*The first section of this essay appears on www.blackdiaries.org*
When my mother was pregnant with my oldest brother, the apartment she shared with my father on 181st Street and Valentine Avenue was broken into. Someone who robbed the apartment next door had knocked down the thin wall in their closet to get into my parents’ apartment, knocking over my father’s stereo system and robbing my mother of all kinds of things she had owned for years. Real jade pieces that my uncle brought back for her from his tour in Vietnam, money, records. When I asked my father who lived next door, he said, “One of the last Mohicans, Angie. All the white people were running from the South Bronx and had been for years. But she was one of the last white people living in the Bronx at the time who was a tenant and not a landlord.”
Despite most of their own possessions being stolen, the neighbor accused my father and mother of being behind the robbery of her apartment and the situation was beginning to get nasty. With my mother’s belly swelling every day, my father went out looking for an apartment with $600 in his pocket. He found what he was looking for in the Kingsbridge section in the Bronx. The apartment where I grew up. Where my mother still lives.
At the time, the landlords of the building were two white women who lived on the top floor in an apartment that were two apartments in one. They literally lived on top of their tenants who were becoming increasingly brown and this, apparently, was a problem. So, when they met my father, with his light skin, green eyes and straight thick black hair, who spoke of a lovely pregnant wife, they were, of course, delighted to offer an apartment to the happy couple.
The first week in their new building, my father and mother were in the elevator. One of the white lady landlords came on to the elevator and smiled wide at my father. She didn’t acknowledge my dark-skinned mother, did not look in her direction. White Lady Landlord smiled her white lady smile at my olive-skinned father who she assumed was Italian.
“Oh, hi! How’s the apartment? How’s your wife?”
“She’s standing right here.”
White Lady landlord’s eyes widened and her smile froze. She finally acknowledged my mother, belly full with my brother, brown skin glowing with Africa. Her lip curled with a sneer and she scoffed as the elevator door opened.
My mother smiled and spoke as White Lady landlord left the elevator.
“Nice to meet you!”
I asked my mother how she felt when White Lady Landlord looked at her like that.
“She did what she did, Imani. I was still going to be there even if she didn’t want me there.”
Mami was the prettiest woman I knew and I wanted to be her color, that warm rich brown that only deepened in the sun. She was unafraid of her Blackness, unafraid of her Boricua-ness. Since I was old enough to understand, she’d tell me that in her youth, she was, “Too Black for the Puerto Ricans and too Puerto Rican for the Blacks.” She tells me how difficult it was to fit in but stresses that she wouldn’t drop one for the other.
“I’m Puerto Rican, Imani. Boricua. That’s who I am. But I’m Black. Can’t change that. I’m a Black woman but no one can take Puerto Rico away from me.”
My father is an African drummer, a congero, an amazing percussionist and I do not say that because he is my father. The man has skills. He is also a light skinned Puerto Rican man with a mane of thick black hair that has thinned somewhat as he’s gotten older and green eyes that always change color from green to hazel to gray to even blue sometimes. He often tells me stories about having to prove himself to other drummers who had more African features, tells me how they doubted him because he was just a “white boy” trying to play the congas.
And then he’d show them.
He’d show them that Africa lived in his hands hitting them skins.
And they’d believe him.
He told me once that when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, he ran home from school, hiding when he could because as light as he was, he just knew he would be a target for the Black kids in the neighborhood. And he was, indeed, a target. What saved him? Speaking Spanish.
“If I didn’t know Spanish, Ang, they would’ve beat my ass that day.”
When I asked Dad how he felt about White Lady Landlord not acknowledging Mami, he paused for a breath and said, “You kids have no idea what your Mami had to go through.”
When I am five or six years old, I draw a picture of my mother and color in her face using a Black crayon. I am proud of the picture, had taken care to color in the lines and draw Mami’s silver bangles on her right hand and the three silver studs, one for each of her children, in her ears. The picture shows Mami as beautiful and I am proud to show it off. My brothers giggle, tell me that’s not what Mami looks like, that she’s Brown not actually Black. Mami just smiles, takes the picture from my hands, stares at it with an amused glint in her eyes. I don’t think she sees anything wrong with my picture.
When I ask her why people call her Negra all the time, she says it’s a nickname that people she loves call her. When I ask her what it means, she beams, the gap in her front teeth showing, when she says, “It means Black Woman.”
My mother is unflinching and clear about who she is, what her blood and her skin and her spirit represent. She is Black, spending most of her life in the United States navigating the racial binary of Black and White. And she is Puerto Rican, a woman from a colonized island, a woman from an island rich with history, rich with African blood, language, music, and religion. Where my father taught me Africa is in the drumming of bomba y plena and religious practices, Mami is the first one to teach me that some of the inflections and words used in the Puerto Rican dialect of Spanish are pure Africa. Ñame, mofongo, mondongo, bochinche, gandinga, chevere.
As I get older, my mother raves about how beautiful I look when I’m tanned a beautiful brown by the sun and when the color fades with the sun-depleted winter, she tells me I look almost as white-skinned as my father. It’s her way of reminding me that people could never mistake me for anything but Latina the way they so often think she is not Puerto Rican.
There is a moment in my life that I have written about in story before. A moment that feels so tangible even now as I type it. Mami and I were going home on the subway and it was crowded. I don’t know where we were coming from but it was packed on that train. I mean that New York City subway tight crowded where you can’t help but bump into others and hit people with your bag. Mami made sure I was holding on and knocked her bags into the knees of a bottle blonde woman who turned to her friend sitting next to her and said, “Brujas negras nunca tienen modales.” I remember their giggles. I remember Mami’s hand over mine on the subway pole. As we were leaving the train, Mami turned to the woman, smiled, and said, “Mira lo que dices porque nunca sabes quién habla español en estas calles.”
I’ll never forget those women’s faces when they realized that my mother was a Latina like them.
It made me want to be my mother even more.
I tell her now that a lot of people never think I’m Puerto Rican. I’ve been asked if I am Yemenese, Ethiopian, Brazilian, Pakistani, Egyptian,etc. and I tell her I just smile and say, “No. I’m Puerto Rican but thank you for the compliment because (fill-in-the-blank) women are so gorgeous.”
She laughs and says, “Esos personas no saben na’…All I see is a little light skinned Puerto Rican girl.”
In 2015, I attended the VONA writing workshops in Miami, Florida. VONA is a safe space for writers of color, the only multi-genre week-long writing workshop for writers of color in the nation. I was insulated by the warmth of being surrounded by people who fully understood me, people of color whose passion for writing was the same as my own. I felt at home. When I went to VONA in 2014 in California, I experienced a period of mourning after VONA ended. It was why I stayed an extra week in California before returning to reality. I did the same for the 2015 VONA. My father lives in Florida, a short half hour car ride from where VONA was being held so it was an easy choice. I was able to spend time with my dad and decompress from VONA, emotionally and mentally preparing myself for the reality of a world that didn’t feel as safe, didn’t feel as good.
One day during that week I spent with him, he took me to the house of his girlfriend’s brother, let’s call him, Hugh. Hugh had just hooked up his pool and my father and I were both invited to spend some time there, drinking beer and swimming. The three of us were enjoying ourselves, sipping at cold Budweisers and shooting the shit. Dad and I did some flips in the water and joked around. It was actually a nice day. Hugh was a decent enough person from what I can remember. Not someone I would hang out with on the regular but he was generous with beers and reminded me of one of those stereotypical New York Eye-talians, thin gold chain on over-tanned skin, Brooklyn accent, gesticulations and all. We were laughing when his wife came home from her nursing job.
“Hugh!” We all looked in the direction of her voice. She stood there in pink scrubs, a petite woman with too-tanned skin, long white blonde hair cut in a tacky outdated style, too long platinum bangs fringing eyes rimmed in cheap black eyeliner. She stared at me, saying nothing. She didn’t smile back when I smiled at her and greeted her. She stood there and acknowledged only my father and her husband when they said hello. My father introduced me and she nodded, turning to walk back to the glass enclosed patio, grabbing a beer from the cooler.
I felt awkward, unsure if I was bugging out. Did she not even care to meet me?
I thought to myself that it was only because I was a much younger woman in her home and then scolded myself for thinking that about another woman. But why couldn’t I place this discomfort that crept up my toes and flushed my face, making me want to cover myself, making me feel so unwanted? I realized it like a punch in the gut. Looked at my now-deep bronze tanned skin compared to my father and to her husband and to herself. I swam to my father, who was finishing the last of his beer and leaned in to his ear.
“Dad? Did you tell her that your kids are Black?”
“Of course I did, Angie. I know, she acted so weird, right?”
My father and Hugh both got out of the pool to dry off and sit with Hugh’s wife in the patio to talk and drink more beers. I stayed in the pool a little bit longer, knowing she was watching me swim, knowing that she was watching my big brown beautiful self and my big brown boobs floating in her beautiful brand spanking new chlorine pool. I knew she didn’t want me there. I stayed in that pool and relished that water as if it were life-giving. I walked out of the pool only when the edges of the sky turned lavender and my father motioned for me to come have a beer before the mosquitoes ate me up.
I sat across from her at the glass patio table and she stared at me, her cheap black eyeliner bleeding into the corners of her eyes. There was small talk, very awkward small talk that grated my nerves. She smiled politely at my father and mostly just smirked at me, responding with boasts about what her husband had fixed up in the house and asked me if I had a house where I was. Where was I coming from again?
“I had a feeling.”
Now how the fuck do I respond to that? I smiled and sipped at a can of quickly warming Budweiser.
When we left their house, I told my father that I was sure she would have her pool cleaned.
My dad later told me that he had to say something to them about the language they used in front of him when they first met. They called Black people “coons” and “tar babies” and referred to the predominately Black neighborhood in their area as “Boogietown.” My father responded immediately to their nonchalant way of using the words and spazzed one day, telling them they were disrespectful to say those things.
“The mother of my children is a Black Puerto Rican. I don’t like that language. When you say shit like that you’re talking about her, you’re talking about my kids. You’re disrespecting the people I love. I don’t want to hear that shit anymore. Stop fucking saying it.”
“We didn’t know you’d take it like that, Angel. We didn’t mean it like that.”
I have always resented that ludicrous response. How else could it have been meant? Also, how was he supposed to take it? Did they assume that because my father is a light-skinned Puerto Rican that he’d be okay with that kind of ignorant language?
I wonder how many times my father has had to have this conversation with people who assume he is okay with hatred because he is a white-skinned Puerto Rican. I wonder sometimes if he was always as vocal as he was with them.
My father tells me they have never used those words in front of him again. During the 2016 elections, he tells me that they are avid Trump supporters and talk about the Obamas as if they were both dirtying up the country. As if they took a big shit on the lawn of the White House and smeared it over the country.
I told him that I was sure they never stopped calling it “Boogietown.”
I don’t doubt it at all.
Though the experience of Blackness in Latin America and the Caribbean compared to that of the American South were different, the fact remains that no one, not even Latinos themselves can deny that Africa is a part of Latinidad. Out of the 10 to 16 million Africans kidnapped and forced into slavery, a large percentage of those Africans were sent to Brazil or the Caribbean. While American slavery determined race in a two-category system, Latin American countries developed complex racial categories, that included terms like mestizo, mulatto, octoroon, etc. With this being said, it is important to note that African was still deemed the lowest of these racial categories. This set the very foundation for the colorism which is apparent in many Latin American countries. In his 1967 memoir Down These Mean Streets, one of the first texts I ever came across that discussed Afro-Latinidad, Piri Thomas, contemplates his racial identity as a dark-skinned Puerto Rican man and how it has impacted his life in the larger society of the United States where he is seen as Black and within his family, where their African roots are mostly rejected. Rafael Trujillo, one of the most infamous, vile, and cruel dictators of the Dominican Republic, told Black Dominicans to call themselves “Indio,” or “Indian,” to distance themselves from Blackness. One last example is in a recent episode of the popular reality show “Love and Hip Hop: Miami,” where DJ Young Hollywood, a light skinned Latino producer, calls Amara La Negra, a dark-skinned Dominican musical artist, “Nutella queen,” implies that her natural hair is not “elegant,” igniting social media with conversations about the Afro-Latino identity and what that means.
Despite her jokes on us about needing more sun, my mother never let my brothers and I forget who we were. Essence magazine was the only magazine subscription Mami made a point to keep since it’s first issue in 1970, paying that annual bill so that images of Black excellence and beauty would come in our mailbox every month. In the midst of the popularity of white Blonde Barbie dolls, Mami bought me a Kenya doll and told me that I was beautiful and smart just like her and I believed her. My parents spoke to us about what we were to face as we became adults, spoke to us about our history, our blood, our ancestry. I was shown pictures of my mother’s uncles, their dark skin like ink in the black and white photos and was told to never forget that along with Taino and Spanish, that I have African in my blood, in my ancestry. I was never deprived of representations of Blackness in my life because of my parents. I was surrounded by it. And I can’t thank them enough for providing me with those tools, that pride, that history.
I won’t defend my Blackness or feed into divisive conversations about how dark someone has to be to be considered Black. That’s ludicrous. We all need to stop doing that. That’s just the residues of the divisive history of racism in this country and in the Caribbean. To talk about who is Black enough, who is allowed to claim Blackness all while ignoring the African presence in the Latin American and Caribbean Latino diaspora and culture, denies us the right to speak on our ancestors and on our history. What I will do is acknowledge that my experiences as lighter skinned Afro-Latina can and will never match those of darker-skinned women, of the history of African American women in the United States and of darker-complected women in the Caribbean.
But I can’t change that I am a woman of color. I can’t deny or erase my Blackness because that would mean denying my mother, denying my very real and very Black family, deny my ancestors who died in slavery. I refuse to do that. For anyone.
I can’t change that I am a Puerto Rican woman of color and quite frankly, I wouldn’t want to.
I suppose what is infuriating about Hugh’s wife is that she made me feel as if I had done something to her, that me being me was an affront to her. What is infuriating about that memory is that I was polite when I could have been true to myself and asked her what her damn problem was. I am angry at myself for not standing up to her. I am angry at myself for believing that my kindness, my manners, my niceness would eliminate or outweigh her obvious distaste for me, would change her lack of kindness, would erase her racist and prejudiced perspective. But would a show of my anger have changed her either?
How do you navigate that kind of shit knowing how fucking unnecessary it all is?
If me existing pisses racist people off, well, mi gente, I’ma just keep doing that. I’m just going to be here, existing and shit and watching those asshats stare at me with disdain. Just like that bottle blonde pendeja in pink scrubs.
This time I will stare back and finally be just like my mother. Just like I’ve always wanted.
Completely unafraid of my Boricuaness. Of my Blackness.