A blog by Amanda Alcantara

Monday, November 7, 2016

Afro-Latinidad and Redefining Resilience in the Latinx Community: A Speech

Lyrics are from Calle 13's song Latinoamérica. Mural found in Villa Soldati, Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Recently, I was asked to give a speech at Dartmouth College's first Latinx Heritage Month Gala. That speech is below: 

The question that was posed to me before coming here was to speak about my work as an AfroLatina and tie it into the theme of Resilient Identities.

Not to sound cliché, but when I think of resilience I think of Tupac Shakur’s poem The Rose that Grew From Concrete.

Did you hear about the rose that grew
from a crack in the concrete?
Proving nature's law is wrong it
learned to walk with out having feet.”

When I think of resilience I actually think of burden- and the burden that so many of us carry as people of color, which forces us to have to be resilient- otherwise we will remain under the concrete.

When I think of resiliency I think of the fact that afrolatinx are alive and well in Latin America. That my curly hair and olive skin survived the trans-atlantic slave trade, and colonization and the constant messages from white supremacy that i have to

And so many parts of who I am. And who we are as the descendants of one of the worst crimes in humanity in Latin America.

But before I got to that understanding, a lot had to happen within myself and my own consciousness.

When I was a little girl growing up in the Dominican Republic, I remember someone called me “morenita”. And my response was “Yo no soy morenita, yo soy indiecita”. I’m not black, I’m indian. The myth of mestizaje and reclaiming of indigeneity to serve nationalist and independist purposes from previous centuries somehow managed to survive to the late 1990’s and early 2000’s when I already learned that to be black was a bad thing. And so I almost lived in this disconnected, outside of my body internalizing self-hatred and learning that the best things about me were those that were close to whiteness. And that is my experience as a light-skinned afrolatina, other afrolatinxs with darkskin cannot walk away from the stigma.

The afrodescendents of the Dominican Republic and many other Latin American countries experience this denial which others call self-denial of blackness, but I concur that it’s blackness denied by the state because blackness cannot exist without it being in direct resistance to what the state unfortunately continues to uphold: capitalism and white supremacy.

And while denial of blackness is one of the things that many speak of when speaking of AfroLatinxs, the truth is there is a denial of humanity and dignity tied to this as well. And this is what I mean by blackness being in direct resistance to the state.  Black people in latin america are some of the poorest across the continent- you have displacement happening in Afro-Colombian communities, chemical studies against people taking place in Puerto Rico, anti-Haitianism across the continent, and an unwillingness to name that racism is causing this—because of, again, the myth of mestizaje--that is that we are all somehow a joyous amalgamation of different races living together in harmony.

We’re not.

Because although there is a harmonious way in which sticks caress drums to the sound of the Spanish guitar to create salsa, and in the way in which rice and beans are so perfectly complimented by sweet plantains, the African-influence in these dishes and our music are practically invisible in the larger narrative of Latinidad. We don’t celebrate Afro-latinidad.

Although I was not consciously black and I embraced the Latina label, the reality is Latina never truly claimed me.

In one of many conversations at a Rutgers dorm during my undergraduate career, my friend told me something that explained why I wasn’t included in the Latina label and why this dislike of Dominicanness existed in Latinx culture: she told me that they don’t like us because a lot of Dominicans are black. And immediately it all clicked, it all made sense. Immediately I could see how the things disliked about Dominicans that I thought were tied to a culture of joy, a culture of resistance, a culture that embraces music and that speaks loudly with mouth wide open as if every word was the beginning of a song, were seen by others as loud, of low class, ugly, and essentially synonymous with a warped, negative view of blackness.

I immediately understood why Univision never had a Latina with hair like mine, or big natural kinky curls. Immediately I understood why when travelling, I related more to my Caribbean peers from non-Spanish speaking countries than white upper class Latinx exchange students who spoke my same language.

And this doesn’t only happen to Black latinxs, the truth is black and brown struggles are deeply tied.  

Within Latinidad, it is common to celebrate European Descendency as a way of othering from other people of color, and sometimes we celebrate indigenous heritage but only as a vehicle for achieving independence and hypernationalism, and only as a gimmick--like during el Dia de la Raza, known in the US as Columbus Day.

And the issue with that is that Latinidad is so much more than a myth of mestizaje. And that must be recognized in order to include the elderly man who is working selling paletas past what is deemed as regular retirement age—you can see him struggling in the streets to push his cart, the black Latina teacher making a difference in student’s lives by encouraging them to be their best, the little girl who is told she is Latina but she doesn’t see her afro or dark skin represented on the media, farm workers and laborers across the continent.

When we talk about resilience in the Latinx community, let’s include those people as well.

You see, people who are born with privilege, not living in poverty, don’t need to be resilient—they have connections, and if they’re white, they don’t have stereotypes or microagression attached to them, they are financially in a better place and from a young age go to schools with resources dedicated to putting them on a path to success –in special cases, they can easily get loans from their fathers and even pay their way into a presidential election.

I wrote in a blogpost years ago about my difficulties being a woman of color in journalism, about the many micro-aggressions I experienced as the only woman, sometimes the only person of color, sometimes both in spaces dominated by white men like behind the scenes of the journalism industry. About how I was tired of fighting so hard to find my place. I thought I had done everything right: I graduated from a good school, had a decent GPA, did two internships, spoke three languages fluently, worked in the school newspaper, RUTV, and radio station. And yet after graduating I found myself taking a job at a clothing store: a reality many millennials find themselves in. I found myself sleeping in my sister’s couch. I found myself barely making it and with shattered dreams realizing at that moment that the American Dream I thought of when riding back on a plane to the US at age 15 is a myth.

In September, renowned author Junot Diaz was one of the recipients of the 29th Hispanic Heritage Awards. During his speech he said, I quote, “Our community is the paragon of strength, of resilience, of creativity…We in the Latino community are among the greatest heroes our world has known. And yet despite all we do and all we are, we find ourselves attacked and demonized and endangered. Not just in this country, either. All over the world communities like ours are under assault.” End quote.

When I came back to the United States, and I say “back” because I was born here but left at the young age of three, I wanted to believe that working hard was enough, that fighting was enough. I wanted to believe that just being positive was enough. Because believing that, is often easier than accepting that our community is under assault. And it wasn’t until my own graduation, when my dreams were shattered and the myth that places the United States as the home of freedom and equal opportunity for all fell apart, that I was able to see the inequalities surrounding us.

I bring this up to say that I ended up getting into the work that I do as Radical Latina because I was hurting. I started writing about this pain, I started getting into community organizing, I started voicing these concerns, and seeking to put a dent in this narrative from the perspective of a millennial Afro-Latina from the Caribbean and a 1st generation college graduate.

And now, there’s many ways in which pain is romanticized and resiliency romanticized with it—quotes that say you must hit rock bottom to go up, or we can only be made stronger through suffering and hardships. And while some of these may be true for many, for people of color there is no choice. If you want to get ahead, you have to be resilient. If your family is already in a good place, it’s because someone in the past was resilient. You have to work twice as hard, you have to get through hoops, sometimes you have to assimilate—and if you spend enough time in spaces away from home you actually do change and have to fight to stay true to your roots.

So I invite us all to redefine resiliency.

I have been thinking about my grandmother a lot. She passed away in 2012, the night after I graduated from Rutgers University with my undergraduate degree.

I think of all the questions I should’ve and could’ve asked, of all the stories I didn’t hear.

Lately, she’s been showing up in my poetry too.

There’s this saying that everyone in Latin America, particularly Caribbean countries has a black grandmother, like you’re not black pero “y tu abuela”.

For many of us, we might have darker skin than our grandmothers, or share her skin complexion like I do.

And yet still when I think of my grandmother, I can’t think of a better example of someone who was black though she herself might not have been aware of it—I guess it’s a question I’ll never know the answer to.

My grandmother spoke English as if her tongue was a machete slicing through centuries of English and Spanish colonialism. She renamed a lot of stores like Chorai instead of Shop Rite. Pajmai instead of pathmark. And she would smoke a cigar every night, something that I learned recently at least in Cuba was tied to indigeneity.

And when I think of resilience, no better example comes to mind than her. You see, there’s the example of the rose that grows from concrete—and usually for those examples we think of college graduates, we think of first generation doctors, lawyers, we think of the one who managed to own property. We think of those who get out of the hood.

But there are people like my grandmother who were roses too.  And tonight I want to direct my attention to those people, those black and brown folks who find themselves excluded from Latinidad, the ones in struggle, the ones who are undeniably black and know it, the ones who might not be aware of their blackness and yet are unapologetically black in their actions and words and culture and music and dance and sometimes even their politics. I want to direct my attention to all people of color from Latin America, the ones not in this space, the señora selling mango with chili by my job in Union Square, the single mother collecting food stamps who’s image is used by conservatives as a way of perpetuating negatives stereotypes against us, yet she is in many ways the backbone of our communities.

Resilience is in us because it must be.

And tonight I want to celebrate the resilience that exists simply because it can, even in the moments where we are okay, even in the moments where a payment was made on time and we get into the school of our choice and dad gets out of work early. The resilience that should be there, the one that we should be fighting for—I want to celebrate the resilience that comes from within and the fire that exists in us because we are a people who not only excel in difficulties but also celebrate life so powerfully and magestically. Like the elderly man who sold paletas, his name is Fidencio Sanchez, and he had an indiegogo for him that raised over $300,000 and he has decided to share that with others. Like Nadia Lopez, an afrolatina educator making huge strides as the principal of Mott Hall Bridges Academy—instead of suspending her students, Lopez brings them into her office and motivates them to keep going. Like Sulma Arzu-Brown, a garifuna woman from Honduras who wrote a bilingual book called “Pelo Malo No Existe”, “Bad Hair Does No Exist”, for her two daughters to read. Like Mama Tingó, a guerrera who fought for land workers in the Dominican Republic. Like my grandmother who fed everyone every night in her home, and who would caress me softly while singing as she put me to sleep.

As we continue pushing for our community to be free of the shackles of residues and left overs of colonization, let these moments be the main course—let this loving resilience be what helps us heal, let this resilience lead us in the path towards a better future and liberation. Let the resilience of the kind that must exist so that we can survive have no need in our lives anymore.

Thank you.


Anonymous said...

Wow. Amanda, I have to say thank you for your honesty & for this post. I never understood what drove my writing. I was always interested in race, gender & sexuality but it wasn't until recently when I began to learn myself and how to love myself that I finally understood how much of my identity was mixing in with being a light-skinned Dominican-American woman who was somehow neither Dominican nor American. I used to think my writing was about me, but really my writing is about my parents and their parents... and all the things I'm unlearning that they yet can't see or understand in their own lives. I want to give them voices to speak, ears to listen, eyes to see because against everything, they still came out on top.

Your piece helped illuminate so much more for me. Again, thank you.

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