“Black Power!” (Self-Discovery as an Afro-Latina)

A couple of weeks ago, I viewed an exhibit called “Black Power!” At the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. This Harlem library has extended this exhibit until the end of March, so if you’re in NYC, take a trip uptown (or downtown, in my case), and see it! More about who this Schomburg man was in another post…

The exhibit is a powerful and bold celebration of the fight for black liberation in NYC and around the world. I enjoyed the exhibit with my friend Saida, my black sister with a Haitian background. There stood two black girls who come from different linguistic backgrounds, with different skin colors, hair textures, and ethnic labels in this country,  but we stood together. We both emotionally and spiritually identified with the exhibit. While surveying the pictures of the Black Panthers and Young Lords in their signature beret hats, we both exclaimed, “I want a beret!” (I still do, by the way. Berets are dope.)

Regarding the Young Lords’ presence in this exhibit, I was shocked to see them presented as participants in the struggle for black liberation. While it may be obvious to those more informed than me, I had never even heard of the Young Lords until a couple years ago in a Puerto Rican culture class at my university. That’s right, the only Puerto Rican history or culture I learned about in school was through ELECTIVE courses at my university in NYC. I can guarantee that the majority of universities around the country have no such courses, not even as electives. Does anyone else find that odd? Puerto Rico has been a U.S. colony for over a century. We’ve been citizens for a century. Why isn’t our history taught alongside the brainwashing ahem ahem whitewashed version of history that’s forced on us? But, that’s another conversation. The Young Lords were an incredibly important part of the fight for black liberation. These were black Puerto Ricans luchando for their people and I was thrilled to see them included!

I’ve written before about my experience as an Afro-Puerto Rican woman in this country, but I truly felt the dissonance I’m accustomed to while viewing this exhibit. As I studied posters advocating for Angela Davis’ liberation from prison, posters that advertised Malcolm X’s talks around the city, and posters that just celebrated black beauty and the black family, I realized where I stand in this battle for black liberation.

Before this point, I had already felt a disconnect with other Latinos since childhood, especially if they were not of African descent. I think the language barrier was a big issue as well, but I definitely did not relate to most Latinos. In fact, I still don’t. Whenever I try to connect with Latinos, my lack of Spanish skills is immediately unearthed and shamed/questioned. My ambiguous looks raise questions about my ethnic background. My distinctly upstate New York accent is seen with contempt from a Washington Heights girl’s side-eye.

So I do the best I can to connect while recognizing that I will never entirely fit in to their world. However, there is a group of people I find extraordinarily accepting of me and my blackness: non-Latino black Americans. Before I realized that I have every right to call myself “black” and identify myself with the movement for black liberation, my black friends pointed out my blackness to me. My hair is afro-textured. My grandfather is a dark-skinned Puerto Rican man. My ancestry is African. These friends absolutely welcome my blackness and encourage it. It’s never questioned by them at all. My Latino identity is not challenged by them either. They completely accept me. I’m not sure why they accept me more readily than my fellow Latinos, but I think language has a large part in it. Putting language aside, I know that it’s rare for a Latino of African descent to proudly proclaim their blackness. It’s actually quite uncommon.

So for me to galavant around Inwood, where many Dominicans live, and shout out my blackness is jarring! I wear my hair in its natural state. I don my coat with pins that say things like “YLO” (Young Lords Organization) and “Pedro Albizu Campos” (a famous Puerto Rican freedom fighter). Most of the older generation don’t identify as black. The younger generation typically follows in their footsteps, by religiously straightening their hair and calling themselves “Latina, not black.” The two aren’t mutually exclusive, people!

I suppose what I’m trying to say is that while I would love to be welcomed with open arms into the Latino community, I am not. The non-Latino black community is more than welcoming to me. I understand that as an Afro-Puerto Rican and German-American woman with strong ties to India and an affinity for all things British and French, I will not fit in with any one community. I find myself easily weaving in between various cultures and groups of people. I thank God for this ability because the majority of people feel confined to their one ethnic group. God chose to create me to be a cross-cultural woman and I thank Him for that.

 

Blessings,

 

Gabrielle G.

Advertisements

Relating to Latinos as an Afro-Latina (My Blackness Doesn’t Fit In?)

Readers, can we just take a moment to appreciate Angela Davis’ aesthetic in this picture? The afro, the glasses, the pins…I love it.

ANYWAY

The more I grow in understanding my blackness, the more I feel a disconnect from other Latinos. The only Latinos I feel a connection with are other Afro-Latinos. If a Latino resembles our Spaniard ancestors, I find it hard to relate. What do we talk about? Will they understand my experience in this country as an Afro-Latina? Do they even know abut our black ancestors? I admit that I make immediate assumptions that they aren’t as “woke” as I am or that they aren’t interested in my struggles as an Afro-Latina. This is something I have to work through.

So since I feel that I don’t fit in with typical Latino culture, where does that leave me? Well, the group of people who are more understanding and accepting of my blackness are African-Americans. All of my non-Latino black friends easily understand that as an Afro-Latina, I am black and have my own distinct experience in this country. I’ve had dark-skinned black friends tell me I am “just as black” as they are. That’s something I hesitate to claim because I know that as a light-skinned Afro-Latina, I have it much easier than a dark-skinned black American. I’m well aware of that. But, I appreciate the validation.

As a writer and reader, I devour books as soon as I get my little brown hands on them. While thinking about the books I can most relate to, I realized that I can’t really relate to Sandra Cisneros or writers in the same vein because I am a Caribbean woman. My specific experiences are so vastly different. I don’t have immigrant parents. Citizenship has never been an issue for me, because I’m Puerto Rican. While I can sympathize with Central and South American immigrants’ stories, I cannot really empathize. Our experiences are just so distinct.

Therefore, the books I read that speak to my soul aren’t written by Latino authors, save for one: When I Was Puerto Rican by Esmeralda Santiago. That book touched a deep part of my existence. Except for her book, I find myself reading books about the black woman’s experience in America and intensely resonating with the words I see on the page. I feel understood and accepted when I read those books. The book I’m currently reading is Women, Race, and Class by Angela Y. Davis. Davis documents and dissects multiple aspects of the black female experience from slavery to when she wrote the book, the 1980s, in a way that puts the reader in the shoes of each woman she talks about, whether that’s Sojourner Truth or Ida B. Wells. Davis also mentions the various ways that Puerto Rican women have been abused by the U.S. government, which is something I wrote about a few weeks ago. I’ll include a link to that performance below. Davis acknowledges Puerto Rican women’s blackness more than many Latinos do. 

As I learn more history and deepen my understanding of what “black” is and how I live move, and have my being as a black Spanish-speaking woman in this country, the texts that teach me the most are texts written by and about black American women. Are there texts written by Afro-Latinas about the Afro-Latina experience? Honestly, I’m not so sure. I haven’t heard of any. Maybe that’s because we are just now openly talking about black Latinos and our various experiences. If such literature exists, please direct me that way! I’d love to read them.

But, until I find them, I feel most understood by black American texts, not typical Latino texts. My black American friends are more accepting of my Afro-Latina identity. This is not the ideal. I’d love to be united with my white Latinos and indigenous Latinos, but it’s difficult to actually find them where I live, and even harder to build a rapport. For one, they’re told they can’t be Latino because they’re so white. Afro-Latinos are told they can’t be Latino because they’re so dark. We really can’t win, it seems. I think it’s time we changed the rules to this game because it seems like we’re not supposed to win.

 

Blessings,

 

Gabrielle G.

 

Performance about Puerto Rican history:

The Truth about Puerto Rico (Told to a White Audience)

Puerto Rico

Isla del encanto

Land of arroz con habichuelas y mofongo

Exporter of Marc Anthony and Rita Moreno

We’re well-known for what we give, aren’t we?

 

But, what about what has been taken from us?

 

The Spaniards, our first colonizers, murdered the Tainos, and through violent indigenous rape, eradicated them from our present reality.

They forced their foreign tongues down our throats and balked when we didn’t like the taste.

 

Spain did the same to my African ancestors, denying their humanity, refusing to set them free.

They claimed ownership of the black body, through slavery and forced intimacy.

 

Thus, a Puerto Rican came to be.

 

Puerto Rico. Tiny island, somewhere in the Caribbean

Not sure what their government’s like

Not sure if they can vote in our elections

Wait, aren’t they Americans? Why?

 

Why. This question turns in my head often

Why Puerto Rico has never been free.

Black bodies passed from Spanish hands to American hands

Different linguistically but still pale and cold hands.

 

Autonomy has never been known to the Puerto Rican.

Liberty to choose an identity was never for us.

So, yes, we are Americans. By force.

We became one of you in 1917, right when WWI was heating up.

How convenient.

 

The U.S. military has used Puerto Rican bodies for their wars

And yet has consistently denied us our freedom.

Freedom to think, to protest, to fly our flag.

Freedom to have babies when we want to, or even at all.

 

During the 1950s, “la operacion” became a household word

Amongst the tragically ignorant housewives in Puerto Rico.

A promise was made: better family size; more money.

And women were cut: they were sterilized against their will

By the U.S. government.

 

Scratching and clawing at this situation,

Like a tourist’s bad sunburn,

We wanted to resist, to peel it,

And let our natural, sun-kissed skin grow.

 

Pedro Albizu Campos led this resistance.

A Harvard-educated man, he was a polyglot

And his linguistic capital gave him the ability

To feverishly speak to anyone who could help Puerto Rico become free.

 

This fiery passion would become his downfall.
Much like MLK or Malcolm X, Campos became a threat.

Independence. Our own flag. Women’s rights to their own bodies.

The U.S. wasn’t ready to talk about that during the 1950’s.

 

Pedro Albizu Campos was murdered, through medical experiments and torture.

The U.S. channeled the Nazis they had just vehemently fought against

In order to subdue this “angry Puerto Rican man.”

The independence movement flickered out, with embers still aching to be noticed.

 

During this movement, my grandmother was one of the many women who fled Puerto Rico

To avoid sterilization, and she found herself in the projects of downtown Brooklyn.

Here she raised almost ten children on her own, without any man.

Nueva York seemed to be the land of opportunity for so many like her.

 

But that opportunity came with terms and conditions,

That my grandmother couldn’t read, let alone sign.

If you don’t speak English, your future in this country is dim.

Citizen or not, Spanish, at that time, did not get you far.

 

And so she remained in downtown Brooklyn,

Feeding her children using food stamps,

Hoping that one of them would leave this place

And fulfill the dream she had had, as a twenty-something coming to the mainland.

 

Puerto Rico was and is unable to promise the growth that New York does.

Much of that is because the U.S. created Puerto Rico to be what it is.

It’s a vicious cycle, isn’t it?
And one feels shame, begging the oppressor for better opportunities, knowing that their hand has always been closed to you.

 

But, this country was not for my grandmother. No one rooted for her. She learned little English, despite her best efforts.

Literacy was completely unknown to her. She could not advance in life, so one of her children did.

My mother, from her childhood, knew that she wanted more than this life

Of simply eating government cheese, playing on the needle-ridden streets, going to dilapidated schools, and waiting to die, in Brooklyn, the borough that has become so hip lately.

 

Through her tenacity and fierce commitment to her education,

My mother was able to leave the projects

And when the time came for her to choose to have children,

She had two and raised them in Upstate New York’s quiet suburbs.

 

I stand here as a creation of God and a reflection of my island’s past.

The U.S. has hurt Puerto Rico immensely and continues to do so

With its disgusting response to the island’s cries, post-Maria.

Lares esta gritando and this isn’t the first time.

 

I must openly speak what is true, while I have this platform.

 

Americans love to dance to “Despacito” and swoon over our women,

Yet most of you do not know that Puerto Rico is a colony of the U.S. and that we have been citizens for a century.

You love to eat our food, move into our neighborhoods, and visit our island’s resorts,

Yet you know next to nothing about our history, our pain and how it affects us today.

 

Puerto Rican history is American history.

If you neglect this part of your ancestors’ past,

You are bound to repeat it.

My people will suffer from your lack of knowledge.

 

The U.S. government and its citizens have deeply wounded Puerto Rico.

In all honesty, I’m not sure we can totally recover.

But what has to happen, is an attitude change, a heart shift.

Begin to see the Puerto Rican as your fellow citizen, your fellow human,

And you will become righteously indignant.

Speak up for us, because when we speak, Washington, D.C. chooses not to hear us,

Even though we speak the language they forced on us.

 

Gabrielle G.

 

“Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” – I John 3:18

 

How to Help Puerto Rico:

https://www.unidosporpuertorico.com/en/

https://secure.savethechildren.org/site/c.8rKLIXMGIpI4E/b.9535647/k.A2B9/Hurricane_Maria_Childrens_Relief_Fund/apps/ka/sd/donor.asp?msource=wexgphca0917&gclid=EAIaIQobChMIjum-0tyK2AIViI-zCh3qHgP1EAAYAiAAEgIMwPD_BwE

NEGRA by Gabrielle Greiner

I never knew I was black.

Growing up, my blackness wasn’t taught to me, like how I wasn’t shown how to do my hair.

When I raised questions to my elders, “Why does my hair grow out? Like sideways, not down. And why is it so curly?”

The response glossed over centuries of relaxed history, denied the blackness in me, and simply was “Because you’re Puerto Rican.”

But, the Boricuas I saw on TV did not resemble me, rather they looked like they stepped out of a commercial for Pantene.

So, what does this mean?

I made my first Latino friend in college, when I was 19.

She was Mexican-American, with indigenous roots I could see.

See, the Latinos in high school did not like me.

I was too white, too educated, thought too much, and wanted too badly to be free.

Free from the stereotypes that the oppressor laid on me.

My back was tight and I could barely just be.

I was contending with my identity

Because I have the blood of both the oppressor and the oppressed inside of me.

I realized I was black just before 23.

Studying my Isla’s history had removed the blinders from me.

The Spaniards murdered the Tainos and through violent indigenous rape, eradicated them from our present reality.

They forced this foreign tongue down our throats and balked when we didn’t like the taste.

Spain did the same to my African ancestors, denying their humanity, refusing to set them free.

They claimed ownership of the black body, through slavery and forced intimacy.

Thus, a Puerto Rican came to be.

I think about my blackness and wonder, “Is this how the country sees me?” As black?

We all know what that means.

Or, am I midway between the binary? Inoffensive light skin. Beautifully standard English flowing off my tongue.

Oh, but that hair. Wild. Unprofessional. Must be tamed.

I doubt my blackness. My skin isn’t dark enough. My ancestors were slaves on an island, not here. I have privileges that my Jamaican-American friend will never have. But, she sees my blackness. She calls it out of me, nurtures it, sings to it while it grows.

My blackness cannot exist without my brother and sister. My blackness is a lover I call out to. My blackness follows the question marks. My blackness propels me toward eternity and calls to me throughout history.