themselves included, don't think a person of color fits the image of a Latin American.
The perception of a colored Latin American has always been a sort of taboo. In fact, in Dominican Republic, a "blanquismo" campaign occurred in the mid-1900s. The dictator at the time, Rafael Trujillo, was concerned with "whitening" the Dominican population because he believed dark skin colors symbolized human primitiveness. Dominican Republic's neighboring country, Haiti, was predominantly black, as opposed to the Dominican Republic's mostly mulatto population. At the time, many Haitians crossed the border between the two countries to obtain work. To prevent the Dominican population from "blackening" (as a result of reproduction between a Haitian and a native Dominican), Trujillo headed the Parsley Massacre, which executed about 20,000 Haitian civilians living in Dominican Republic. He did this in five days. According to his logic, he was helping keep Latin America pure, as in light-skinned only.
I'm not only black; apparently I'm white, too. Before I explore this deeper, I want to mention that my inspiration for this blog post stemmed from poet, freelance writer and HuffPost blogger, Erika L. Sánchez. Her recent blog post, "The Origin of a Latina Nerd," is absolutely hilarious, true, and for me, extremely, extremely relatable.
You see, I'm what Ms. Sánchez calls a Latina nerd. In elementary school, I spent most of my recesses devouring Harry Potter books. I liked to talk in a British accent and pretend to be Hermione Granger. I spent a lot of my free time reading. My cousins always thought I was weird for wanting to discuss books rather than boys (although there is nothing wrong with the latter subject of discussion... at all, actually). I wasn't socially challenged (I swear). I spent a reasonable amount of time doing what kids do on playgrounds, like play kickball or tag. And then, I did the unusual things like pretend I belonged to Code Name: Kids Next Door (anyone remember that show?), act out scenes from Christopher Paolini's Eragon (I was Saphira), and pretend I was Hermione Granger, again. I never liked to use slang, so a lot of my black and Latino friends called me white. In middle school, one girl, who I considered my enemy at the time, made fun of the way I spoke. She used to say, "You look black and you say you're Hispanic, but you talk like a white person!" Before middle school, I used to be friends with this girl. In fact, she and her family came from Dominican Republic as well. Oh, the irony.
You can now understand my past confusion, I hope. According to everyone around me, I was not Latina enough. Apparently, I did not look like a Latina or talk like a Latina or act like a Latina. Yet, I feel like a Latina. I've always felt like one. The reason why is simple: I am a Latina. I know I am a Latina because I cherish my Dominican culture. I speak the language and I know its people. I eat its food and I dance its dances.
I am a dark-skinned, wild-haired, Latina nerd. I'm not the only one. I know there are other people like me out there, other little girls who are being made fun of for the same reasons I was.
We're never going to reject stereotypes. We can't help it. The least we can do, however, is be more open-minded.