By Javanna Plummer, Medill, Immigrant Connect
Nikaury Roman’s grandmother told her she came to “a hub of Dominicans” in Washington Heights, New York, because “you go where you know people.” Sasha Peña’s mother came from Puerto Rico to the U.S. and faced challenges because she only spoke Spanish, Peña told me.
As I spoke to Roman and Peña, we discussed their experiences as first-generation Americans with Afro-Latinx identities. The history and prevalence of xenophobia and racism in the history of the Americas naturally came up. For Afro-Latinx communities in the Americas, these two oppressions intersect. When they do, they breed other issues such as colorism, which Roman focused on as we talked.
Roman said colorism is a prevailing issue for Black Dominicans. At one point, Roman asked, “How could you deny your Blackness?” As Roman ruminated on her query, she realized, “We were taught to hate our Blackness.”
Dominican studies scholar Silvio Torres-Saillant has written in his Trip Down Memory Lane blog, “Blacks and mulattoes make up nearly 90% of the contemporary Dominican population; Yet no other country in the hemisphere exhibits greater indeterminacy regarding the population’s sense of racial identity.”
The blog added that the Dominican Republic was the first port of entry during the transatlantic slave trade, because of this enslavement, “African identities are given little to no space. This lack of public space for African ancestries manifests itself in Dominican racial identity.”
Due to this history of enslavement, darker skinned Dominicans are marginalized, said Roman, and it manifests in the poor treatment of Haitian immigrants in the Dominican Republic who are often of darker complexions. She added that the praise of lighter skin is tied to a fixation with whiteness and proximity to whiteness. The history is deeply ingrained.
After Haiti established rule over the Dominican Republic from 1822-1844, “Dominicans defiantly fought to topple Haitian rule, and as a newly independent nation, the DR sought to distinguish itself […], according to the Trip Down Memory Lane blog. When Rafael Trujillo came into power in 1930 through political maneuvering and torture, he distanced the DR from Haiti by establishing anti-Haitian rhetoric, which negatively painted Haiti as the “poor, black, ugly neighbor,” according to the Trip Down Memory Lane blog. Trujillo is often remembered for the 1937 massacre of Haitian immigrants in the Dominican Republic.
“I feel like the world has an obsession with this purification and it’s terrifying.”
“It breaks my heart,” Roman said, referring to the ongoing issues Haitian immigrants face in the Dominican Republic. “I feel like the world has an obsession with this purification and it’s terrifying.”
The issues that Haitian immigrants face are not just social but also political. Roman said there’s a sentiment that Haitians are stealing jobs in the Dominican Republic and there are threats of deportation that parallel President Donald Trump’s aggressive immigration policies and the sentiment some Americans feel toward immigrants.
Sasha Peña viewed the parallels to Trump’s policies similarly, and for her, they’re personal.
Language barriers and mental health challenges were among the difficulties that Peña said her mother faced after leaving Puerto Rico. For Sasha Peña, they are tied to the anxiety of being in a new place and not speaking the language.
Peña put Trump’s policies and actions in the continuum of post-colonial indignities. When thinking about children being separated from their families at the border, Peña said, “It’s so heartbreaking.” With Hurricane Maria, President Trump “took too long to respond,” and, when he did respond, it was inappropriate, she said. During the initial devastation of Hurricane Maria, Trump was seen throwing paper towels into a crowd as a means of helping with the hurricane effort. To Peña, this action showed that Trump was insensitive to the trauma of the hurricane. “We [The U.S.] should have done more,” she said.
Peña added that the media could have been better as well. In Peña’s eyes, media coverage of Hurricane Maria “came and went.” After a while, the media abandoned Puerto Rico, she said.
When asked how the American media might improve its treatment of different populations, Peña observed, “The media does what it does.” Peña thinks that the “Mexican-centric” nature of media coverage creates a false construction of Latinx identity. She added, “It’s almost as if Latinos have this monolithic experience.”
The media is not only news; it’s films.
Peña described this moment when Marvel’s Black Panther came out and Gina Rodriguez, a Latinx actress who has become a champion for Latinx representation, tweeted that “we need Latino superheroes,” Peña said. To her, this was tone deaf because Zoë Saldana, a Puerto Rican and Dominican actress, is featured as Gamora in Guardians of the Galaxy and Tessa Thompson, a Mexican actress, is Afro Latinx and she was in Thor, which are both Marvel movies.
Rodriguez’s failure to acknowledge Saldana and Thompson is symbolic of the tendency of the Latinx community to marginalize Afro-Latinx voices and experiences. When these experiences are negated, Peña said, a monolith about the Latinx community is created.
“Everyone doesn’t look like that,” Peña added, referring to the overrepresentation of white and white-passing Latinx people in television and film.
Peña praised Amara La Negra, a dark-skinned Afro-Latinx singer, for confronting the issue of anti-Blackness in the Latinx community. Peña said La Negra’s stance that she is both Black and Latinx was important because it showed how she “loved all aspects of our identity.”
When she identifies herself as Afro-Latinx, Peña is often asked if she’s biracial. The tendency to treat Blackness and Latinness as mutually exclusive is because there’s “not a clear understanding of history,” Peña said.
When enslaved people arrived in Puerto Rico, they called themselves “Libertos,” or Afro Puerto Ricans. A contemporary term for Afro Puerto Ricans is “Boricua Morena.”
“Oh, it looks like me.”
Peña recognizes that this is virtually invisible or erased even to Afro-Latinx families so she takes it upon herself to give her nieces dolls with varying complexions and books like Island Born so that they will see themselves represented.
“Oh, it looks like me,” Peña recalls one niece saying when receiving the gifts.
As for Roman, she studies people like Bob Marley, Assata Shakur, and Frida Kahlo while reminding herself, “We gonna be alright.”