Episode 2: In Between Black and Latinx

“I battled it, battled it, battled it, until at some point I realized… that I could be Black and I could be Dominican.” - Angelo


In this episode, we share our reflections on the 21st Arturo A. Schomburg Symposium (themed “Sports and Blackness: Inclusion?”) hosted at Taller Puertorriqueño (2600 N. 5th Street) on February 25, 2017. At the symposium, we were able to interview attendees who spoke to their experiences as Latinx people, with heritage spanning the Dominican Republic and Venezuela. In the format of a live discussion, we present excerpts from our interviews and contextualized analysis from our course readings on AfroLatinx language and identity. Our discussion illustrates how experiences of race, color, and language in the U.S., sometimes lead Spanish-speaking Blacks to choose between their Blackness and Latinness in everyday encounters, as well as in their understandings of self.

Questions to Keep in Mind

What is afrolatinidad? Who are “threshold people”? How do we use an intersectional lens to make liminal experience visible?

Places to See

Taller Puertorriqueño mural down the block from Taller Puertorriqueño

Art Gallery Tour at Taller PR

Further Context

Anthropologist Laura A. Lewis examines the effects of historical displacement on the authority to claim ‘national space’ (Lewis: 2012, p. 93). In her ethnography Chocolate and Corn Flour, Lewis describes how a sense of landed authority is withheld from Black Mexicans and further “erases them from the face of the [Mexican] nation” (Lewis: 2012, 90). Her research also illustrates how oftentimes Black Mexicans, sometimes regarded as AfroMexicans, prefer to refer to themselves as moreno (Brown), rather than negro (Black), because to be described as ‘Black’ by someone outside of their community is to be grotesquely insulted. And indeed, this is the case within the broader cultural fabric of Mexican society, that Blackness (however obvious) may be strategically described as Brownness, so as to avoid insulting someone. Further, Lewis observes that the divided construction of Whiteness apart from moreno (brownness) “undermines the dominant national discourse of mestizaje (discourse of racial mixture)” (Lewis: 2012, 83). State-empowered investments in Whiteness extend the displacement of moreno and Black bodies from the historical narrative of Mexico, and Latin American at-large.

Lewis centers her ethnography, Chocolate and Corn Flour, on the community of San Nicolás in Western Mexico. She includes within her study the ‘ship stories’ or origin narratives told within the Black San Nicolás community about their probable coming to Mexico via ships, but how these ships are described as being without a homeland–these afrodescendientes (African-descended peoples) just appeared in Mexico, without an explicit connection to the African continent. Lewis explains how these ‘ship stories’ reflect a legacy of national narratives linked to identifications with mestizo (racially-mixed, not Black) identity that have compelled Black Mexicans to place distance between themselves, their land, and Blackness: “‘Blacks,’ who arrived ‘with chains around their necks’ from faraway places, are foreigners in that space. By extension, ‘Blacks’ do not have prior claims to the village of San Nicolás” (Lewis: 2012, p. 93). Within the San Nicolás community, ownership of the land is deferred to Indigenous residents and is indicated in the language they use to talk about heritage: “Criollo grounds moreno in place–the village of San Nicolás–while natural, recognizes that Indians ‘own’ Mexico, which encompasses the village. ‘The authentic Mexican is Indian,’ Margarita once told me” (Lewis: 2012, p. 83). Importantly, narratives of mestizaje (racial mixedness predicated on Spanish and Indigenous roots) invoke an image of complexity and pride that is not conferred on Black people in Mexico, or across Latin America, more broadly.

Conceptions of identity within Mexican society are largely based upon one’s supposed bloodline, phenotypes, and language. Depending on the region of the world and local context, however, one’s identity may be perceived and assumed differently by others. Substantial differences can be observed through people holding dual identities in the United States and in Latin America. Stereotypes and expectations, which have been molded in histories constructed by a dominant group, may in many ways carve out future possibilities based on identity. Those whose identity does not fit a national ideal are forced to fight for social recognition and self-determination in an attempt to gain power over their own social mobility.

In her narratival piece “Latinegras: Desired Women–Undesirable, Mothers, Daughters, Sisters, and Wives”, Marta I. Cruz-Janzen describes growing up biracial in Puerto Rico and the U.S., as the daughter of a “White” mother and a “very prieto (dark black)” father (Cruz-Janzen:2010, p. 169). Throughout her childhood, she constantly dealt with having her Blackness be perceived as outside of Latinx identity. Too, Cruz-Janzen’s Spanish-speaking heritage was not regarded as Black. According to others, and even members of her own family, she didn’t fully fit into any particular group. She writes that when she moved to the U.S., “concerned Latino friends advised me to emphasize my Latinness and to downplay my African traits to avoid being confused with African Americans” while “Some teachers advised that I might as well be Black because I would be treated like one by White Latinos and mainstream White Americans.” (Cruz-Janzen:2010, p. 285).

The way her friends phrased their ‘advice’ indicated to Cruz-Janzen that there was something wrong with being African American. At the same time, the teacher’s ‘advice’ suggested that Cruz-Janzen didn’t have much control over her identity, because her skin color would make her readily perceivable as Black and African American within the U.S. context. This is why Cruz-Janzen finds it important to situate herself as latinegra. Laying claim to this identity for herself, she speaks to a dynamic, multiplicitous identity, and asserts agency over in how she perceives herself.

Language Bank

Latinidad: This is a term to refer to a sense of Latinx identity , ones Latin-ness.

Mestizaje: “racial mixture”; a political ideology that recognizes the racial mixture between indio and blanco in Latin American countries. Built off on the colonial assumption of Spanish/white supremacy and black inferiority, claims of colorblindness and racial equality obscure the presence of racism and racial discrimination.

La Raza Cósmica: a term coined by Jose Vasconcelos in his 1920s philosophical treatise on the superiority of a new race comprised of a mixture of his conceptions of the five established races

Colorblindness: The idea that one doesn’t “see color” or that race isn’t an important factor when interacting with someone. Colorblind rhetoric can evoke the sense that you are treating someone with humanity despite someone’s race.

Liminality: The state/position of being in between two fixed and standard identities

Spanish language race terms : blanco, pardo, mestizo, indio, güera, criollo, negrita, negro , moreno, mulatto, rubia

Racialization: process of imposing racial identities/stereotypes on a person based on their perceived phenotypical race.

Blanqueamiento & mejoramiento: Translated directly as “whitening” and “improvement”, in a social and political Latin American context these terms mean whitening phenotypes through racial intermarriage and consequently achieving higher social status within the family lineage

Latinegra: identity term encompassing Latinidad, Blackness, Womxnhood, and Spanish-speaking

Arturo A. Schomburg Symposium: Premiering in 1996, an annual conference hosted at Taller Puertorriqueño is devoted to the discussion of African presence in Latinx cultural histories.

Raciolinguistics: an approach to understanding language and race as intertwined, and contributing to social behaviors. Beliefs of race manifest in language, and language is used to construct ideas of race.