Nobody looks like anything (or the day I come out of the clóset)

Puerto Ricans on the island, by contrast, didn’t have full consciousness of being a minority because they’d never had to live as one.” (P.159, My Beloved World by Sonia Sotomayor)

You can say that some people have a “something something”, like in the context of “claiming someone”. But more than often, you see the opposite, where some try to distance themselves from their afro-roots.

Reading Junot Díaz novels, watching Black Dynamite, and my book The Afro-Latin@ Reader have made me think more carefully about what it means to be dark skinned and Latino in the US. This is nothing new to me, as I always fluctuate my conversations around topics of race, gender, etc… Which has made people associate my presence as the “race person”- and I don’t mean like good friends, asking another friend about a particular hairy/racist situation and trying to get some insight- in a microagressive matter, in which they turn to me if they want to learn something “multicultural”. Sometimes this is ok…sometimes it’s not, mainly because it’s not my purpose in life is to educate them; there’s resources out there, so learn them.

I do been thinking about how this actually affects my daily life, and I’ve come to realize that I actually walk a line between several identities… One of which, it seems I was in a weird denial phase, which sounds awfully familiar to one of my other identities – queer. I’ve become racialized in the US, and as such I’ve come to experience certain things different than my home in Puerto Rico. As much as I can empathize with my fellow Latin Americans, I have privileged that they’ve not because of my colonial heritage (i.e. citizenship by the 1898 invasion). I can relate to other Hispano parlantes, because I grew up in an idealized pan-Latin@ identity. Immortalized in songs by Rubén Blades, Juan Luis Guerra, Violeta Parra; marked by spilled blood by Bolívar, Ché Guevara, and Ramón Emeterio Betances; declamado in poetry by José Martí, Julia de Burgos; and so on…

And we learned about the Taínos, and the Spaniards that came over… And yet, our African foreparents were dedicated a page in our history books (see Godreau and Llórens, 2010 for more info). And lately, I have paid more attention to that. My dark skin has made more aware of what I am, and what I am not. But mostly, what I have found, and haven’t found in my ancestry (thanks for nothing Ancestry.com).

Yet, while we heard so much about amazing people like Celia Cruz, Rafael Hernández, among others that have been recognized as Latinos some people seem to gloss over the fact that they were afro-descendants; that they were dark skinned… the ever elusive black word.

So, while as a Puerto Rican I have in fact a lot of ‘races’ in my ancestry, I always dragged my feet regarding my afro heritage. It was always there and never hidden. Yet, in Puerto Rico racism is more subtle, so I never thought of actually having to come out regarding my blackness; even though society (my friends, neighbors, ex boyfriend, etc…) never let me forgot that I was indeed black because of my skin color, my wide bridge-less nose that wasn’t made for “regular people” glasses, and my butt… *le sigh*.

So here it is, I’m afro descendant everybody. I’m an Afro-Latino. I am the byproduct of colonialism. I am dealing with it. I am proud of where I come from.

Passing, and my presence in the field…

A couple of weeks ago, I was at the laundromat. I’ve been going to this particular place to do my laundry, because it is in the community where I’m doing research, and is very close to where I live. This particular laundromat is frequented by Latinos in the area, among people of different ethnicities. Kids running around, TV’s blasting, and two barbershops/hair cuttery place add to the picture. Two very interesting things happened while I was there: I found a novel way to learn about my research, and learned that I pass as Latino.

First thing was that one of the TVs was showing a rerun of a case from the court show Caso Cerrado. The case presented was about a man suing his pregnant wife, because she did not want to get vaccinated against Influenza H1N1. The man brought his wife’s brother in law to back up his ‘suit’, against his wife and his sister in law. The outcome of the show is a bit irrelevant, insofar as it is not what I’m trying to focus on here. I thought that this particular episode was very interesting given that it involved a pregnant Latina woman, her husband, and her family; all vying to influence some sort of decision making in what can be regarded as prenatal care as it pertains to the wellbeing of this pregnant woman. Before today, I didn’t give much thought to see how media, like TV, can influence a particular group of people in an important topic such as prenatal care.

I say this because it is a show on a major Spanish speaking network, and watched by many (including my own abuela back home). I disagree with how the show talked about the topic, but the judge (host of the show) did a good job in bringing in different doctors, as well as experiences from different people on which to draw an opinion for her ruling.

The second major thing that happened, was that once again, I was spoken to in Spanish while I was there. In my head I was happy, because somehow, something about me was reflecting this internalized experience of being racialized as Latino; as someone who came from Puerto Rico; and speaks Spanish. I was glad that others saw how my outward identity very closely reflects my self identification. This is great news for my research in a sense, because it makes me less of a stranger.

But later on, I felt bad. I felt sick to my stomach, because I was celebrating the fact that I was Passing – “I’m passing! People talk to me in Spanish!!”…

The fact is that I am trigueño, have curly hair, and have some some sort of passing privilege because of it. I also have academic privilege, Puerto Rican privilege, and light skin privilege. I am trying to be always aware of my positions in the field and how I am perceived. So it’s bittersweet because I feel bad about the idea of me using the concept of passing to further the needs of my research. This will definitely be part of my dissertation.

What does Latin@ mean?

I got my reviews back from my grant proposal to the NSF, and this is what I think about a specific piece of feedback that I received. Overall, the feedback was good, yet I felt uneasy about something. I don’t think I’ll be able to flesh this out in the most coherent way possible, but here it goes anyway.

Two of my NSF reviewers criticized my ‘monolithic’ use of the word Latino in regards to my study population. They mentioned that defining it in such narrow terms was appropriate for a grant to the NIH, but not for NSF. Finally, they mentioned that by defining it the way I did, I erased and minimized individual differences from people that come from different backgrounds, countries, and ethnicities from Latin America and the Caribbean. They actually were not that eloquent when saying all of that, but I translated it as such from my own reading of their feedback.

As an anthropologist, I understand this concern; as a Latin American queer person of color, I LIVE THIS! One of the things that we often do in anthropology is unpack and deconstruct terms such as Latin@. Yet, lately I’ve been thinking about what does that mean for the participants and others who identify as such. I agree that not everyone means (and internalizes) the same thing when they say Latin@, but such a social construct exists. We might not agree with it, but as anthropologists we can’t will it out of existence just because it seems to simple for our messy and complex theories.

How do we expect to engage the public, and the people that we collaborate with in our studies, if we believe ourselves to be so above their colloquial use of a term. I am aware of the political implications of the word Latin@, yet, what do we make of the people in my research community that actually use that word to describe themselves as a dyasporic community in the US? What do we make of the use of media like Univisión and Telemundo, trying to craft pan-Latin American identities in their shows and telenovelas? Is that not part of the world that we study?

So thanks, but no thanks NSF reviewers and your high horse definition of Latin@. I prefer to engage with the community; my community. I prefer to do research that actually helps. it would’ve been nice to get a bit of money, but I learned a lesson here.