If Only I Could Breathe Easy
“I don’t want to become another hashtag.” Is what I always thought knowing that as an AfroLatina woman I can easily end up like Sandra Bland, or other black women who have been stopped on the road and never made it back home. My Latinidad doesn’t separate me from my blackness. While I didn’t always have the vocabulary to express or understand my blackness, I’ve always been aware that I did not look like most Latinas. In my childhood I was constantly reminded that I was dark, ugly, fat, and had “bad” hair. And again, I say: I don’t want to be another hashtag. There are already enough. But there isn’t enough said about the women whose names we say in these hashtags. On October 26, 2016 they could’ve said my name too.
I was already nervous on the road because one of my front tires was low and I knew I would need to make a pit stop at the Midas on the way to work. I was commuting to work about 3 to 4 times a week to my job at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania from my apartment in Northeast Philadelphia, which was about an average of an hour and a half commute each way. Making sure that my tires were good and my gas was filled was a priority. I have lost count of the number of times I would see police cars along my commute and felt the beat of my heart speed up while the numbers decreased on the dashboard’s digital speedometer.
As I approached the winding road, which I did often: always doubting whether I should be continuing the curve of the road or steer to the right. The way the intersection of Cheltenham and Paper Mill Rd is, it almost makes you think that you should be following it to the right, but really you should stay to the left to stay on Paper Mill Rd, which then takes you to Route 309, which takes you to Bethlehem. Well I doubted myself and I went towards the right and ended up in the right turning lane. As I got closer to the intersection I felt confused and scratched my head. I realized that’s not where I intended to go and quickly signaled to get back on the left lane that would lead me to my destination. I merged into the lane—all was good. I spot the white police SUV at the intersection while my heart speeds up I tell myself not to worry because I haven’t done anything wrong. I know that’s how Sandra Bland felt that afternoon. She said it on tape. She wanted us to witness, to listen to her words. I wanted to believe that for a split second, I had done nothing wrong.
As I crossed the intersection the police car made a right and quickly flashed its lights behind me signaling for me to pull over. My speedometer came down to a zero. My heart beat never stopped—it sped. The white male police officer quickly got off his SUV and came over to my passenger window. Without any greeting or questions about whether I knew what I had done, he reprimanded me, “You were in the right lane and you were supposed to turn right!”
“I’m sorry I was a bit lost and wasn’t sure—“
“It doesn’t matter! There’s a posted sign!”
“I realized I didn’t want to make a right and merged le—“
“Where are you going?!”
“To work in Bethlehem” I continued with a lie, “I just moved here and this road is still new to me”
“When you’re in the right lane you turn right! Now give me your license, and the owner’s
registration and proof of insurance. NOW!”
My hands started shaking, my stomach was turning, my heart beat was speeding past its limits. I wanted to cry thinking of the countless times other black women and men were stopped for nonsense things and ended up without a heartbeat. I wanted to cry because I feared becoming another #SayHerName. I wanted to cry because I feared what would be said about me if I didn’t make it. Would the media erase my blackness in favor of a romanticized version of my image and say: “She was a Latina professor at Lehigh University, a graduate of UT-Austin and University of Chicago. A mentor to many, and driven young woman”? Or would they center my blackness and pathologize my image by saying: “She was a black woman from gangland Chicago whose father was a drug kingpin and raised by her single mother, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic”? Would my black life matter? Would I have been a sacrifice necessary for both Latinxs and Black Americans to come together and acknowledge my AfroLatina body?
As my mind raced, I opened the glove compartment to shuffle through a bunch of receipts from the multiple car shops, found my insurance card, and quickly gave it to him. As my hands were shaking I had to breathe myself into becoming more calm and slowing down. I unfolded the multiple sheets of paper to try to find my registration. The only thing I can think of at the moment was whether he would continue to be rude to me, or yell, or ask me to get out of the car. I unfolded one of the receipts and thankfully my registration was there. I gave it to him.
“This insurance says you’ve been here since July.”
“That’s when I got my apartment, but I subleased it and just officially moved here this past week”. That was a lie. But I knew if I told the truth there were only going to be more things for him to hold me for. He looked at me looking for a flinch on my face or body. But Chicago taught me to never flinch.
After the longest three seconds he says, “This is will take a few minutes”
“Ok.” I said. Trying to sound calm and submissive. He walked back to his SUV and began his search.
Quickly I texted my partner: “Got stop by Police I’m nervous. Can’t talk on the phone though”. I remembered one of my colleagues lived nearby the area and decided to text her as well. As I also texted my supervisor, my colleague responded quickly and asked me where I was, and to call her and keep her on speaker phone. I called her and explained what had happened while I kept looking in my rear-view mirror checking to see what the police officer was doing, but also making sure he didn’t see me. I didn’t want him to come over and say that I wasn’t supposed to be on the phone with my engine still running and that again I would be wrong. At this point I felt like anything I would’ve done would’ve been wrong. Being a black Latina woman with kinky-curly hair driving a 2007 Honda Civic made me wrong.
In the ten minutes I sat in my car waiting I wondered what he was looking for. I also sat knowing that I was driving while Black. I sat knowing that he made assumptions about me probably just as he saw me cross the intersection and got a good look at me as the driver. That my sorority line jacket, while could easily hint at me being a college student, didn’t change anything. That my black body was out of line and didn’t belong. I sat hoping I wouldn’t become another hashtag because I was well aware that as an AfroLatina my Dominicanness, nor my Americanness are acceptable terms for accepting my black body or my black presence as a norm or as valuable. I kept looking through the rear view mirror and when I saw him get out his SUV again, my stomach turned. What now? Had he seen me on the phone?
He came back to the passenger window with a complete change in demeanor. He exclaimed so positively: “Well, your record is squeaky clean in Texas and in all other places, so I’ll let you off with a warning and here’s your stuff back.”
“Ok.” I said matter-of-factly, but hesitantly, avoiding sounding like a smart ass. I have been told I have a “smart mouth” before.
“And welcome to Pennsylvania. You should change your plates and registration soon if you plan on being here permanently. There’s a DMV nearby on Olgontz Ave. You have a great day and drive safe”.
As I closed the window and started back on the road I wondered: But what if my record, hadn’t been “squeaky clean”? What if I had a misdemeanor or something on my record? But what if he wanted me to have something on my record?
The bottom line is that regardless, I was driving while black and what had manifested in the flesh before me had conjured an intense fear. It was the manifestation in the flesh of anti-black racism I have always felt and know is always watching me, policing my body, and my every move. It shows up not just in the embodiment of this white police officer, but also in the ways that non-black people of color try to erase my blackness, in the ways that scholarship intends to censor our voices by saying our work isn’t valid because it is not “objective.” Anti-black racism manifests in the flesh, when I am expected to not respond to the white supremacy performance of white tears in the classroom. Anti-black racism takes flesh for sacrifice from 11-year-old AfroLatinx girls in the Bronx who commit suicide because the rainbow wasn’t enuf for them after being physically assaulted for taking up too much space. As black Latinx women, our humanity has been questioned from before the moment we took our first breath. Yet, we live in spaces where we can barely breath.
Our breath is always short—even as living black beings. In light of this, I wonder how can we support each other and build solidarity to breathe easier? My hope is that through our collective, Black Latinas Know, we can be that breath of fresh air for each other and other Black Latinx lives.
Omaris Z. Zamora