de Juan S. Sepulveda Figuereo
“If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.”
Zora Neale Hurston
Identities are constantly forming and interacting. Because of this, it is worthwhile to reflect on how we visualize who we are, our attributes, and the importance we assign to them. Rarely do we ever stop and think about the concepts that we allow to define us. Considering ourselves as a gender, sexuality, or a race is sometimes very foreign. The consequences of being male escaped me the majority of my life. Daily harassment based on my genitalia was nonexistent. This, I fear, is the attitude that permeates in the commonwealth of Puerto Rico. The island’s national dialogue concerning race is very appealing. It is hard to visualize how prejudice and racism can squeeze themselves in a narrative that prides itself on racial mixture and tolerance. But if there is an idea more appealing than racial inclusivity it is that which defines race-based inequality as nonexistent. I want to address the incongruence between racial discourse in Puerto Rico and the daily lives of its inhabitants, how the separation from blackness has provided a platform on which racism plays an intricate role in the formation of the island’s citizens. We will be introduced to Puerto Rican anthropologists like Isar P. Godreau, who has done extensive research in the study of black formation in Puerto Rican schools, and Jorge Duany, with whom we will explore the phenotypic narration of how a Puerto Rican looks.
I will be examining my own identity as a Dominican, black, gay man, and how my identity has been shaped by the afro cultural memory in Puerto Rico and the heteronormative narrative that prevails here. I will examine the effects representations of blackness in Puerto Rico have had on me and attempt to be critical of their consequences. With this project, I seek to uncover myself, and peel away the layers of uncertainty and doubts that have not been addressed by the society in which I live. At the end of this work, more questions will have been brought up than answered, but in a community in which ideas of racial whitening still prevail, questioning these notions may be the place to start.
While I cannot hope to propose a solution to the marginalization of certain groups, I hope this project will help shed some light on the discrimination that multiple minority groups face in Puerto Rico. I also hope it will start a conversation on the ways racism has crept into our society. In doing so, we will be better equipped to address inequalities and the lack of access to positions of power on the island by minority groups. It is imperative that notions of prejudice towards blackness be discussed, for our community is in part rooted in Africa. Thus, by denying these links, we are diminishing a part of ourselves.
To reiterate the social need for such research, we can cite accounts found in the American Civil Liberties Union report entitled “Island of Impunity,” in which multiple accounts of police brutality against members of minority communities are presented. From the report we can excerpt how the use of racial slurs and discrimination are occurrences that take place in Puerto Rico, and how they fuel violent actions towards Afro-Puerto Rican citizens.
Because of the nature of this ethnographic work, it is important to constrict certain definitions: When I refer to blanqueamiento (whitening), I mean the process in which Puerto Rican society detaches itself from aspects that are viewed as African. By “cultural hierarchy,” I make reference to socially constructed ranks in the community. Lastly, by “racialization,” I refer to characteristics that are stereotypical in nature being imposed on black people.
This project is auto-ethnographical in nature. I uncover and examine aspects of my development into adulthood and define the parameters in which representation of Black Latinos have impacted my life. Thus, the project will be filtered through a lens that encompasses aspects of my socio-economic class and personal development. While this is my experience as a Black Latino Dominican in Puerto Rico, in no way does it assume or infer that it is the only experience for a particular group.
Methodology and Theoretical Framework
It is important to provide context that will serve as a base for the narration. To this end, I bring the following data. According to the 2010 census, the Puerto Rican population is currently divided as follows: 75.8% white, 12.4% black, 0.5% Asian and 3.3% two or more races. It is composed, according to that same census, of 95.4% Puerto Ricans and 1.8% Dominicans. My research will be situated in the theoretical frame of a working-class Puerto Rican family. A single-mother household, composed of three children, supported on a minimum-wage job, played a vital role in the setting in which I was brought up, the people I interacted with, and the education that I received. While at the time of my arrival in 1994 we were located in Santurce, an area with a high level of Dominican immigrants, we quickly moved to Reparto Metropolitano where this percentage was drastically lower. I went to public educational institutions; both my elementary and intermediate level schools were in the area of Reparto Metropolitano. While criminal statistics for this area of Puerto Rico are scarce, I always considered it to be relatively safe.
It is imperative to state that I am the result of an educational system that has marginalized the stories of Africans. This marginalization runs so deep, and works so subtly, that I barely reflected on the implications my ancestry brought. The public educational system failed to provide me with the tools I needed in order to take pride in being afro-descendant.
Godreau identifies three tactics applied in Puerto Rico’s educational system that further the production of a colorblind mentality. In her paper “The Lessons of Slavery,” she speaks of the “silence” or gap of information concerning African slave narratives, the “trivialization” of the struggle Africans were subjected to, and the systemic “simplification” of their fight (Godreau 05). These strategies were alive and well as I attended elementary, middle, and high school. By accepting the ideas of colorblindness, I unintentionally alienated a part of my history, a narration that is composed of violence and enslavement. While there is no sense in holding on to chains that never belonged to us, there is pride and resilience in remembering them.
I will proceed to denote methods utilized for this research in detail, and I will provide a description of how my own personal bias has or could influence these accounts in order to provide a narrative that is qualitative, but also respects the diversity of stories found in the Black Dominican immigrant community.
The first data to be analyzed is my formation as a gay Afro-Latino and how it has shaped the way I interact with people on multiple levels. Through deep reflection, I have uncovered key life experiences. The deep introspective process came in the form of free-writes in which I brainstormed occurrences from my past and began to question certain aspects of my identity. I brainstormed half an hour each day from March 17, 2016 to May 02, 2016.
The second data analyzed in this work is a computer-mediated conversation. The interaction took place on November 10th, 2014 with four friends through the Facebook chat messenger. The interaction took place for six hours starting at 1:17pm and ending at 7:33pm. The names and pictures of the participants have been changed to protect their privacy. With this data, I hope to contrast notions of animosity towards black people, how it equates in certain groups to Dominicans, present the social hierarchy, its place in jokes, and how it permeates even when one of the transgressors is Afro-Puerto Rican. I can only assume and provide conjectures based on the writing of said conversation, but some level of attention must be directed to the circumstances in which the jokes were said.
The third form of data is my collaborator Zoe Rosario’s retelling of her own experience as a Black Latina Dominican in Puerto Rico, and how she perceives the racial tension in Puerto Rico. The conversation took place on March 25th, 2016 and lasted 45 minutes. This is insightful, as it provides a female voice to my narrative, and provides the perspective of a different age group.
Place and Memory: Situated Perspective
I would spend most of my childhood watching Cartoon Network or Disney Channel, and I could never identify with any of the characters. Granted, some shows that I enjoyed featured black actors, like Raven-Symoné in That’s So Raven or Will Smith in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, but they did not have anything remotely similar to my lifestyle. For example, they did not speak my language; the culture portrayed in the show was drastically different from mine in terms of their surroundings; the composition of their families and the ways in which they interacted with one another were distinct. That said, I would rarely watch local programming; I believed that it was not as entertaining as the cable networks that featured “classic” cartoons and other live shows. Late at night, though, I would sit around with my mom and sisters and watch some soap operas. In our own way, that is one thing we did as a family. My mom worked long hours, so around 8pm we could relax with her. I was rarely engaged in these shows unless I was interested in the stories being portrayed. I was incredibly hooked on shows like La Usurpadora and Las Juanas; in those cases I would sit and watch them every night.
Soap operas brought with them a set of problems. Very early on in my childhood, fellow students would ask me if I enjoyed watching them, to characterize me as feminine. This created a conflict regarding what I like and what I was supposed to like. I could not reaffirm my masculinity in any way since there was something about me that was always seen as effeminate, from the sound of my voice, to the way I looked at people. In one instance, a girl called me gay simply because of my eyelashes. That was the extent to which society refuted who I was. This didn’t escape my household either; from a very young age there were whispers among family members. Even when I did not have a notion of my sexuality, people tended to sexualize me. For this reason, I began consciously altering the way I acted and spoke in order to appear more masculine.
The national discourse of Puerto Rico considers everyone a mixture of three main races: Africans, Taínos and Europeans. Because of this deeply engrained ideology, I rarely placed worth on my skin color. That said, from a young age I found myself being teased about my appearance; from how attractive I was, to the color of pink in my eye socket. In one instance, in elementary school, a fellow classmate teased by saying he wished he was able to write as fast as me, but that’s about all he wanted to have of mine. Afterwards, fellow classmates noted and made comments of their own. Reevaluating the context in which that interaction took place, I can see the comment was an indication of my race and how it was found unappealing.
These accounts are real examples of what Dr. Godreau illustrates in her work. The illusion of diversity plagued by reinforced notions of racism. As she states in “The Lessons of Slavery: Discourses of Slavery, Mestizaje and Blanqueamiento,” “Scholars have pointed out, for example, that the celebration of racial mixture through an ideology of mestizaje serves to distance Afro-Latinos from blackness” (Godreau 02). I believe the idea of racial unity kept me unaware of the consequences of being black and, more importantly, took away my chance to be proud of whom I am from a very young age. The narrative of racial mixture stopped me from visualizing part of the struggles my ancestors went through and from being aware of the treatment I was receiving.
Such a theory could also underscore the reasons behind my inability to identify myself with black characters in cable programming. Identifying was a struggle because I did not have an identity to cling to securely. It is also important to reiterate that without these representations of blackness present, my appreciation of how beautiful it is to be black deteriorated. Latin soap operas rarely have black characters; when presented they would mostly occupy the space of the poor and uneducated. “Estudios (…) han demostrado que los niños internalizan mensajes que asocian la negritud con la inferioridad o fealdad, y ser blanco con belleza o superioridad” (Godreau 23). It is not hard to understand, then, why the lack of black representation provides a platform in which seeds of racism can flourish. This Latino T.V. programming provides the viewer with the idea that blackness is the other, foreign and untrusted.
Lastly, to bring a modern memory to the project, I decided to search for a conversation with some of the friends I have had since middle school. In it, they explicitly joked about my nationality and race. It is interesting to see how, through jokes, deeply rooted notions of what is black, and who is black, surfaced. The conversation took place the 11th of October of 2014.
At the time, I remember feeling very uneasy. The comments were just making negative references to my characteristics. I think it is very interesting to note that one of the participants in the conversation is black, while another one is lighter-skinned, but has a black mother. This conversation takes us back to Godreau and her notions of how Puerto Ricans tend to associate blackness with a foreign concept.
In contrast, my collaborator Zoe Rosario has had a different experience as an Afro-Latina Dominican here in the island. Starting off with the education she received in public schools in Puerto Rico, she stated:
“Para mí en las escuelas ellos hablaban de todas las razas y nunca tuve ningún inconveniente y nunca hubo… pues dudas normal. A mí me dieron duro con los tópicos de la raza, bueno por lo menos yo me acuerdo mi maestra Echevarría de la Tomás Carrión Maduro, ella me dio duro con eso.”
This is not the first account I have heard regarding an emphasis on race formation in Puerto Rico. The schools’ locations could have been a factor. The Tomás Carrión Maduro school is in the heart of Santurce, were there are a great deal of Afro-Latinos.
Zoe Rosario talked to me extensively about her identity – “Yo me considero una mujer fuerte… creo, a mi entender, independiente entre todo lo que cabe, madre sobre todo ahora” – and the effect it has had on her: “Desde intermedia los muchachos ya me miraban de una manera diferente, desde intermedia empezó el ‘oh pérate, yo soy una mujer’. Los tipos con ‘ha que si las nalgas’, yo no tenía tetas, eso siempre llamó la atención; ‘ah que si la muchacha culona’”. Zoe stated that she has not been discriminated against frequently as a Dominican immigrant, but she could recall one instance in which the factor was present. “El único inconveniente que yo tuve fue una vez que yo estaba en cuarto o quinto grado y peleé con una nena, y una profesora me separó ‘ah porque ah’, me dice, ‘porque viniste a plantar bandera, viniste acá a plantar bandera’, la única vez que mencionaron algo de ser de República Dominicana”. As we progress through her narrative, the conversation turned towards race and her experience as a Black Latina woman. “Yo nunca me he dado cuenta del racismo porque no lo he vivido. Bueno, un muchacho una vez estaba hablando conmigo y él no sabía qué era yo y dijo ‘oh yo no salgo con prietas, para prietas no sé quién’”.
Project Findings: Politics and Poetry of “An Explosion of Intersectionalities: The Undercurrents of Race, Nationalism and Sexuality of an Afro-Dominican living in Puerto Rico”
To what extent has the afro-cultural memory in Puerto Rico and the heteronormative narrative that prevails on the island shaped my identity as a Dominican, gay, black man? Firstly, my notions of race were established by two different factors: the representation of blackness that I have experienced in Puerto Rico and the education that I have received in school. Secondly, my experience as a gay man has been defined in contrast to the conservative environment in which I was raised, and the establishment of my masculinity. Lastly, the third factor is my experience as a Dominican immigrant and how it has been defined by the interactions with my peers.
Puerto Rican society is complicit with the undercurrents of racism that Black Latinos experience on the island. Godreau explains this very well when she states, “Puede ser cómplice del racismo en la medida en que recicla mensajes que privilegian lo europeo y subestiman, distorsionan o excluyen la influencia de lo africano” (23). This is something that happens systematically in Puerto Rico in all levels of our community; we see how elected officials tend to be more European-looking, and how representation in the local media overwhelmingly consists of light skin. This is a process that, while subtle, leaves a big impact on the community and the way they characterize blackness. In my own experience, the inability to see myself represented elsewhere created a doubt as to how attractive I am and how I am viewed by society. It created a pattern in which I started to associate beauty with lighter skin. As stated in the 2010 census, Black Latinos account for 12.4% of the population in Puerto Rico, so we can see how the system is failing its citizens when they are not being represented fairly.
The national discourse Puerto Rico has about mestizaje provides a platform in which racism can thrive. “Notions of race mixture operate within very specific structures of power that often exclude blacks, deny racism, and invalidate demands for social justice” (Godreau 1). Because of these notions, it was incredibly difficult for me as a young black man to understand and be able to point out prejudice. Thus, the system silences the marginalized. It is also important to reiterate that “celebrations of racial mixture through an ideology of mestizaje serve to distance Afro-Latinos from blackness” (Godreau 2). For this reason, I could also not identify with black Americans on TV; there was a distancing from blackness as it meant slavery and unsophistication. In a way, it was a rejection of my own black identity.
Because of the lack of information regarding slavery, most schools trivialize it. Godreau points out how teachers “downplay black resistance to slavery and the systemic, global dimension of racism during slavery” (5). Accounts of revolts and escapes were never a part of the lesson, providing the illusion that slaves were complacent with their situation or were not intelligent enough to see how it placed them in horrible conditions. The fact that I heard about the Haitian Revolution when I arrived to the University of Puerto Rico is a testament to this. By trivializing slavery and skipping accounts of resistance, they have characterized slaves as something undesirable on multiple levels.
Masculinity in Puerto Rico
There are deeply rooted notions of what it means to be a man in most Latin American countries. Machismo is intertwined with the conservative nature of the people. From a very young age, people categorized me as a homosexual, a concept that I could not grasp when I was in second grade. Traditionally, marginal subjects “have been radicalized and sexualized as a means to justify their oppression” (Reddock 7). Family members would sexualize me in order to feel entitled to criticize me. At the time, I did not have any type of feelings towards boys, but I did understand that my way of being was not sufficient for society. This led me to modify my identity as a man and try to overcompensate by acting tougher or laughing less. “Homophobia is one of the building blocks in the construction of masculinity (…) masculinity has been historically defined as the ‘fight from women,’ the repudiation of the feminine and the rejection of male-male intimacy” (Reddock 8). The feminine characteristics I possess have acted as a defiance of what manhood is for the Puerto Rican and Dominican community.
My experience as a Dominican immigrant has been defined by interactions with my peers. While I had the mentality of colorblindness inculcated in me, it did not apply to me in their eyes as I was Dominican, and generally Puerto Ricans perceive us as inherently black. It also contrasts with the same mentality within the Dominican national discourse surrounding the mestizo. As Wayland Karin states, “a notion of mestizaje was seen until now as a romanticized version of slavery under which blacks, whites, and indigenous people mixed together and intermarried” (2). This leads to the notion that “colorblindness” is also very present in the Dominican Republic. As Silvio Torres explains in his work “De-racialized Consciousness”, “Puerto Rican dynamics racialize Dominicans as ‘the blacks’ in xenophobic discourses across the island, relating blackness to illegal immigration, disadvantaged socioeconomic status, foreign accent and racial features” (128). This serves to separate Puerto Ricans in general from blackness, belittle Puerto Rican-born Afro-Latinos, and accentuate the social hierarchy that prevails in the island.
Conclusion, Evaluating the Project and Implications
This project provided me with a deeper, more in-depth understanding of the occurrences that transpired in my life and how they affected me and my formation as a person. It help me visualize the subtleties that sometimes we think we do not notice, like the representation of black bodies in positions of power and how we internalize those absences. My findings in relationship to each of my identities have helped me see how I have had violent shocks with society for what I am and how I act. I believe my research question allowed me to explore my identities and how they intersect with one another. There are a lot of images and ideologies that constitute who I am, and this project provided me with the tools to delve into them. I can appreciate how some key past experiences have had an enormous influence on me, from the detrimental effect of a lack of education when it comes to the appreciation of race, to the visualization of it as something beautiful.
American Civil Liberties Union. “Island of Impunity: Puerto Rico’s Outlaw Police Force.” ACLU, Jun. 2012. Web. 10 March. 2016.
Godreau, Isar., et al. “The Lessons of Slavery: Discourses of Slavery, Mestizaje, and blanqueamiento in an elementary school in Puerto Rico.” American Ethnologist 35. 2(2008): 115-135. Print.
— .“Arrancando mitos de raíz: Guía para una enseñanza antirracista de la herencia africana en Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico: Fundación Puertorriqueña de las humanidades, 2013. Print.
Landale, Nancy and Oropesa, R. White, Black, or Puerto Rican? Racial Self-Identification among Mainland and Island Puerto Ricans. Vol. 81. Oxford University Press, 2002. Print.
Reddock, Rhoda. Interrogating Caribbean Masculinities: Theoretical and Empirical Analyses. Kingston, Jamaica: University of the West Indies Press, 2014. Print.
Torres, Silvio. The Tribulations of Blackness: Stages in Dominican Racial Identity. Latin American Perspective 25, 1998. Print.
United States. United States Census Bureau. Population and Housing Unit Counts. Census, Jul. 2012. Web. 12 March. 2016.
Weyland, Karin. Crossing Over the Intersections of Nation, Race and Gender: Is There an Emerging Afro-Latino(a) Diaspora in the Americas?. Latino Research Review, 2009. Print.