My Skin Is Black, My Name Is Latino. That Shouldn’t Surprise You.

Something about my Blackness forces some Afro Latinos to face their own, even if they’re not ready to embrace it

II love jumping into cabs in New York City’s Washington Heights. For the most part, I run into a driver who’s Dominican, and he’s almost always surprised I can speak Spanish. We most often have similar facial features, waves in our curly hair, and vibe to the same music on the radio. But this never matters in the end. The driver will usually follow up with, “Wait, you’re really Dominican? What barrio is your mom from?” I’ll tell him the barrio (neighborhood) in the DR and the cross streets, but he still seems vexed.

I’ve never questioned my Blackness. My skin, lips, and hair would never allow it. But on the flip side, the idea of me embracing my Latinx identity has always been called into question. For some reason, something about my Blackness forces some Afro Latinxs to face their own, even if they’re not ready to embrace it.

As a person with Dominican, Haitian, and American roots, I don’t speak Spanish well, I don’t speak Haitian-Creole at all, and I don’t feel much patriotism for a country that doesn’t grant me full protections under its laws. Society has mapped out expectations and harbored stereotypes for what a hyphenated American should look like and how we should sound. Those of us with hyphens don’t often allow ourselves the opportunity to celebrate our cultures without defining them by our oppressions, especially if our hyphens don’t neatly fit into the broader definitions of White America.

It also stands to reason that many of us who are labeled first- or second-generation Latinx balance very complex identities. And, because I didn’t have the language to identify myself culturally until college, I didn’t open my mouth to try. But I was Black before I even got to speak my piece. Even before I understood the word “nigger,” I heard “negro” in Spanish. I’m still negro.

My Blackness has never been in question. My skin, lips, and hair would never allow it. But on the flip side, the idea of me embracing my Latinx identity has always been called into question.

As a kid, it was easy to feel resentful for not having a solid grounding in African American culture. I never watched The Color Purple or Purple Rain in full. I didn’t learn the Black national anthem until college, and I only felt the awe of learning about political activist Bobby Seale after I met him. I was part of the Student African American Society in college, but I felt like I was still taking Blackness 101 while my Black American friends, who had this knowledge handed down to them, didn’t need a course at all.

It took Felipe Luciano, former leader of the Young Lords, to pull me into fully embracing Blackness as an approach to the world. He would lecture about the way he saw connected struggles throughout the Americas. Considering that 95% of enslaved Africans landed somewhere other than the United States, it also became important to school ourselves on international Blackness. I’d start to point to the tempo in merengue and how it sounds like the music from Ghana. I’d compare and contrast Celia Cruz to Nina Simone, Johnny Ventura to Harry Belafonte, and Roberto Clemente to Jackie Robinson. I’d celebrate Pele’s style of fútbol play while celebrating NYC streetballers’ influence on the game of basketball. And soon after, I came to learn the full name of the renowned Black public library in Harlem. The Arturo Alfonso Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture is named for the Puerto Rican researcher and archivist who contributed the first collections to the New York Public Library. We share a birthday (January 24), and he pushes traditional thinking about race beyond cultural borders.

The outside world finds ways to tell us where we belong, but there’s a part of us that knows we can push those boundaries and resist boxes. This expansion allows us to bring together the various versions of who we are and what we do. Those of us who call ourselves Afro Latinx don’t do it for the express purpose of getting farther away from what makes us Black. We’re saying that we carried this DNA over generations and over multiple bodies of water and land to arrive in this space. We were Black over “there,” and we’re still Black over “here” in America.

I’m going to keep shocking these cabdrivers. My revolution is personal, and it starts with the tip I might offer the people around me.

I teach by day, write by night, part time, and speak up full time. Bright light from a distant star. http://thejosevilson.com. IG: @thejosevilson

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