Our Biggest Challenge: Fighting Negative Depictions From Others and Ourselves
By: Indhira Suero
The first ones that underestimate Dominicans are Dominicans ourselves. That’s what the society teaches us since we are born until the end of our days, but we also grow up in a country with an ingrained and complicated idea of itself that can become an enormous challenge when it comes to advancing and progressing as a nation.
Realizing the impact of those negative depictions of ourselves made me want to do something. It made me want to help with the only weapons I know how to handle: speaking and writing, with an online character to promote the Dominican popular culture, and our afro-descendant origins, under the moniker of Negrita Come Coco. It also made me reflect on the depictions that others have of us, as well as where we are now in terms of our self perception and where we are capable of moving towards.
Do we know who we are?
Not understanding our origins is the first stigma that haunts Dominicans during all of our lives.
In schools, we are taught to love and honor the “Madre Patria,” Spain, and to embrace the Taíno society, one that disappeared a long time ago. We are taught: the whiter, the better; the softer your hair, the better; the thinner your nose and your lips the more perfect you are.
Of course, the African component in our blood is quickly erased. It goes unnoticed in our school books, where it is relegated to a few pages, if any. The media constantly tries to show us a refined version of ourselves: “un dominicano fino, lavaíto y clarito;” our blackness it’s rejected by our parents who constantly warn us about the disadvantages of getting married to someone darker than us because you might “dañar la raza.”
According to historian Celsa Albert, whom I interviewed for an article about Dominican identity, the problem of rejection of black inheritance in Dominicans lies in the superstructure of colonization where they only favored what was Spanish treating black and indigenous as inferior.
The process of “self-devaluation” of Dominicans came to life because during the colonial era the dispositions around the “skin color” of the people, imposed by the Carolino Black Code, caused to be black a condemnation, similar to other countries that suffered slavery.
But Dominicans don’t know that a lot of times, by hiding their afro origins they deny themselves. This becomes confusing when using terms such as: ‘moreno,’ ‘negro tinto,’ ‘prieto,’ ‘negro retinto,’ ‘saltapatrás,’ ‘haitiano;’ ‘indio oscuro,’ ‘indio claro,’ ‘indio lavao,’ ‘indio canelo’ o ‘indiecito.’ With all those terminologies, how are we supposed to know what we are?
The terms used during the days when we were a colony, and in later times, to signify “black” have been pejorative and that is why people reject them. The “black” has been used with negative adjectives that, of course, make people not want to accept that legacy. After all, who wants to be a “Prieto feo”?
But still, there is a lot to be done. Many Dominicans, to ‘combat’ their origins, tend to dye their hair blond, to use straighteners and to wear contact lenses of color, all this to “fit” into what the most accept as ‘beautiful.’
The moniker I use, Negrita Come Coco, is an example of a term used to discriminate women with a dark complexion and kinky hair.
Por qué usas ese nombre? People often ask me.
My response is the same all times: I want to embrace the term to fight those full of prejudices. Showing that no matter how curvaceous your body is, how curly your hair or how roasted your skin, what is important is to accept and love yourself, and to embrace yourself.
Pessimism eats our spirit
The Dominican pessimism has affected the nation for decades undermining the moral, social, political and economic development. For some reason, this topic is not something that we talk about very often. Dominicans are always portrayed as “happy and vivacious people,” as human beings that only enjoy drinking beers and dance bachata.
For some experts, the historical past of the Dominican Republic is linked to the pessimism in our culture. One might think that the colonial era was the starting point of the “negative” facet of the Dominican ways that we see nowadays.
The “encomiendas,” a grant used by conquistadors, soldiers and officials during the Colonial era to gain control of the Indigenous lands; epidemics and forced labor decimated the Aboriginal population. Slavery created a long-lasting damage hurting–among many other things–our self-esteem, and the Spanish that came to our island felt abandoned by their government.
With a new era, new problems arose. Dictatorships, abuses of power and poor economic development of the country, along with few opportunities of intellectual and domestic education, all continued to hurt the Dominican spirit.
Defeatist thoughts, despair, disappointments, frustrations and unfulfilled ambitions, have also contributed to feeding a lot of stigmas within our own people. For example, the idea that the Dominicans are lazy, unable to respect the laws and build a better future.
We often hear that Dominicans are always ‘chivos’ or feel that someone is trying to deceive them. Mistrust and social paranoia are also part of the everyday life, factors that lead us to violate the laws and always choose to do what is not convenient for the collective.
As well, we often think that there is nothing useful in the country and that the best is what comes from other nations.
So, how do we fight against this depictions?
The lack of support for education, increased crime, poverty, deficiencies in the health sector and social security, along with the eternal crisis of the electricity sector, have become the triggers of this problem.
Through Negrita Come Coco, and other social media pages, there is a chance to create a dent in these perceptions: To show Dominicans under a different light, by accepting our faults and by embracing our strengths, folklore, religion, gastronomy or even music.
The most important, by knowing who we are, and where we come from, we’ll be capable of better building our future.
How others perceive us
It’s also imperative that other Latin@s view Dominicans under a different light. I often ask myself ‘how are we seen by other Latin@s?’ The answer is not pleasant: loud, dirty, non-serious, uneducated, lazy, too ‘easy,’ but most of all the perception is often directed at the usual “Dominicans don’t want to be black;” “they hate Haitians;” or “they don’t see their blackness.”
Ironically though, the perception of us as being “loud, dirty, etc” exists because of anti-blackness directed at us, including the perception of our way of speaking as being “improper”.
I know of a friend’s mom living in Spain who doesn’t like to be associated with other Dominicans because of this. Away from the Dominican Republic since she was in her 20’s, She’s now 50 years old and constantly says that she doesn’t want anything to do with Dominican women.
“I prefer to go out with people from another country because those [Dominican women] are viewed as sluts. I hear some people say: ‘Look at the Dominican bitch,’” the mother explained. “Yo no quiero que me vean cerca de esa gente. Aunque sean mi raza.”
How do we fight these perceptions? How do we erase the fact that these ideas, often fed by the media, are hard to remove from our and other people’s minds? There’s no simple answer for that. But I’ll repeat, we can fight against them by knowing who we are and where we come from.
We need better access to education, including black affirming education and education that teaches us about the effects of economic disparities, stemming from beyond the Trujillo era. We need more knowledge, but on top of all that, more love for who we are, to be capable of standing against these forms of discrimination.
A new rebirth
I’ve never felt discouraged with the work that I do as Negrita Come Coco. The response of my followers has taught me a great lesson: Dominicans are thirsty for information about themselves and their origins.
They want to know more about their Afro-culture, their history and other forms of religion besides the traditional Catholic church. But they need a space that allows them to do it.
Other indications of change are not only all the movements that appear each day on social media or the public figures who openly celebrate who they are, most of them teaching us to love our “pajones,” or afros. Change is also coming from social groups that go out to the streets demanding a better and more honest country, or groups under the mission to show that Dominicans and Haitians can get along as a family.
I believe there is hope for the Dominicans inside and outside our country. We are making a change, and there is no way we’re going back.
The only thing left for us to do is to keep going forward.
Written by Indhira Suero, Cultural journalist, columnist, host and press analyst. Creator of Negrita Come Coco.