I was raised in a home where whiteness was glorified; the Eurocentric ideologies that characterized my mother’s history trailed her across the expanse of an ocean and attempted to permeate my own upbringing. My younger brother and I were raised by my strict, tough-loving, Catholic, Dominican single mother – a woman who was not just “non-black” but also anti-black, a self-proclaimed “fina,” and who denies and rejects any ancestral relationship with or lineage to Haiti or Africa (despite my recent Ancestry DNA results, which revealed our ancestors were 51% African). Throughout my childhood, any African American friends I had and introduced to my mother were always regarded as “outliers” or “not like otros negros” in order to justify her distinctive acceptance of this one individual who did not represent her imagined horrors and criticisms of the Black race. Like many of my peers, I grew up fatherless and in retrospect, I attribute my survival, single-handedly, to my mother. However, it was from my mostly absent father that I learned about my own blackness. At a very young age, he taught us that Latinidad and Blackness were not mutually exclusive, something I was previously encouraged to believe at home. My father helped me to see that I exist in the body of a Black Latina and that despite the invitation to, I must refuse to refuse myself.
I can trace my life like an uphill climb into my AfroLatinidad, each significant era representing another layer of blackness I dressed myself in. When I decided in my early 20s that I would choose the path of organizing work, I knew this also meant confronting and challenging notions of a white, Eurocentric Latin America and Caribbean and the impact those ideologies have had on the generations of AfroLatinx descendants born in the United States. It was also clear to me that despite my family’s unwillingness to revisit past trauma, there were many more shared experiences of oppression between African Americans and the Black Latinx community that could and should encourage us to build a united front. I leaned on history to show me the truths I could not wrangle from my mother. The establishment of The Young Lords party represented LatinX participation in the African American civil rights and Black Power movements of the 1960s. However, internalized racism among Latinx people continued to be a barrier to solidarity. “The Young Lords leader Pablo Guzman…pointed clearly to the racism in the Latin@ community as an obstacle to the struggle for justice, and at the historical need for unity with African Americans.” I continue to see the dangerous threats of this resistance to identify as Black (and perhaps more critical to name ourselves as Black) in the Latinx community. Beyond the significant absence of one of our identities, this rejection of blackness is more importantly a failure because it represents a hindrance in our ability as a community to participate fully in the Movement for Black Lives. Racist ideologies restrict us from seeing ourselves and our loved ones as potential victims of ongoing state-sanctioned violence against Black bodies. Will we need to explain to our families that a police officer will not ask my brother, “Are you African-American Black or Dominican Black?” before he shoots him in the back for no reason? Will we need to explain that neither of those identities will save us in the end? Because we are used to navigating this false either-or mentality about race (either Black or Latinx), we continue to see those identities as distinct from one another, as not being in relationship with each other when in actuality, the AfroLatinx community is the embodiment of the potential unity between African Americans and Black people of the African Diaspora. “And in the treacherous counter-position of African Americans and Latin@s that characterizes the racial discourse in this country today, AfroLatinxs as individuals and a group constitute a potential bridge across that ominous ethno-racial divide.”
In 2014, when I merged my passion for arts and culture with my calling as a community organizer, I started to understand that my commitment to the movement for social justice and racial and cultural equity started with much more personal/intimate questions. How will I be read in the field? As a Latina or as a Black Woman? Who will attempt to define me? What are the assumptions being made about who and what I am? If I am identified exclusively through the lens of race, and more dangerously only as a member of one race, how will this affect/limit the more expansive work I am attempting to do? While my work was and continues to be centered on justice for marginalized and disenfranchised communities, I understood quickly that I would be sorted into the imaginary racial binary promoted by the United States of America and that this would have risky implications about what fictional side I was fighting for. In 2012, the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer led three queer black women named Patrisse Cullors, Opal Tometi, and Alicia Garza to create #BlackLivesMatter, “a call to action and a response to the virulent anti-Black racism that permeates our society.” I was forced to think about my mother’s side of the family, their own racist rejection of the Movement for Black Lives and recalled that someone once told me our most challenging work begins at home with our own families.
After a summer of escalated inhumane institutionalized murders of black individuals in 2016, contemporary visual artist Simone Leigh convened 100 Black women artists during her residency at the New Museum to form a collective called, Black Women Artists for Black Lives Matter (BWA for BLM). “BWA for BLM focuses on the interdependence of care and action, invisibility and visibility, self-defense and self-determination, and desire and possibility in order to highlight and disavow pervasive conditions of racism.” I have always believed in the artist’s ability to hold up a mirror to society; to, as Nina Simone once stated, “reflect the times.” I also understand the power of art to inspire and motivate social change, not as a peripheral add-on but as a central agent to social, cultural and political change. BWA for BLM is a space where my blackness is never questioned, not defined within the context of African American blackness and where my identity as a Black Latina forms a necessary bridge to various communities – communities where the greater vision and intention of the Movement for Black Lives cannot always penetrate as loudly or as easily. Leigh created a space in which I never had to ask, Where is there space for me in this movement and collective? She used her own platform as an artist, and her moment at the New Museum, to call attention to the conditions and implications of systemic racism in our country and in doing so, has created “a template for fellow artists looking for their own ways to respond and inspire others.” Our work together, in solidarity and in unison, is as much about me as it is about each of my sisters in the collective. Simone Leigh, in the tradition of activist artists before her, has used the arts to initiate a conversation about blackness, self-determination, and social justice and left room for us to call ourselves by any names we choose, as long as we are all committed to freedom and justice for black lives, a fundamental proposition for anyone interested in freedom and justice for all of humanity. BWA for BLM is a call for everyone to do what they can from where they stand and to move the conversation from dialogue to action, I am placing my bets on the artist.
Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute (CCCADI). Est. 1976.
Chang, Jeff. “Who We Be: The Colorization of America.” St. Martin’s Press. New York. 2014.
Diaz, Junot. “Radical Hope.” The New Yorker. 2016.
Horowitz, Juliana Menasce and Livingston, Gretchen. “How Americans view the Black Lives Matter movement.” Pew Research Center. 2016.
Vega, Marta Moreno, Alba, Marinieves and Modestin, Yvette. “Women Warriors of the Afro-Latina Diaspora Arte Publico Press.” Houston, Texas. 2012
Young Lords Party. http://palante.org/AboutYoungLords.htm