Yo me voy pa’ Nueva Yol – Migrating to the United States and Confronting Race
Written by: Aymeé Malena
The way that race is talked about in the United States is completely different to the Dominican Republic. In many occasions, when Dominicans migrate to the United States, a good number of them begin to realize that race matters in this country. In the film “Haiti and the Dominican Republic: An Island Divided” (2011), Dominican anthropologist Juan Rodriguez mentioned how growing up he had to learn to be Black after migrating to the United States, where he too realized that race matters. I personally began to embrace my dark skin during my college years, where I began to get involved in conversations about race and Latinas/os in the United States. I also began to learn more about my African ancestry and then began to accept and love my skin and my hair when I decided to stop relaxing it. Silvio Torres-Saillant (1998) also referred to Dominicans migrating to the United States as a significant moment when many Dominicans begin identifying with their blackness because of the realization of the difference in race dynamics in the homeland and in the United States. However, a number of Dominicans, in particular older migrants, do not end up identifying with blackness because, due to language barriers, they do not become familiar with the race discourse that is always taking place in the country.
Many dark skinned Dominicans find themselves having to choose between identifying with blackness and identifying with their Dominican identity. Still to this day, I do not understand why being Black and being Dominican have to be separated when we can rather embrace our racial construction and our cultural ethnicity. It seems as though we have to be one or the other, but never both. Torres-Saillant (1998) quoted U.S-educated Dominican poet Chiqui Vicioso when she said: “Until I came to New York, I didn’t know I was black.” A good number of Dominicans came to discover their Black roots in the United States and in some ways have influenced the homeland by taking their knowledge with them. The Dominican diaspora in the U.S. would then be the one opening the doors for Dominicans to begin to embrace and identify with their African ancestry. A good number are trying to share the knowledge obtained in the United States, but it is a difficult task to begin decolonizing the minds and showing some people to understand and embrace the stories about our African past.
Something important to note is the also present struggle of Dominicans in the United States being that they are often perceived as African American because of their skin complexion. Many dark-skinned Dominicans struggle with the fact that they are being grouped together with African Americans, disregarding their Dominican ancestry. In my experience, I yearned to be white in order to not feel ostracized by Dominican society because I was too dark. It was not that I did not look Dominican; it was that I looked Haitian in a place where Haitians are discriminated against for having dark complexion. This made me “inferior”, at least in my eyes. It made me feel ugly and unwanted. Also, the constant negative commentary about blackness around me led me to see myself in a negative way. I noticed that it does not matter where dark-skinned Dominicans reside, the history of the country follows them everywhere, not allowing them to accept blackness and leading to the internalization of oppression.
Even though many experiences are different among Dominicans in the motherland and those in the United States, there are still some similarities in the fact that some of us yearned for whiteness, whether that be to pass as Dominican and not the ill-perceived Haitian or to pass as Dominican and not African American. We yearned the whiteness in order to hold on to our “Dominicaness” or just because we do not want to be identified with any type of blackness. Growing up in the D.R., I wanted to be lighter because I was always being compared to Haitian immigrants and it seemed as though everyone around me was of a much lighter skin tone than I was. However, I remember talking to one of my friends who grew up in the United States and he had to validate his “Dominicanness” because he was being compared to African Americans. As I previously mentioned, it is as if Dominicans have to be either Dominican or African American but never both.
I came to embrace my darkness once in the United States, a place where the Black Power Movement has opened the door for African Americans to be proud and express their concerns both outside and within their community. I was able to accomplish this through the liberal arts education I have obtained at Hampshire College. The education I have obtained there has allowed me to obtain a critical and analytical lens to view different topics in a different light; looking at all sides of the boxes and to think outside of the box.
A Liberal Arts Education: Conscientization and Self-Love
Being able to obtain such a privileged education at Hampshire College has been one of my biggest accomplishments. This achievement was one of the main factors towards learning to love myself and embrace my roots. However, I am aware that not everyone has access to the same education I obtained. Thankfully, conversations on Afro-Latinidad are happening in other places outside of academia.
Through the classes I took at Hampshire College and the Five Colleges I began to learn more about my ancestry and with time began to feel more connected to it. There were other factors that allowed me to arrive at awareness. Being around dark-skinned people that loved their body, their skin, and their hair texture helped me little by little to see a beautiful reflection when I looked in the mirror. The decision to stop relaxing my hair came with time. A friend of mine at Hampshire College wrote a thesis on Afro-Cuban women’s hair, where many of the participants talked about refusing to relax their hair because, to them, undergoing this process meant that their hair was still a slave to European ways. This is when I began to question my decisions to continue to relax my hair, but I did not stop relaxing my hair right away. When I began to consider to stop relaxing my hair, my mentor and other women of color around me showed me different resources to help me begin the process. Even though I had no idea what my hair was going to look like after twelve years of chemicals, I made the decision to stop relaxing my hair and embrace the outcome. It has all been a process, time has been my friend.
Lastly, this is not to say that racism and colourism does not exist in the United States even among communities of color. We see, hear and experience racism in our every day lives, but for some of us arriving in this country and either learning about our roots through academia and other sources or surrounding ourselves with positive images of Blackness has helped us reach self-love and acceptance. Something that might have not seem possible for some of us. I began to accept my darkness after reading about my ancestry, but also after reading about other dark-skinned women who have experienced the desire for whiteness just like me. From so many sources I was able to receive images that said that Black is beautiful and I began to feel ashamed for not accepting it. It took time and getting some positive images of myself mirrored back to me to realize that Black is beautiful, therefore I am beautiful too.