The Replay: White Passes and Black Exclusions in Latinidad
"My silences had not protected me. Your silences will not protect you" --Audre Lorde
We can’t stay silent through the recent spate of cases of White-Euro-American-non-Latina women “passing” as Latinas. The creative licenses and defenses some have been afforded to live, perform, and make a living as Latinas offensively contrast with the everyday challenges and hostilities those of us who are defined outside Latinidad persistently face. In the face of what are sold as nuanced discussions, defenses, careful reviews, and restorative justice proposals, we can’t help but think of the innumerable ways in which racially, socially-secure arbiters of Latinidad exclude, discount, or at worse ignore the contributions of those of us whose experiences do not fit their narrow, racialized/whitened conception of who belongs.
To be clear, we are less concerned about anyone’s right to “choose their cultural identity,” and much more concerned with the real harms that these individuals cause. Harms that include dishonest behaviors, the securing of scholarships, fellowships, jobs and resources designated to address the very inequities that individuals claim to address, invitation to panels, invitation to publish, as well as occupying positions of leadership, decision making and gate-keeping. All of which have been hard fought for and hard won by earlier generations of Latinx activists. It will serve us well to remember that many early Latinx activists were the children of impoverished and disenfranchised immigrants, not the children of Latin American and the Caribbean’s well-connected classes.
Significantly, when White-Euro-American non Latina women “pass” as Latinas, they are capitalizing on existing Latinx white supremacy, which confers access and privileges to White-Latinxs (and evidently White non-Latinxs too) at the expense of Black, Afro- and Indigenous Latinxs. Certainly, in “passing” as White-Latinas these women are acting out white supremacy’s productions, entitlements and privileges buttressed by the existing patterns of White-Latinx domination. In very clear ways, a pass for passing reinscribes racially stereotypical and antiblack tropes of who can be, who looks like, who is qualified and entitled to, who is embraced, and who is afforded power as a Latina. Each time someone is “outed” for passing, we are reminded that it is often easier for a White woman from Kansas or Georgia to be accepted as Latina, than it is for actual Black and Afro-Latinxs.
We speak up to stand with the many Black Latina, Afro-Latinx, and diasporic-Latinx individuals who are again insulted, hurt and outraged at the hypocrisy of those who deny that our marginalization is a direct result of inter-generational acts of racism, classism, and White-Latin American nationalisms that actively exclude us. These acts of racially privileged alliances coded in progressive politics deeply contrast with the repetitive challenges made to those outside the narrow scope of Latinidad, and in this case Puertoricanness, elaborated and reinforced by justifying these acts.
We know what to expect. We are not trying to convince those who will label us as two “woke” scholars from the North surely (proudly) influenced by our adjacency to African-American, Chicanx and Latinx civil rights “identity” politics, of the veracity of our claims. We are even less enthused to entertain sermons about how race *really* works here and there. We know. As illustrated by BLKC, we collectively possess decades of scholarly activity and a lifetime in the throes of consciously living with racism and white supremacy as the norm. This is not about convincing. This is about stating painful truths that need to be heard whether those who perpetuate or enable racist violence agree or not.
Point blank, you do not have to believe that white supremacy is essential to the workings of power in the political and academic spheres of Latin American and Hispanic Caribbean countries and their nationalisms. But we are going to say it anyway. Though it is insular, racist, narrow, ahistorical, and privileged to not see it, we state it because it is beyond high time we stop sparing the feelings of those who oppress us and deny our and our people's experiences.
In the face of these events we invite you to share those everyday moments when we are made “outsiders” to Latinidad. We know that these experiences are not unique to the the two of us, but are commonly experienced by many who live as Black Latinx, Afro-Puerto Rican, working-class and/or socioeconomically disadvantaged diasporic Puerto Rican and/or Dominican, Haitian and other Black Caribbean islanders or by those who are of blended ancestry, such as Dominican-Puerto Rican for example, and/or those who live in the circular vaivén of the Black and Afro-American colonial context. Though skin color and Afro- features are often primary markers of “not belonging,” linguistic abilities such as having a Dominican accent, speaking Spanglish or working-class Puerto Rican Spanish from the diaspora, or not having a Spanish surname are also compounding grounds for exclusion in Puerto Rico and among Latines.
As we do below, we invite you to share the many ways we are put in positions of making the case for belonging daily, by virtue of our somatic characteristics, race, class, racial-ethnic genealogies, migratory movements, geographic hierarchies, language, family lineages, social (dis)connections. And in speaking our truths, we expose the racialized double-standards applied to us daily in the face of others who are welcomed with open doors and derive all the benefits of a white-constructed Latinidad.
Hilda: Diaspora outsiders should remember their place.
As a diasporic Afro-Puerto Rican woman whose “India” features are mostly acceptable as part of Puertorriqueñidad, my feelings of exclusion and marginalization often occur, though not only, in the context of being reminded that as “a diaspora outsider” with no kinship or class connections to the political or intelligentsia, I should mind my place. And, moreover, that in tight knit intelligentsia circles I should be careful to hide who I really am: a person from a socioeconomically disadvantaged Afro-Puerto Rican family who migrated to the North when living in extreme poverty became untenable for us and for whom Boricua Spanglish is her first language. Migrating as part of the extreme poor presents particular difficulties such as not being able to afford return tickets for years on end, and so not seeing family for many years and sometimes ever again. It means not owning land or a house on the archipelago and having a place to stay when visiting. It often means losing touch permanently with one’s homeland and living, dying and being buried in the North. For many diasporic Puerto Ricans the rejection of who and how we are when we spend time on the archipelago remains a painful reminder that we are not wanted there, that we do not belong.
Below are a few of the many hurtful statements I have been told over the years even when people know that I am a diasporic Puerto Rican. In these statements I am often simultaneously told that though the diaspora is/behaves/acts in unacceptable ways, that I am “different, a kind of exceptional diasporic person, and thus able to hear how people really feel.
“I have to be honest, people from the diaspora and especially the Nuyoricans are so aggressive. I just stay away from them, seriously they are so loud and obnoxious.”
“I hate when the diaspora comes over here and starts talking about racism. They are always bringing their ideas about race from the U.S. over here. We are not violent like over there, there is no racism here because we are all the same.”
“Your Spanish is so good for being from the diaspora. You don’t say the word ‘so” and “um” constantly. Spanglish really irritates me, it is so lazy and frankly, uneducated.”
“I think the diaspora should just focus on where they live and not be so concerned with our affairs. It is remarkable that you, una persona de afuera (an outsider), is so interested in Puerto Rico. But I think the stories about us and our communities should be told by us not the diaspora.”
Back in the North, I once received an email message from a prospective diasporic-Puerto Rican graduate student who confessed that before hitting send she had thought long and hard about whether she could work with someone with my last name. She had erroneously assumed that my last name meant a privileged lineage and that I was a well connected part of the archipelago’s intelligentsia. This mistaken assumption about my background is widespread. And I accept that my last name, the only inheritance left to me, my father’s “out of wedlock” mixed-race daughter, confers a limited access and certain prestige that I would certainly not have otherwise given my family’s small town provenance, social class and humble educational background. Yet, my last name alone does not confer upon me the privileges and entitlements conferred and reserved only for whites. I’ll never forget the time when at my father’s funeral his cousins whom I had never met before took one look at me then abruptly turned towards my white older brother and loudly proclaimed: “Now you, you are a real Lloréns like us.”
Zaire: Left out of the “Boricua” portrait.
Some time ago I was at a conference with some of Puerto Rico’s progressive intelligentsia. During a meal, it became clear who were the in-in crowd and who wasn’t when I was asked to take a picture of the Boricua scholars. Agreeing to the task, while holding the camera and pointing the lens away from myself, I knowingly simmered over the exclusions and inclusions being spontaneously engineered among this group—the “truest” and most prominent bonafide defenders of “justice” and anti-colonialism in the Puerto Rican brethren. They knew each other. They had the hallmarks of Puerto Rican relevancy--UPR (IUPI) ties, Spanish surnames, metropolitan accents, connections to intellectual and political elite. I wasn’t the only one excluded. At the table sat a diaspora-Rican, similarly uninvited to share the photographic frame with these structurally legitimized prominent political, academic, activist group of Puerto Ricans. But though I was beside myself, I took the picture and didn’t say anything. Truth is, I rarely say anything, lest my tenuous membership to the “real Puerto Rican'' cliques be perceived as me being petty, antagonista, or having a chip on my shoulder. And it’s not that I don’t have my privileges; I could dig up and display ivy league degrees like there’s no tomorrow. But at the moment I shot that photo, I relived what has been my common experience: the assumption, presumption, or active exclusion of my Black, Dominican ethnicized, “de la isla,” politically and intellectually unconnected brand of Puertorriqueñidad and Latinidad. I can tell you a million stories of how I’m drawn out of that Puertorriqueñidad, Dominicanidad, or Latinidad: a thousand versions of another time I was approached in English with assumptions that I don’t speak Spanish, or a misrecognized (or is it purposefully recognized) and displaced for my Black skin, my non-Spanish surname, or broad Caribbean background . I’ve been at meetings where revealing my Dominican heritage moved me out of consideration for having an opinion on narrow national frames of Puerto Rican affairs, even though few places are closer to “home” than the arid coast of Southern Puerto Rico. Jobs have been revoked for not looking Latina in the white/mestizo ways they needed me to. I listen with interest when asked how I identify or how I’m described as a Dominicana by Puerto Ricans, Puerto Rican by Dominicans, African-American or Haitian by generic Latinxs, understanding the boundary that is being laid out. I only half laugh recalling the confused faces, mouths agape and all, when I can perform (and then some...try me!) the stereotypical behaviors of narrow nationalist culture repertoire: dance and know every lyric of every salsa or merengue between 1980s to 2000, eat bacalao con guanimes while loving habichuelas con dulce, sing all the Puerto Rican parrandas alongside "Llego Juanita," know that pantallas, sorbetos, and papayas in Puerto Rican are aretes, calimetes, and lechosas in Dominican parlance. En fin, while others bask in, and perform the scripts of Latinidad and Puertorriqueñidad in mestizo-face to widespread acclaim and well-resourced positions, I can’t help to note the many ways the theatrical halls and their runners push some of us to live our lives, and do the work, while staying behind or outside the portrait's frame.
Hilda Lloréns & Zaire Dinzey-Flores